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Torn on the Bayou

Golf in New Orleans is hot, sprawling and thick with controversy
New Orleans. Photo by Ryan Young

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Matthew Molzahn is far too big for the uncomfortably narrow chair on which he’s perilously resting, but there’s no time for complaints. His tall frame is hovering awkwardly over a beige typewriter and a pile of vanquished cigarettes conquered either by him or the last poet who occupied the cramped throne. The sign that sits next to him on Frenchmen Street informs passersby that Molzahn and the colorful crew next to him are “POETS 4 HIRE.” I didn’t know I was in the market for a poem, but here we are.

Whether in cash or beads, New Orleans is among America’s most transactional cities. Molzahn appears to accept both. When I give him the assignment and offer him a $5 bill, he waves me off.

“We don’t take any money until after,” he says with conviction. “That way we retain the integrity of the piece.”

He politely instructs me to take a few steps back and takes a swig from a beer approximately the size of a semi-truck’s oil can.

“Five minutes,” he says.

If you were stereotyping, you’d say that my poet 4 hire didn’t look like the best person to write about a snooty thing like golf in New Orleans. He’s wearing a Guy Harvey tank top and Crocs. In between them is a pair of shorts that reinforces why making a distinction between underwear and outerwear is a pointless endeavor here. But after my weekend crash course on the city’s public-golf scene, it’s clear that Molzahn is as qualified to sum things up as I am. New Orleans isn’t a city you can drop into and understand. You just go there, experience it and feel like a fool trying to explain it to someone else. You can read the history and you can absorb a few moments, but you can’t fully re-create it for someone else. That’s as true for the golf as it is for the beignets. 

As Molzahn works, I turn my attention to the sweaty, impeccable brass band captivating Frenchmen Street. Tourists wallowing in the glory of the city’s open-container laws stop to watch the seemingly spontaneous show, and before they know it they are dancing. They’re digging in pockets for crumpled bills and filling the empty Heineken box of the de facto band treasurer. It’s a scene that feels like it’s happening for the first time in human history, but the set list is likely the same as it was last night, last week and last year, give or take a few solos. For me, the spell is broken by a sound usually reserved for period movies: the ding, shuffle and rip of a typewriter regurgitating a finished piece of art. 

“Done,” Molzahn says and hands me a four-stanza poem that provides as good a summation of golf in New Orleans as any. I fork over an amount of money I hope is commensurate with the integrity of the piece. I tell Molzahn I love it and ask if he ever played golf.

“All my life, actually.”

When the putter broke,
It damn well may have been
the town

It’s almost impossible to have a conversation here without mention of “the storm.” New Orleans celebrated its 300th birthday this year, but the city is still a teenager in the context of a post-Katrina world. An onslaught of natural disasters in recent years has made it easy for the rest of the country to forget some of the staggering numbers surrounding the 2005 hurricane, but they bear repeating: varying reports estimate at least 1,200 dead, some closer to 1,800. CNN reported nearly $110 billion in damage, calling it the “costliest hurricane in U.S. history.” The devastation and displacement was so vast that it feels callous to talk about the plight of the city’s golf courses. But the game, especially in City Park, has long been a part of daily life for New Orleans residents. And over the past 13 years, it’s played an important, at times controversial, role in the rebuilding.

City Park opened in 1854 and, like everything in New Orleans, had violent, romantic beginnings. According to a plaque on the grounds, the park’s location was originally a spot where “hot-blooded young blades settled their differences with swords and pistols.” The inscription goes on to explain that young Spaniards and Frenchmen would travel to this idyllic area just outside the city to decide whether they’d be on the end of “satisfaction” or “wounded pride.” (It’s really a great plaque.) The men would duel under the park’s sprawling live oaks, now the largest collection of live oaks in the world.

