Bayou golf, football an irresistible combination

Carter Plantation

Carter Plantation

BATON ROUGE, La. – If college football in the South is truly a religion, then consider me a convert. After all, we did witness a miracle. Not a “Hail Mary pass,” mind you, but a finish worthy of a few hallelujahs. 

My fellow pigskin apostle was my buddy, Scott. Years ago, as undergrads, we used to broadcast Colgate University football. We resolved then to share the gospel of college football with the faithful at a different campus each fall. We had not, however, observed that rite as devoutly as we would have liked. We decided to renew our faith with a visit to Death Valley, home of the distinctive 5-yard hash marks and the rabid congregation whose fervor has been known to shake the earth to its core. With bitter Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee set to visit LSU, it was almost as if John Heisman, the Moses of college football, had commanded us to “Geaux.”

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No. 17 at TPC Louisiana

We flew into New Orleans, which will never be confused for a golf mecca, despite some estimable options. Our kickoff came at TPC Louisiana, a Pete Dye design that opened in 2004 and hosts the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic. For the pros, TPC Louisiana, with its small, flat greens, is a birdie-fest. Proving that it is less penal than your average Dye layout, I carded a pair of birdies, survived the stretch of par 4s (Nos. 4-6) nicknamed the “Triangle of Doom,” and made the turn in red figures. Trouble, though, still lurked and my round unraveled on the lengthy par-5 finishing hole. Having staggered to the 19th hole nine shots later, one of my playing companions, architect Mike Just, summed up best what transpired: “You can tell your readers you liked them all except for 18.”

The pros feast on more than just birdies when in Cajun country. Tour pro Charles Howell III named Commander’s Palace, located in the Garden District, his favorite road destination. Indeed, the restaurant is considered the grande dame of New Orleans fine dining, and Scott and I indulged in a meal so sublime, we savored it with a late-night constitutional through the French Quarter. 

Bourbon Street still is neon and noise. It doesn’t matter the month; Mardi Gras beads fall from the sky. Strolling downriver along the most popular eight-block corridor is like attending a moving concert; traditional jazz, blues, classic rock and an electronic-dance beat pulsed from clubs. Thousands of people – many dressed in Tennessee orange – were embracing the nightlife. So whom do we bump into but our golf partners, Mike and Charlie, each double-fisting adult beverages?

We also were tempted to indulge when we learned the suits at CBS had audibled from a 7 p.m. start to 2:30 p.m., forcing us to punt our plans to play at Carter Plantation, Tour pro David Toms’ first signature design and part of the Louisiana Audubon Golf Trail.

Instead, we hit the road early Saturday morning. The state capital of Baton Rouge is located 80 miles northwest via Interstate 10. When we arrived outside Tiger Stadium, the sweet smell of mesquite wafted in the air. With a hearty Southern drawl, Chef Deno, whose apron identified him as an LSU-certified tailgate chef, beckoned us to taste his jambalaya. “Smokey’s in there,” he joked, referring to the Tennessee mascot, a bluetick coonhound.

To walk by would breach a civic bond among strangers that is sealed by beers, bratwursts and mustard. So we shared in the feast. Thousands of tailgaters had begun arriving several days before the game, and fancy double-wide trailers and rusty pickups filled parking lots and fields for as far as the eye could see. The festivities spilled over to the campus quad, all the way to the steps of Troy H. Middleton Library. Hey, it wasn’t like anyone planned to study. This was Game Day.

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The fervor of the LSU faithful provides a counterpoint to the serene Bayou golf scene.

“Chance of rain?” said the public-address announcer. “Never,” the crowd roared in response. Indeed, it was a glorious afternoon for football. Bright skies didn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm for the traditional singing of “Louisiana Saturday Night.” But truth is, something was missing. 

“We’re usually not this quiet,” said Danielle, a fortysomething mother of two, seated next to Scott.

With the exception of the first play from scrimmage – when LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson sprinted 83 yards up the gut for a touchdown – and the last, the home team had little reason to cheer. Tennessee appeared on the verge of escaping Death Valley with a 14-10 victory after stopping LSU on the 1-yard line, only to be flagged for illegal participation while celebrating what everyone assumed was the game’s final play. 

“Must be part of the Napoleonic Code,” Scott cracked.

Given a reprieve, the Tigers scored and bedlam ensued.

The party continued late into the night at Sullivan’s Steakhouse on Corporate Boulevard. The scene was more subdued along Highland Road, at The Chimes and The Varsity Theatre, so we turned in early. There was still more golf to be played.

Built on a former sugar plantation, the University Club recently had reopened following a renovation by Toms, an LSU alum. Such is his football fanaticism that Toms devoted uncommon attention to the project, making many of his course checkups during home football weekends. Coincidence? I think not.

The result is a course that will present a fierce examination when it hosts a 2013 NCAA men’s regional. We played with Rick Perry, senior vice president of LSU’s Tiger Athletic Foundation. He explained how Toms transformed the sixth hole from a pedestrian par 5 into a meaty three-shotter and No. 8 into a “Say your prayers” par 3 over water that is a challenge for all. The biggest difference? “The greens used to be flat as a pancake,” Perry said. “Not anymore.”

When the round ended, Perry insisted: “You must come back for a football game under the lights.” 

To a Louisiana Saturday night, we gave a hearty amen, brother.

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