Back to the Big Easy
Before Katrina struck, New Orleans golf was finally making a name for itself. Now the city's courses are thriving anew.
With all the sorrow inflicted by Hurricane Katrina, it may seem like a parody from the Onion to be writing about golf in New Orleans, but the battered city is definitely rebuilding and the game is boogying on back. At the time the storm hit, in August 2005, New Orleans was finally starting to establish itself as a golf destination. The historic downtown Audubon Park course had undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation. Pete Dye's TPC Louisiana had just hosted its first Zurich Classic, the city's PGA Tour stop. A superb David Toms course had opened, and plans were afoot to restore the Big Easy's most fabled golf landscape, City Park. Then, on one horrible day, sustained winds of more than 150 mph splintered clubhouses, cart barns and tens of thousands of trees. When the levees breached, two cherished courses drowned for weeks under fetid saltwater, and they may never return. Now, the good news. Many of the best courses were not severely damaged and have reopened to even more appreciative audiences. And New Orleans remains a complex but, ahem, intoxicating city, built upon world-famous jazz and jumpin' zydeco, sublime food and barely licit delights.
Wedged between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans is flat and swampy. Some of the area's courses are squishy for days after downpours, so be sure to call ahead. The region's prime golf season is October through May, when daytime highs range from the low sixties to the mid-eighties. Although several of the finest courses are private, most allow reciprocal play or can be booked through Big Easy Golf (bigeasygolf.com). To make the most of the city, stay in or near the French Quarter. That means driving an hour or more to outlying courses, but you can pass the time by listening to WWOZ-FM (90.7), the marvelous jazz, zydeco and blues station.
Where to Play
Just across the Mississippi is the stately TPC Louisiana. This monument to earth-moving lies among languid wetlands and gnarly cypress trees (although far fewer since Katrina). It's also wondrously walkable. Initially, some Tour players grumbled about what they considered to be too-similar holes and tiny, unfair pot bunkers, but some careful tweaking during the course's ten-month closure after the storm smoothed out the rough edges.
The previous site of the Zurich Classic, English Turn Golf & Country Club, is an exacting Jack Nicklaus layout. Its mature oaks and plantation-style elegance survived Katrina quite nicely. Tiered greens, forced carries, water on every hole and a relentless, tournament-deciding final hole—471 yards into the wind—create all the drama you need.
Now for your road trip. Across the narrow, twenty-four-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, head toward Hammond on Interstate 55. At Springfield, you'll find Carter Plantation, a David Toms design that has joined the state's impressive chain of environmentally sensitive courses, called the Audubon Trail. The layout, which can be played on foot, reveals itself with wide fairways cut from forests of tall, spindly pines, ghoulish cypresses and leafy gums. On your way back, stop in the town of Akers and treat yourself to a meal at Middendorf's, a revered down-home seafood shrine (see "Where to Eat").
Two club pros and a waiter in the French Quarter told me not to miss Money Hill Golf and Country Club, in Abita Springs. Named for pirate treasure believed to be buried on the grounds, it's a private Ron Garl design built on a seven-thousand-acre, red-clay estate that once housed a tung-oil factory. The Goodyear family, the estate's longtime owners, have created wildlife sanctuaries on the course. You should have little trouble getting off the tees—the fairways are generous—but more than eighty bunkers, plush rough and long carries over water, including at the 198-yard par-three fourth, keep you alert.
In a category all its own, Audubon Park Golf Course, an 1898 urban landmark operated by the Audubon Nature Institute, is not to be missed. The course, which occupies eighty-one acres off St. Charles Avenue, survived the hurricane because, like the French Quarter, it sits on high land known as "the sliver by the river." A $6 million renovation in 2002 has turned it into a 4,200-yard, par-sixty-two delight. Laugh not; this is serious fun. Twelve par threes, four par fours and two par fives make this honest, oak-lined layout a singular experience. Think three-hour rounds, smooth greens, an engaging Glaswegian who works in the pro shop, and a renowned zoo next door.