When dueling was outlawed in 1890, the park needed other pastimes for its guests, and with its less-permanent outcomes, golf became a favored option. In 1902, a group called the New Orleans Golf Club laid out City Park’s first nine-hole golf course. Another was added in 1933 as part of a Works Progress Administration grant. The architect of the second course, Joe Bartholomew, has his own place in golf history as the first African-American course designer in America. He would go on to design and build a number of courses in Louisiana, many of which he wasn’t even allowed to play because of the segregation laws of the time. 

Bartholomew’s City Park layout, eventually known as the East Course, became the host site for the Crescent City Open in 1938. It eventually became the PGA Tour’s New Orleans Open, which called City Park home until 1962. With golf proving itself as a moneymaker, more courses were built inside City Park after World War II. By 1960, golf was contributing more than $150,000 to the park’s annual revenue. (Tennis was the next biggest at just over $11,000.) By 1967, more than 185,000 rounds of golf were played annually at City Park’s courses. 

Largely on the foundation of its golf revenue, City Park became one of the few parks of its size in the nation to be almost entirely self-supporting. Only about 2 percent of the park’s budget came from the state of Louisiana, with the rest coming from user fees and donations. 

That, along with everything else, changed in August 2005.

Hurricane Katrina leveled the golf operation at City Park, one of the city’s lowest-lying areas. The park is roughly 50 percent bigger than New York City’s Central Park, and for weeks, 90 percent of it—including all of the golf courses—was under standing water. Nearly 2,000 trees came down, including a handful of mature live oaks estimated to be more than 800 years old. It was one thing to have City Park’s land in ruins, but it was a different kind of setback to have its entire system—computers, vehicles, equipment—almost entirely wiped out. Because of the self-supporting nature of the park, it was important to get things up and running as soon as possible; the first step was reopening the double-decker driving range. Floodwater had sent the mats and range equipment drifting, but eventually enough was scrounged together to reopen the range and golfers slowly started returning. But it would take much more than a driving range to get the park back up to speed. And Mike Rodrigue knew it.

Like everyone in New Orleans, Rodrigue has his own storm story. 

“Everyone in my family lost their houses,” he said. The countless retellings have made his delivery almost casual. “Some of them had about 5 feet of standing water in their places, so it got pretty crowded at my house for a while.” 

Rodrigue grew up in a neighborhood called Gentilly, near downtown and adjacent to City Park. He spent his childhood days playing golf there until the sun went down. He got good enough to earn a spot on the team at Tulane. (Katrina has since wiped out its men’s golf program.) After building a successful insurance company, he purchased Acme Oyster House in 1985; the restaurant and its chargrilled oysters remain one of the most well-known items in the New Orleans food scene.

When the storm hit in 2005, Rodrigue was  chairman of the Fore!Kids Foundation, the local host organization for the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana. The city’s golf community was scrambling in late 2005, trying to figure out whether hosting a 2006 event was even possible. 

“They talked about moving it to a lot of other cities,” Rodrigue said, “but we knew how important it was to have it here. That was going to be the first televised pro sporting event in New Orleans after the storm. It’s cliché, but we were going to make it happen come hell or high water. And I guess we got both.”

That year, Rodrigue made a trip to the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta to meet with other tournament leaders. He met Charlie Yates, who, along with Tom Cousins, had been celebrating the successes of what has become informally known in the golf world as the “East Lake Model” of community revitalization. It involves using public-private partnerships to pair mixed-income housing with quality schools and essential services. In 1995, the area near East Lake had a crime rate 18 times higher than the national average. Since then, violent crime is down 95 percent and drastic increases in employment and education have been seen due to the subsidy stipulations residents are required to meet. 

After the tournament, Yates sent Rodrigue an email. It read, in part: “Mike – I think the East Lake model could be a real home run for the City Park area.…It seems it will soon be time for a bold move in the rebuilding of New Orleans, to do something dramatic. Just a thought. –Charlie”

That email eventually turned into Columbia Parc, a development of 685 mixed-income households that sits on the former site of the St. Bernard public-housing complex.

