Kevin Leo wasn’t scared, but just to be safe he started preparing earlier than usual.
When Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston and parts of Louisiana in late August, it was a wake-up call for South Floridians already on high alert during storm season, which traditionally begins June 1. In early September, after Tropical Storm Irma was upgraded to a hurricane and continued to intensify out in the Caribbean, Leo had seen enough. As the superintendent of Quail Creek Country Club, a posh, thriving sanctuary in Naples, on Florida’s west coast, Leo wanted to give himself as much time as possible to protect Quail’s 36 holes — and his family — from the approaching storm.
“Usually, it’s 120 hours in advance when we’d start our preparations,” Leo says. “This time we started earlier, moving flagsticks and anything else that could fly. Then we got concerned with what our employees would deal with.”
Quail Creek employs 140 workers, from the grounds crew and pro shop to the kitchen and restaurant. A few days before Irma made landfall, the club was shuttered and the staff sent home. Leo, 55, rode out the storm with his wife, Lori, at her mother’s house a few miles from the course. Irma reached Naples at 10 a.m. and didn’t blow out until 11 p.m. that night. Leo and his family emerged shaken but unharmed. The city was battered, and trees and debris littered the streets, which had areas were underwater.
“And then,” Leo says, “we came back Monday morning to see the big job we had in front of us.”
It’s been two weeks since Hurricane Irma tore through the Southeast, but it will take weeks, perhaps months, to fully assess the carnage the storm has wrought. But as residents slowly return to their lives in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, many are scrambling to repair homes while electricity and potable drinking water remain a challenge. As of late last week, 42 people have been reported dead and thousands remain without power. Estimates say the storm caused more than $150 billion in damage, placing it on par with the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which pummeled New Orleans in 2005.
It’s a painfully difficult time and golf, on the whole, is parked in the background. But for many residents in Naples, which has more than 90 courses, golf is life. That’s true throughout the Sunshine State. As evacuated residents return to their neighborhoods and restart their routines, details are slowly emerging about the post-storm state of Florida golf.
— At TPC Sawgrass, home to the Players Championship, the pond surrounding the iconic 17th green flooded over the banks and up the hills where spectators gather. (A photo depicting damage from a previous hurricane circulated the Web, but fresh pics have also emerged.) Despite the damage, Sawgrass, said in a statement that it expects to host its signature event next May with no complications.
— There is great interest in the Presidential golfer, Donald Trump, who has retreated often to his “Winter House” during his time in office. At Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, which is situated three miles from the President’s ornate Mar-a-Lago resort, photos surfaced that show damage to the track’s privacy hedges, but the course appears to have avoided significant damage, according to reports.
— There are fewer details from Trump National Doral, just northwest of Miami, but a spokesman wrote in an email that the course has suffered “loss of power and many trees.” One of the resort’s four courses has reopened, but the famed Blue Monster is closed.
— The Florida Keys are beginning to tell their own story. Key West Golf Club, on the western tip, endured a flooded course and an array of downed trees. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the course installed paspalum grass, and the turf has no problem surviving (and even thriving) in salt water. The trees were not so fortunate. The fairways were once flanked by lush mangroves, but Irma re-landscaped.
“The trees used to be a green wall, and now they’re just sticks,” said Doug Carter, the course’s general manager, who was out on the course clearing fallen debris while taking a reporter’s phone call. His course re-opened Sept. 17 but had no golfers. They’ve since started to trickle in. “We’re just waiting for the world to come back,” Carter said.
— In Collier County, which includes Naples, power was knocked out for more than 200,000 customers, and many water distribution lines were severed, forcing residents to boil water after returning to their homes. But the courses with more resources (i.e. dues-paying members) will recover faster. For example, Tiburón Golf Club at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, which hosts LPGA and PGA Tour events in the offseason, has already reopened.
Quail Creek is also fortunate, but it’s a long way from welcoming golfers.
On the morning after the storm there was much work to be done at Quail Creek, and the club’s general manager, Don Hunter, arrived ready for action.
“I came in through the main drive, and I had a chainsaw in my car,” says Hunter, who is 53.
Leo, the superintendent, was on the original crew when the club opened in 1980 — he mowed the first blades of grass there. This time the job was far different. The access drive to the clubhouse was completely blocked by tangled pines and oaks. Hunter remembers the thick scent of crushed leaves as he fired up his machinery. Hunter, Leo and a few colleagues tore through, finally reaching the main doors around 3 p.m.
When the group entered the building, it had no power and a malfunctioning pump sent water spilling across the parking lot and parts of the course. But the real damage came from wind gusts that had topped 135 mph. The once lush terrain has been reduced to something resembling the back of a porcupine. Hunter says about 30% of the trees still standing won’t survive.
“We’ll probably lose about a thousand, but we’ll still look just fine,” he says.
Quail Creek was scheduled to host the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur in October, what would have been the first USGA event to visit the golf-crazed county. The club had taken pride in that distinction, but the tournament has been postponed and moved to a yet-to-be-determined venue. “It hurts that we couldn’t get that mark in history,” Hunter says.
Things could be worse. Quail’s employees emerged uninjured, though some could lose their homes. The club is helping those staffers find temporary housing, and its 600 members have started a fund to help employees recoup income while the club is shuttered. They raised more than $12,000 on the first day. Hunter says the damage will cost the club “millions, not thousands,” but he’s optimistic that sunny days are ahead.
“For us it’s about time — time lost on the course, time lost from the championship. But we’ll come out better in the long run,” he says.
They’re lucky. Other courses in South Florida most certainly are not.