As new grass grows at an old course, so does New Orleans

Saturday April 30th, 2011
Joseph M. Bartholomew Sr. Municipal Golf Course
Courtesy of Bartholomew Golf Club

All golfers love true-rolling greens and nice grass on the fairways. We would take these things for granted if we played at Augusta National or Pine Valley every day. As golfers we live and die by the condition of our golf courses. Every blade of grass says something about our handicaps or our class or social status or where we live or who we know. These little peculiar agronomic virtues of the game were never made more clear to me than when I talked recently to Peter Carew, the golf course superintendent for the New Orleans Department of Parks and Parkways, which runs two city-owned public golf courses.

Since Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees flooded much of the city and its golf courses, Carew, a Connecticut native in his late 50s, has been working tirelessly to revive the fortunes of the city's munis and provide suitable playing conditions for golfers already burdened by chaos and ruin. A month after Katrina hit, Carew had Brechtel Park Golf Course in the Algiers section of town up and running, and he helped keep it afloat before the sandy greens drove the course pro and finally the players away for good. (The course was closed earlier this year.)

Along the way, Carew has had a lot of help from golf course superintendents all over the country and a lot of FEMA and municipal and federal money, but he's been the one constant presence from the city on the ground throughout the crisis.

These days he and his six-man crew are over at the Joseph M. Bartholomew Sr. Municipal Golf Course on the east bank in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood, where he has 419 grass (a Bermuda hybrid) on the fairways and rough and emerald Bermuda greens that he says are the first in the state of Louisiana.

"We got Budd White from the USGA to come in and right off the bat he recommended the emerald Bermuda for the greens," says Carew.

Pontchartrain Park had some of the heaviest flooding in the city and for eight weeks after the storm, the middle of the golf course was under 22 feet of water. After six years of planning and a nearly $10 million in renovations, the course could be just months away from re-opening. Contractors turned the course back over to the city in February.

"The golf course isn't really ready for play," says Carew. "Right now we're top dressing and rolling the greens. We're still working on the irrigation system. There is still some major work being done that we couldn't do if the course was open. They still have to build a building over my pump irrigation station. The clubhouse and maintenance shop have yet to be renovated."

Carew, who grew up playing public courses around New London, Conn., helped the contractor, the Duininck Company and the architect, Garrett Gill, and the player consultant, Kelly Gibson, keep the footprint of the original design by the club's namesake, Joseph Bartholomew, who was a pioneering black golf architect.

However, regulars will find a new golf course waiting for them whenever the city decides to reopen it. The par-72 course has been lengthened to more than 6,800 yards from the back tees. The power lines that used to run along the course have been put underground. There is a new driving range and two practice greens (one is 14,000 square feet and the other one is 12,000 square feet). The number of bunkers was increased from 14 to 22, and workers replaced the old course's deep-faced bunkers with easier-to-maintain pot bunkers.

Workers also raised the fairways about five feet and added nine lakes to the course. To help with the drainage — there are 270 underground drainages — the architect gave the layout more slopes, bumps, and undulations.

"I wanted USGA greens, USGA oversight," says Carew, who still wants to see the greens get a little firmer. "The 419 grass is easier to maintain. I have to cut this grass less than I do the original."

Carew is maintaining the course with a shoestring budget and just a six-man crew who cut the greens and fairways with out-of-date equipment.

"People come to the course and can't believe that we can maintain the course with such old school equipment," says Carew. "But we do what we have to do. People who have walked the course say that it's one of the better layouts in New Orleans."

In the meantime, Carew and the Pontchartrain Park community are watching to see when the city decides to reopen the golf course. Says Carew, "Only the city can say if and when it's going to be opened. I think they ought to complete a lot of other things first or they're going to take a lot of heat."

With Phase 1 of the project complete, Carew looks forward to the beginning of Phase 2, which includes the construction of a clubhouse and a maintenance building. Right now the maintenance staff has reoccupied a building that was flooded from Katrina.

"Our goal is to provide affordable public golf and as a public super I don't make what some of the guys out there make," says Carew. "But it's not about the money. I always had a thing for public courses and I guess that's why I ended up being a superintendent here in the city of New Orleans."

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