“The fact that this whole thing started with an email that ends, ‘Just a thought,’ that just kills me,” Rodrigue said with a laugh. “‘I think we should do a $300 million community rebuild. Just a thought.’”

When the city is up to par
you can swing with the
breeze

When Rodrigue returned to New Orleans, it was clear that any type of rebuild would take years. Not only would he and the rest of the Bayou District Foundation need to navigate the clashing of public interests, private interests, emotions from the storm and ecological concerns, but they’d do it while championing golf—of all things—as the vehicle to turn around one of the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

“It’s so hard for people to see golf as the answer,” Rodrigue said. “To anyone who has never played the game, golf is another four-letter word. But it’s what drives so much fundraising around the entire country.”

In 2006, the city voted to tear down the four housing projects adjacent to City Park and provide a $120 million low-income-housing tax credit, selecting the Bayou District Foundation as its redevelopment partner. The plan also called for a high-end championship golf course to become the community’s central revenue driver. The decision wasn’t without controversy; public protests broke out about displacing the St. Bernard residents, and today, only about 125 families who lived in St. Bernard are residents of Columbia Parc, according to The New York Times. There were also environmental protests. One protester climbed into a live oak and lived there for 11 days to dispute impacts by the new course on a small stretch of forest, drawing heaps of local media attention.

The neighborhood opened in 2010, five years after Katrina, with a visit from President Barack Obama. But it would be another seven years before its centerpiece golf course would become a reality. As debate after debate broke out about the course, the land sat idle. When the organization was finally ready to move forward, Rees Jones was selected as the architect. Jones had worked on other big municipal projects and reportedly gave it a “generous, post-Katrina rate,” according to a source close to the project.

He was assisted by the PGA Tour’s golf course design team, fueling speculation that the Tour was looking to move its Zurich Classic from TPC Louisiana to Bayou Oaks. The TPC course is located in Avondale, far outside the city where “there isn’t even a damn Burger King,” as one local put it. Conversely, more than 54,000 people live within a mile of the Bayou Oaks course.

Beyond the logistics, the tournament typically shares a date with the massive New Orleans Jazz Fest music festival. Locals say that during that week you can hear music from the festival from the golf course, which would create an atmosphere unlike anything on the PGA Tour. However, Zurich recently signed a seven-year extension of their title sponsorship and all indications are that the tournament will remain at TPC Louisiana.

“Our goal was to build a world-class course here, that’s it,” Rodrigue said. “TPC Louisiana is the home of the Zurich Classic and if the circumstances ever change, we’ll be here.” 

In between steamy summer pop-up storms on a Friday afternoon, Rodrigue was happy to give me an 18-hole tour of the South Course. We played with Jane Rosen, a longtime New Orleans teaching pro and a former classmate of Rodrigue’s at Tulane. The course is wide open, but that mattered little to Rosen, who appeared not to have missed a fairway since the Carter administration. [Her game is so wonderfully, reliably boring—fairway, green, par—that it almost makes you think of consistency as a kind of curse.]

The first time around, the course feels a bit designed-by-committee; many holes seem to have had the character debated out of them. But the risks they did take—like the hairpin turn around a sprawling live oak at the par-5 11th—pay off in a big way and provide pockets of thrills throughout. The land is dead flat, but feels expansive—the South Course takes up what was once the East and West courses—and the routing through the oaks and lagoons feels like you’re winding through, well, a city park.

As overly punishing golf courses go out of vogue, Bayou Oaks seems to intentionally cater to the high-handicapper—also known as the average golfer—with its massive corridors, benign greens and minimal forced carries. It’s easy to wonder if the relative ease of the course gave the PGA Tour cold feet about bringing the world’s best to the South Course. It’s easy to picture Tour players going crazy low, although one could argue that Zurich’s team format makes par and scoring a bit less relevant.

Above all, the course is immaculately conditioned. More than anything, that’s what pisses off the group across the street.

