Great Golf in New Orleans

Tuesday March 20th, 2007

It rained 2.62 inches in New Orleans on Wednesday. Water, however, is the last thing they need right now. What they really need down there are for folks like you and me to come back again.

It's been eight months since Katrina washed away life as we know it in the Big Easy, but this resilient city is poised for a comeback. Yes, there are still debris piles and other messes that need attention and yes, there are entire neighborhoods that still lie fallow. But infusions of tourist cash into the city's coiffeurs would help boost the recovery effort and right now, it's a great time to visit.

Most golf courses, restaurants and local attractions are up and running. Even if the devil-may-care vibe of Bourbon Street is absent these days, they're definitely starting to party again. Mardi Gras, albeit in subdued form, went off as planned. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a.k.a. Jazz Fest, is a 10-day event that celebrates its 37th birthday starting Friday. They're baking beignets again at Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street in the heart of Jackson Square.

If you're looking for a quick trip that includes quality golf, incredible food and plenty of nightlife, you'll feel good about every penny you spend in New Orleans.

Without question, the marquee public-access layout in New Orleans is the TPC of Louisiana at Fairfield, a flat but fun-filled 7,520-yard Pete Dye creation opened in 2004 and played host to the PGA Tour in 2005. Tim Petrovic outdueled James Driscoll and Chris DiMarco to claim his first PGA Tour win.

Sadly, Katrina outdueled the TPC. Clean-up and repair is still in progress. The course is expected to reopen in autumn of 2006.

Fortunately, an old friend stepped in to accommodate the pros this year: English Turn Golf & Country Club. Host to the PGA Tour from 1989 through 2004, English Turn has witnessed some memorable finishes it its day, due in part to its reachable-in-two, island-green, par-5 15th and the rugged in any weather 471-yard, par-4 18th, which ranked as the PGA Tour's toughest hole at least once. Water and sand run the entire length of the hole on the left side. When the wind is up, one of the toughest approach shots in the game awaits, over a huge bunker to a large green set on a diagonal to the line of play. David Toms rolled in an unlikely lengthy birdie putt here to fend off Phil Mickelson in 2001, but unquestionably, the most memorable moment at English Turn took place in 1990, when David Frost holed a bunker shot to edge Mr. Snake-bit himself, Greg Norman by a shot. English Turn is the Jack Nicklaus-designed centerpiece of a residential community and is a private club for the most part, but there is limited public play accepted on a space available basis. Your hotel concierge can help arrange a game here as well.

There's a bit of a fall-off after the TPC and English Turn where championship tracks are concerned, but there's a handful of courses in the vicinity that are no less delightful. Fifteen minutes from the airport and a half-hour from downtown New Orleans is Belle Terre, a 1977 Pete Dye design that Dye must have crafted in one of his more benevolent moods, since it's hardly a terror. It is, however, a good test from the tips at 6,849 yards, especially if your driver is misbehaving, as the layout features water in play on 10 holes and it darts through swamps for much of its wooded journey.

Another worthy experience is the Links at Stonebridge Golf Club in Gretna, a 2004 makeover of the former Stonebridge Country Club. Three linksy nines with the area's largest greens pay homage to three of the city's legendary musicians, Louis Armstrong, Pete Fountain and Al Hirt. With 28 ponds and lakes and more than 100 bunkers, wayward hitters might be more into the blues than the jazz.

Perhaps my favorite place to play in New Orleans, however, is the Golf Club at Audubon Park, principally because there's no course in town that embodies the spirit of the city so well. Straddling St. Charles Avenue, Audubon Park is likely the nation's only course accessible by streetcar. The layout dates to 1898, which means it's loaded with enormous, moss-drenched oaks. Architect Denis Griffiths re-contoured the course in 2002, reducing its length to the "executive' category, at 4,220 yards, par 62, yet it's a complete test in its own way, with plenty of bunkers, lagoons and contoured greens to spice the play. The 148-yard, par-3 13th hole is particularly evocative, with its backdrop of the Holy Name of Jesus Church and buildings from Tulane and Loyola Universities, plus marvelous specimens of gnarled oaks.

Best of all, Audubon Park looks and acts like a park should. The park was the site of the World's Fair in 1884 and the renowned Audubon Park Zoo is located across the street. You cross a wide park path to get to the 190-yard, par-3 15th, and the well-bunkered hole plays parallel, alongside families en marche, with strollers, roller blades and balloons in tow.

Hey, it's not for everybody, but it's reminiscent of some of Scotland's best center-of-town golf experiences. I love the hole because ultimately, New Orleans is about its people, and simply having a good time.

If you've got some extra spending money, stay at the Windsor Court hotel, one short, but quiet block away from the raucous French Quarter. Feast on a dozen charbroiled oysters at Drago's in Metarie, on your way into town from the airport. Sample the Blackened Redfish at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Paul Prudhomme's restaurant that helped kick start the Cajun craze nearly 30 years ago. Try to get a downstairs table at Galatoire's, where all of Old New Orleans seems to meet and greet and go with Shrimp Remoulade, followed by Trout Meuniere Almondine. An unforgettable sharp, peppery Bloody Mary wakes you up at the Sunday Jazz Brunch at Commander's Palace. Ya gotta try Emeril's Barbecued Shrimp with Rosemary Biscuits — I mean, whatever you think of his ubiquitous celebrity, you have to admit he can really cook.

This isn't a trip where you're going to lose a lot of weight. Anywhere you go, try a cup of gumbo, a bowl of jambalaya and a plate of Shrimp Etouffee, followed by a vat of bread pudding. Quaff a beverage on Bourbon Street. Play another round of golf. And don't feel guilty. It's all for a good cause.

Joe Passov is the Architecture and Course Ratings Editor of GOLF MAGAZINE. E-mail him your questions and thoughts at askjoe@golfonline.com

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