It was drizzling when teaching pro Scott Hampton went to the movies at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22. It was still drizzling at 9:15 p.m. when he came out. "I didn't know there had been a heavy storm while I was in the theater," Hampton said a few days later, standing outside his office at the University of Florida Golf Course. "I opened the paper the next morning and was shocked to read that parts of Gainesville had been flooded."
At about the same time that Hampton was learning that four inches of rain had fallen on the Florida campus in less than two hours, course superintendent Mark Birdsell was driving around the layout in his Club Car Carryall surveying the damage. Swaths of the 9th and 18th fairways had disappeared, having been replaced by sandy washes and fissures two feet deep. Bunkers at the 17th green were topped off with an ugly gray-black silt. The practice range, which serves as a holding area for excess storm water, had become a practice lake. Earthen banks along the rim of the range had collapsed, leaving cliffs as high as a man's waist. A serpentine deposit of sand and clay meandered through the range's bermuda-grass plugs, the grass smothered underneath.
"It was disheartening," says Birdsell, slumped over a table in the grill room on the Wednesday after the storm. "When we finished work on Saturday, the grass was growing well and we thought we were over the hump in the renovation of the course. Then this oddball storm balloons up in the middle of the state and parks right here." He shakes his head. "A month's worth of work washed away in two hours."
The worst part for everyone involved in the five-month-old construction project is the knowledge that another big rain will only magnify the damage. A newly grassed course is as vulnerable to severe weather as a house getting a new roof, and for pretty much the same reasons. Water rushing down steep grades washes out the dirt between grass plugs and then carries off the plugs themselves. New sod floats away or rolls up like wallpaper, losing the soil around its roots. "It's a mess," says Scot Sherman, the senior associate designer for Weed Golf Course Design, who toured the layout on Sept. 24 to assess the damage. "It's nothing we can't fix, but every hole was affected."
Actually, the eye-catching damage gives a false picture of the course's overall condition. The greens and tees are undamaged, thanks to their gentle grades and new drainage systems, and most of the sodded areas have held and look splendid. Even the major washouts can be repaired relatively quickly with a tractor and a box blade. "You grab the dirt that's been washed away and drag it back up," says Ben Taylor of MacCurrach Golf Construction Inc., the company handling the renovation. "Then you sod it as fast as possible and pray it doesn't rain until the sod takes root."
The praying part is important. That became apparent when a repair crew who regraded and resodded a 60-yard-long gully in front of the 18th tee on Sept. 24 came back the next morning to find that overnight rains had washed away all the new work. "We're getting hammered," says Taylor. "It's depressing. It's painful for everybody."
The fellow hurting the most is assistant athletic director Chip Howard, who can only bite his lip as Mother Nature demands a bigger and bigger share of his $4 million course budget. "Last week we put $20,000 into extra sod, and this week it's another 15 or 20," he says, putting a mental dipstick into the project's dwindling contingency fund of $120,000. "We're giving Mark an additional crew of six from a local labor contractor to help repair washouts." Howard laughs nervously. "The budget can handle a little more trouble but not a lot. Hopefully it will stop raining."
In the meantime Howard continues to make arrangements for the course's reopening, which has already been penciled in and crossed out several times. The current plan, written in sand, is to dedicate the first nine on Saturday, Nov. 17, with a skins game among four yet-to-be-named touring pros who are Florida alumni. That would be followed two weeks later by Gator Golf Day, the University Athletic Association's annual 18-hole fund-raiser for the golf program.
Out on the course Birdsell is on the run again and viewing matters a bit more optimistically. It's important, he tells me, to note the damage that didn't take place. There's very little bunker erosion—a pleasant contrast to the recent past, when storms left patches of bunker sand all over the property. There are no flooded bunkers, either, which means that Birdsell's crew won't have to haul out the portable pumps every time it rains. Best of all, the tees and greens look great. No puddles, no storm debris, no need for squeegeeing. "If there's a silver lining," says Birdsell, "it's knowing that [had the course been grown in] we could have played golf on Sunday morning. I'm not going to face the maintenance nightmares I faced before."
Does that mean that Birdsell still thinks he can get all 18 holes ready for the Nov. 30 Golf Day? "Oh, yeah, yeah," he says. However, he then looks up at the dull sky, and the parameters of doubt can be seen in his eyes. "You need three months of growing weather to get a course grown in," says Birdsell, "and a day like this is not a good growing day. Bermuda grass needs full sunlight."