This is just fine.
Eighteen holes.
Eighteen worthless attempts

There is probably a set time the golf shop at City Park’s North Course is supposed to open, but in reality, it’s whenever Ms. Shay arrives to unlock the door. And Ms. Shay, with her gold grill of teeth and 13 years of golf-shop experience, arrives exactly when she means to.

After a day at the South Course, I’ve scheduled a Saturday morning round with the City Park Golf Club. They play across the street at the North Course, another parking-lot-flat routing, which opened in 1969. The North Course tips out around 5,700 yards and plays to a par 67 or 68, depending on who is calling the shots that day. From a municipal-golf perspective, Jones has compared the Bayou Oaks complex of courses to Torrey Pines. From my perspective, the only similarity is that neither North Course gets much TV time.

There’s a line formed at the locked door when I arrive. The attire is mixed—some in head-to-toe performance golf gear, some in jeans and suspenders. Golf bags are strewn about and the clubs would be gleaming in the parking-lot lights if it weren’t for the iron covers. The previous day, I’d asked my host what time we teed off.

“Sunrise” was the only response. To be safe, I arrived 30 minutes before my phone said the sun was scheduled to come up and still found myself at the back of a line of 20 guys ready to check in.

The members of City Park Golf Club have been the unofficial mayors of the North Course for more than 40 years. Membership runs $75 for the year ($60 for returning members) and it includes an official USGA handicap, along with three banquets. Members say that people who didn’t even play golf used to join the club because the camaraderie was so good. Immediately, I’m invited to the annual crawfish boil, which they tell me is the must-attend event of the spring.

This morning, I’m lucky to be paired with Duke, a retired electrician and the group’s unofficial historian, who has been playing every Saturday morning since 1975, give or take a few.

“Back in the day, they used to let us just pull our cars up to the first tee and turn the headlights on so we could start earlier,” Duke said. A man named Ray was a very popular partner then because he had installed headlights on his personal golf cart, giving him a distinct advantage for the opening two-hole stretch. Throughout the day, the group as a whole continuously laments the course’s seemingly reasonable edict that now forces them to wait until sunrise to tee off. 

As soon as one story about the old days is out of the jar, warm nostalgia quickly fills every corner of the small golf shop. I’m made to notice the plaques of past champions and past presidents. (The election process is a cutthroat system of duping someone who is not paying attention into accepting the role.) I’m told tall tales about the heavy gamblers who used to set the pace each Saturday, many of whom would bring binoculars with them to keep an eye on their bets in faraway groups. Duke recalls his days as the club’s rules chairman. It was under his regime that the club adopted the rule that everything must be putted out. There was  simply too much confusion about whether putts—especially big-money putts—had been conceded or not.

“These guys would get themselves into these big bets and then they’d come barreling across three fairways to me asking for a ruling on something,” he said. “I would just say, ‘You guys, don’t tell me any names. Just say Player A and Player B, because I might dislike some of you more than others and I don’t want to give an unfair ruling.’”

The majority of the group plays the 4,800-yard white tees, although Duke proudly makes his way up to the golds, having put in enough years to be rewarded with a shorter golf course. His swing gets the job done and his grip is aided by a Velcro bandage that’s re-wrapped before each shot. (He is quick to point out that this is well within golf’s regulations and he is not abusing his power as former head rules official.) Like the rest of the group, he strives to play bogey golf, and when bogey seems unattainable, like at the 200-yard par-3 fourth hole, they simply play the back tee and make it a 262-yard par 4. Duke rushes to the tee and plays first before disappearing into the brick waystation “because it’s his bathroom hole, as everyone knows.” The day is filled with these built-in assumptions, little closest-to-the-pin bets and skins games that have been going on for decades.

Over those years, City Park has seen many golf clubs like the CPGC leave for greener, less soggy pastures. There used to be the St. John Golf Club, which was once such a big deal in City Park that it had its own clubhouse. There was the Greencrest Club and the Aristocrats, which was the African-American club that eventually moved to another Bartholomew course.

“We’re the only ones that have stayed here at the North Course through everything that’s happened,” Duke said. 