Alas, another New Orleans classic, Eastover Country Club, hasn't fared so well. Once a portrait, many hoped, of golf's future, this racially integrated thirty-six-hole club, which hosted fifteen state championships, experienced some of the hurricane's worst flooding. In late October, after struggling for months to keep one of its nines open for play, Eastover closed for good. "It was a great place," said Jeff Cohen, founder of Big Easy Golf and a member of the club, "and it was very disappointing to see it go."
Where to Stay
For an immersion into the city, it's hard to top the stone-cool International House, set in a redone 1906 Beaux-Arts bank building just blocks from the French Quarter. You're greeted by jazz in the lobby, and each of the 117 rooms features an iPod dock and vintage photos of jazz musicians. Another fine option is the Quarter's opulent Hotel Monteleone, a favorite of writers including Hemingway, Faulkner and Richard Ford and one of only three hotels in the country to be designated a national literary landmark.
Where to Eat
In this holy city of gastronomy, you can only scratch the surface on a short visit. That said, Mandina's, a beloved Italian-Creole place on Canal Street, has built a cult following for its trout amandine and turtle soup. Family-owned since 1918, genteel Arnaud's, on Bienville Street, specializes in fresh seafood and alligator sausage served against the aural backdrop of Dixieland. Other all-stars include Galatoire's, for classic creole; Herbsaint, for a contemporary and worldly take on classic New Orleans flavors; and Serio's Po-Boys & Deli on St. Charles, whose third-generation owners recently won a Food Network "throw down" against Bobby Flay. On the drive back from Carter Plantation, Middendorf's is a chowhound's find: an authentic Depression-era landmark beside Lake Maurepas offering shrimp remoulade and peach-bread pudding, as well as fried catfish that can make grown men weep.
Above all else, indigenous live music is what gives the city its pulse. The 500–600 block of Frenchmen Street churns with jazz, blues, zydeco and Brazilian music at venues such as the Spotted Cat, d.b.a. and the Blue Nile; Snug Harbor stands out for American jazz. Should you be interested in seeing the storm damage, Gray Line offers a three-hour Hurricane Katrina tour. On a lighter note, the innovative Audubon Park Zoo has more than thirteen hundred animals and a 1930s-era Louisiana-swamp exhibit with white alligators and a re-created Cajun village.
Audubon Park Golf Course (4 stars)
Architects: Unknown, 1898; Denis Griffiths, 2002. Yardage: 4,220. Par: 62. Slope: 104. Green Fees: $30–$40. Contact: 504-212-5290, auduboninstitute.org.
Carter Plantation (4 stars)
Architect: David Toms, 2003. Yardage: 7,049. Par: 72. Slope: 140. Green Fees: $75–$95. Contact: 225- 294-9855, carterplantation.com.
Money Hill Golf and Country Club (4 stars)
Architect: Ron Garl, 1998. Yardage: 7,131. Par: 72. Slope: 136. Green Fees: $65–$125. Contact: 985-892-8250, moneyhill.com.
TPC Louisiana (4 stars)
Architect: Pete Dye, 2004. Yardage: 7,400. Par: 72. Slope: 138. Green Fees: $95–$160. Contact: 504-436-8721, tpc.com.
English Turn Golf & Country Club (3.5 stars)
Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 1988. Yardage: 7,078. Par: 72. Slope: 140. Green Fee: $155. Contact: 504-391-8018, englishturn.com.
214 Rue Royale. Rooms: $275–$350. Contact: 800-535-9595, hotelmonteleone.com.
221 Camp Street. Rooms: $139–$299. Contact: 504-553-9550, ihhotel.com.
(Creole), 866-230-8895, arnauds.com. $$$$
(Creole), 504-525-2021, galatoires.com. $$$
(Contemporary), 504-524-4114, herbsaint.com. $$$$
(Italian-Creole), 504-482-9179, mandinasrestaurant.com. $$
(Seafood), Akers, 985-386-6666. $$
Serio's Po-Boys & Deli
504-523-2668, seriosdeli.com. $