2006: Recovery shot, post katrina
By Tom Ensey
Tracey McGuire, the head pro at Great Southern Golf Course in Gulfport, Miss., told a stranger how to get to the historic course, Mississippi’s oldest.
“Take a left on 90, that’s the beach road,” he said. “You’ll see a frontage road, get on it. Drive until you see the upside-down clubhouse on the left.”
Passing under a canopy of broken, ancient oaks and past demolished buildings, you easily could drive right past the ruins of the 85-year-old clubhouse, which had undergone a $600,000 renovation to restore the opulence of its 1920s heyday, and that was finished only weeks before Hurricane Katrina swept in from the Gulf of Mexico. The day after the storm, one of the boomerang-shaped, 30-foot, carved wood ceiling beams that held up the ballroom roof lay 500 feet away. It just missed the maintenance shed, which has since served as McGuire’s office. The crystal chandeliers were nowhere to be found. Every can of soda in the remnants of the kitchen was popped open by the sudden, unimaginable drop in pressure.
“I think the clubhouse took a tornado right between the eyes,” said McGuire, who vowed the course would open March 1, in time for the start of the high season. So will all but two of Mississippi’s 16 Gulf Coast courses.
Great Southern’s pro shop is gone, the remains of the clubhouse must be hauled off and there will be temporary greens on Nos. 4 and 5, located a Tiger Woods tee shot from the Gulf, which sparkled calmly on a recent winter morning.
“Those two greens and the No. 5 tee box were sucked right out of the ground,” McGuire said. “The course is playable. But people won’t see what they’re used to. We’re used to having a really nice course here, with great greens, great fairways and great roughs. It won’t be that. It will be again, one day.
“But not right away.”
A handful of club employees cleaned up the course, which lost 2,000 trees on the back nine. They attacked first with bulldozers, then with shovels, finally with their bare hands. They built a pyramid of rubble more than 100 feet long and 40 feet high. It took FEMA trucks four days to remove it.
McGuire told a funny story, the sort of gallows humor that keeps Gulf Coast residents going.
One of the members rode out the storm in his house, a few blocks from the course. Homes all around him exploded, but his incurred minimal damage. The club president got through to the member’s cell phone late in the afternoon, after the worst of the seven-hour nightmare was over.
“He asked if he could see how the clubhouse was doing,” McGuire said, grinning. The member walked into his front yard, where he found the plaque listing four-ball tournament champions that dated back to the 1960s.
“I can’t see the clubhouse,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s doing very good.”
Kevin Drum, executive director of the Mississippi Golf Association, acknowledges his industry took a staggering blow. But he’s quick to point out that 90 percent of area courses are open and in far better shape than Great Southern, a victim of its idyllic location near the shore. A few courses have used the opportunity to make improvements, and one or two may be in better shape than before the storm.
“If people want to help, come down here and play golf,” Drum said.
Three casinos have reopened in Gulfport, the airport is operating at 90 percent capacity, and even though only about 5,000 of 18,000 hotel rooms are open, reviving the tourist trade will key the rebuilding effort.
Tourism dollars drive revenues in this area – gaming revenues in Gulfport and Biloxi exceeded $900 million in 2004 – and golf drafts off of that business. Tourist traffic is down, but the local golf community is hanging tough.
Business finally is beginning to pick up, and Drum is ever positive. Like many Gulf Coast residents whose livelihood is golf, he is more dedicated than ever.
“After such a catastrophe, it was easy to think that golf’s not important,” he said. “We were all worrying about food and shelter, but people were still calling me wanting to find a course to play on. I started thinking, yeah, golf really is important. It’s playing a bigger role now than it ever did helping people get away from the destruction. . . .
“We’re not in as bad shape as you’d think. That doesn’t mean the people working the course will have a home, but that says a lot about the people here.”
Every course is a story. At Gulf Hills, golfers got a free drop if their shots landed too close to one of the sailboats in the fairways. The course, one of the first to reopen, served as a center for the displaced, with people living in tents.
The Bridges in Bay St. Louis was completely underwater, caked in six inches of mud. It has been reseeded with rye, and they’ll be happy to schedule a tee time for you.
Sunkist in Biloxi was only grazed. It is wide open and in good shape. Broadwater is postponing its opening until midsummer to accommodate some previously planned improvements. It pledges to be better than ever.
Two more new layouts will open this summer, which means there’ll be more golf courses in operation a year after Katrina than the day before the storm.
McGuire said Great Southern, in gratitude, will offer reduced-rate packages to loyalists who show up to play.
“We’re a hurricane zone right now,” he said. “We’ll take care of the people who support us through this, and hope they’ll come back when we’re fixed.”
– Tom Ensey is a sports writer who lives in Montgomery, Ala.