Duke says that at its peak, the City Park Golf Club boasted around 300 members. These days, they’re lucky to get 30 on a given Saturday.

After the storm, City Park rushed to re-open the North Course; contrary to the glitzy project across the street, it was directed, and funded, to be put back together exactly how it was pre-Katrina. Inherent irrigation issues and other water-management problems have led to complaint-worthy playing conditions. There are a number of temporary greens in play as the staff works to redo a few surfaces at a time. The group is also bitter about losing its best par 5 to the “politicking” of a local horse-stable owner. As they tell the story, a rider had been hit with a golf ball shortly before the storm, giving the park cause to re-divide the land. The club members take it personally each Saturday when they have to take a lengthy cart ride near a riding pen from the 11th hole to the 12th, which has been chopped off at the knees into a par 3. As a cosmic middle finger, Duke chipped in at the 12th for his only birdie of the day.

For many players in the group, the worst sin a course can commit is sub-par playing conditions. It’s what every conversation keeps coming back to: conditioning and budget.

“In all the years I’ve been coming here, this is the worst this place has ever looked,” says a CPGC member named Glen. “Thirty-five dollars for that course you just played?”

Glen’s words are a statement, but his tone makes me transcribe it with a question mark. He knows the answer even if I won’t tip my hand about what I think.

In talking with more than a dozen members of the CPGC, it’s clear they view the perfect golf round as one that checks three (semi-contradictory) boxes: It should be as fast as possible, as hard as possible and as cheap as possible. As a result of that worldview, they stare with resentment at the course across the street. They claim that it’s a ghost town (although Rodrigue says rounds in the first year met projections despite a horrendous weather year). They claim it’s not hard enough and that there aren’t enough water hazards. “The TPC up in Avondale, that’s a golf course,” says a member named Mike.

More than anything, they scoff at the fact that the price for a peak time at the South has three digits in it.

“No one around here can afford that,” Glen says. “They cut us a big deal to go play over there once last year and it was so nice I was scared to take a divot.”

It’s impossible to think that the resentment isn’t driven in part by comparative jealousy, as if after the storm the neighbor across the street got a new house and all they got was a new doorbell. The Bayou Oaks project may be about more than just the golf, but communicating that message is a tall order in a city this noisy.

Golf is just another four-letter word to many in New Orleans. Even to some of the golfers.

Where do you go at 
that point?
You have to stay in the
beautiful city
The most unique

It’s hard not to feel a little deflated wrapping up my day at the North Course. It was four hours of stories about the genuine golf nuts who make up the City Park Golf Club getting the short end of the stick. The course they love is an afterthought that’s slowly pricing them out.

But when my eyes refocus, I see more of the place that they aren’t pointing out. The putting green is jammed with jabbering 3-foot-tall golf students in construction-worker-bright T-shirts as part of the junior-golf initiative brought on by the redevelopment. The kids are laughing and trying to lag putt through runways of pool noodles laid out in wacky shapes. Their parents are having an even better time watching and snapping photos. 

It’s roughly 2 million degrees outside, but the double-decker driving range is full of golfers of all ages. There are couples on dates teaching each other how to play. Retirees are looking for one more glorious moment of solid contact before calling it a day. It’s like the powers that be are shooting an incognito #GrowTheGame commercial right here in the Crescent City.

Things are not what they used to be in City Park, which means something different to everyone. And, like the city itself, it’s impossible to discern any answers. Passion and romanticism and nostalgia compete daily with bold vision and evolution in a mostly civil war between the past and the future. The city is a hot, confusing, uncomfortable, beautiful jumble, and the golf scene follows suit.

It seems that as long as City Park exists, there will be hot-blooded duels. And poets to write about them.

The crowds of New Orleans come in many forms. In the French Quarter, tourists look for space among the street performers and herds of fellow visitors. At City Park, a crowd just as diverse packs into the double-decker concrete driving range. Photo by Ryan Young