2004: Charley hammers courses

By Gene Yasuda

Orlando, Fla.

When Bill Stine answered the call from a reporter on his cell phone, he was perched atop his clubhouse at Remington Golf Club in central Florida, patching a roof damaged by Hurricane Charley.

“It’s just unbelievable, the amount of debris,” said Stine, surveying the wind-strewn mess the storm created at his club in Kissimmee. “We’ve got six chain saws, 20 guys, a couple of tractors and a couple of dump trucks working around the clock hauling stuff away.”

Including damage and lost revenue incurred at his two other properties – nearby Kissimmee Bay and Rotunda Golf & Country Club, just north of Punta Gorda where the hurricane made landfall – Stine said Aug. 16 he expects Charley will cost him at least $125,000.

Stine has been in business 24 years, and he will be filing his first weather-related insurance claim.

Charley’s 140 mph winds cut a swath of destruction across Florida, causing an estimated $11 billion in damages. Included in the wreckage was unprecedented damage for many of the state’s course owners and operators. And for nearly everyone else in the industry, it proved to be a major nuisance at the very least.

The hurricane that slammed Aug. 13 into Punta Gorda on the Gulf Coast, moved diagonally across the state and through the tourist mecca of Orlando until finally exiting near Daytona Beach. With winds strong enough to flip planes and uproot mature trees, Charley flattened communities and was responsible for at least 17 deaths.

The punishment it meted out to Florida’s numerous golf courses varied greatly. Many had to deal only with scattered debris, but others faced extensive property and course repairs.

Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Arnold Palmer’s winter home and private club, was one of the harder-hit courses, recording more than 150 felled trees throughout the 270-acre, 27-hole property. The site of an annual PGA Tour event, Bay Hill was expected to be closed at least five days, according to course officials.

Water damage rendered 15 of the lodge’s 65 rooms unusable, and four of Bay Hill’s private guest houses were damaged, two of them struck by trees, according to Ray Easler, the facility’s general manager. The club regained power by 3 a.m. Aug. 14 – fortunate considering nearly 1 million central Florida residents still were without power two days later.

“I feel like we were lucky because the rest of Orlando took a big hit,” said Easler, who estimated damages of more than $100,000.

At Tuscawilla Country Club in Winter Springs, northeast of Orlando, Charley’s tab was expected to be far worse – perhaps as much as $300,000 in damages and lost revenues. The club endured as many as 400 felled trees, lost power and feared losing $15,000 worth of food.

But Mike Gardner, the club’s general manager, was surprisingly upbeat three days after the hurricane struck. The reason? The devastation had unleashed community spirit.

The entire Tuscawilla golf staff, from food and beverage workers to clubhouse staff to the head golf pro pitched in to clean up wind-strewn debris and get the Joe Lee-designed layout back in business. Even

members of the club had come by and offered to help and one homeowner who lives along the ninth hole told the golf staff to come by the following afternoon for a barbecue.

Others, however, had difficulty adjusting to the aftermath of Charley.

“This is going to be completely different,” said superintendent Brett Harris, referring to the lay of the land at prestigious Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, southeast of Orlando.

Lake Nona, the home course of Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen and Annika Sorenstam, lost 500 trees, Harris estimated, adding that the course likely would be closed for two weeks during cleanup.

A tree missed Els’ home by a foot, Harris said. Els was away, of course, finishing tied for fourth at the 86th PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. But Golf Channel commentator Frank Nobilo, a former Tour player, was spotted with a 24-inch chain saw in his hands the morning after Charley struck. Nobilo was clearing downed trees from his driveway and neighborhood street, Harris said.

Lake Nona was in the midst of a $400,000 bunker and irrigation renovation while being lengthened to 7,220 yards, but Charley brought that work to a halt. Harris said the contractors’ crews were shifted to cleanup work, with extra heavy machinery brought in to clear the damaged trees. The storm-recovery tab was estimated at $100,000.

Fallen and snapped trees gave the Lake Nona course an eerie look. Harris equated the scenery to the effects of an airburst bomb known as a Daisy Cutter.

“It just fragged this place,” he said. Giant oaks that guarded the right side of ninth green were toppled by the 110 mph winds that roared through the course near Orlando International Airport. Harris said their loss would alter tee-to-green strategy on the hole.

Course owner Stine commiserated about the loss of centuries-old trees at Kissimmee Bay. Some of the fallen oaks had served as sentries for more than 200 years.

“You can’t put a price on any of those old trees,” he said.

DeBary Golf & Country Club, an 18-hole semiprivate club cut through live oak hammocks and Florida pines, was one of the hardest-hit courses in central Florida, recording 327 felled trees, according to superintendent Michael Bellino.

Located between Orlando and Daytona Beach, the ClubCorp-owned property was closed for at least three days as Bellino’s crew worked more than 10 hours per day clearing massive amounts of debris. Three days after Charley struck, the club purchased a $12,000 wood chipper to aid the recovery. Pumps were operating around the clock to keep the property from flooding after enduring 8 inches of rain in three days.

“Other than the big mess, it’s cost us a lot of time,” Bellino said. “But it could’ve been a lot worse.”

Hurricane Charley altered Florida golf in other ways, too.

The Florida Public Links Championship was postponed less than 24 hours before the event’s start Aug. 14 at Falcon’s Fire Golf Club in Kissimmee. The 90 players were notified about 11 a.m. the previous day, when officials decided the approaching storm was too perilous.

“We considered alternate plans, including a later shotgun start on Saturday afternoon, followed by

normal times on Sunday. We even discussed having two shotguns on Sunday,” said Les Brown, tournament director for the Florida State Golf Association. “But ultimately, we had no choice but to postpone.”

The FSGA and Falcon’s Fire were working to reschedule the event. If the club could not accommodate a later date, the FSGA would move the event to another site. MetroWest Golf Club in Orlando or Southern Dunes in Haines City were possibilities, Brown said. If openings in the field emerge, alternates would be invited first, and if necessary, the tournament would be “reopened” to fill additional slots, Brown said. The FSGA also will provide refunds for players who cannot play on the rescheduled dates.

While remedying Charley’s effects will be no easy task, many in the industry downplayed their hardship, considering the tragedies endured by Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda – the communities at ground zero.

The staff at Coral Creek Club, in particular, knows just how fortunate they are. The private Tom Fazio

facility in Placida escaped serious damage, remarkable considering it is on the mouth of Charlotte Harbour, where Hurricane Charley unleashed its fiercest blows.

“The eye of the storm turned to the east just three or four miles before it got here,” said Charles Taylor, the club’s manager. “We have some downed trees and damage to lighting fixtures, but after seeing what I’ve seen, I feel guilty for saying anything even happened to us.”

– Michael A. Boslet and

Scott Kauffman contributed

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