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The operative word is almost. At Professional Custom Club and Repair, in a strip mall on Veterans Boulevard, a thigh-high sheet of unfinished drywall marks the flood line. "It's not completely dead," Dale Baker says of his business, but he concedes that most of his work is replacing rusted shafts--rust being one of Katrina's enduring legacies. Another is frustration, particularly among dispossessed residents who spend their days word-wrestling with insurance adjusters, contractors, public officials and FEMA. Baker's sister and co-owner, Connie Whalen, says, "We get four or five guys a day who come in, hit 10 balls and leave. They say, 'Man, I had to hit something.'"
Across the street at the Golf Zone--where business is strong, says owner Joe Campo, thanks to the exodus of the chain stores--golfers try out three-ball putters and waggle titanium drivers with devotional intensity. "To deal with this type of disaster, you need an outlet," says Campo. "For one person, it's church. For another, it's golf."
Peter Carew would agree with that. "People can't spend the whole day doing Sheetrock," he says, driving a utility cart across the hard, bumpy fairways of the Brechtel Memorial Park Municipal Golf Course. "They have to have recreation."
Carew, 52, is the course superintendent for the New Orleans Parks and Parkways Department. Before Katrina, he and a full-time staff of 14 took care of two courses: Brechtel Park, across the river from downtown New Orleans, and the flagship Bartholomew layout in Pontchartrain Park. The city had just finished a $1 million upgrade to Bartholomew, and another half million was slated for Brechtel.
These days Carew operates on a budget better suited for a teenager with a lawn-mowing business--except that the kid probably has better equipment. The flood destroyed everything at Bartholomew, and both courses suffered the after-whammy of looting. Carew now has a staff of three. Roderick Rick, who lived in the Lower Ninth, and Bill Elliott, who was named the parks department's employee of the decade two years ago, waited a week for rescue on the second floor of the parks building before wading out in chest-deep water. "There's a lot of pent-up anger and frustration," Carew says. "I've seen grown men break down and cry."
Against all odds, Brechtel reopened on Dec. 1. To say it's not in tip-top shape would be an understatement. The tees are hardpan. The fairways are close-cropped weeds. The greens, mostly sand and brown thatch, are puttable, but only because Carew drags them with a broom attached to a utility vehicle donated by the Toro Company. "But I haven't heard one complaint, not one whiner," he says, momentarily assuming the guise of world's luckiest greenkeeper. "The people who come out to play are happy. Everybody smiles." Brechtel is so busy, in fact, that revenue is up from 2005.
Unfortunately, the course may soon choke on a surfeit of--get this--turfgrass. "As soon as the nights reach 70 degrees, the bermuda jumps," Carew says. "You stand in one place too long, it'll grow over your feet." Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but Carew's jerry-built equipment already buckles under the rigors of twice-a-week mowing. The prospect of 100 acres of Tifton 328 and common bermuda growing an inch a day gives him the willies. "Sometimes when I go to staff meetings, it feels hopeless," Carew says. "There's no money. There's no equipment. They're telling me to hang on for a year. I say, 'Hang on with what?'"
The grass bomb is also a looming concern over at Bayou Oaks, where City Park Improvement Association CEO Bob Becker has seen a staff of 220 full- and part-time workers slashed to 22. "There's nothing we can do about it," he says. "We have no golf staff. No electricity. Our equipment claims to FEMA have not been processed. We're at a standstill."
A nonprofit entity operating on city-owned land, the CPIA gets no general tax revenue to run the 1,300-acre park, which cuts through the devastated Lakeview and Fillmore neighborhoods. The courses were profit centers, generating roughly 30% of park revenue, but now they are thirsty, weedy liabilities. Private donations would help--the U.S. Tennis Association recently gave $150,000 to help restore the City Park Tennis Center--but no such help has been offered by the golf community.
"The response has been pretty disappointing," says Becker. "We'd like to get our West course open, but we can't do anything without equipment, and we need somebody to subsidize some operating costs so we can hire staff." Meanwhile, the city's golfers shouldn't expect to tee it up anytime soon on the park's East or North courses, where an unsuspecting hiker will still come across the odd bowling ball or junked car. "The other two courses, I don't see any way," Becker says with a sigh. "We'll simply have to let them go back to nature."