Robert Fray guided a modestly sized golf course maintenance team working out of storage containers while preparing a new golf course for play through four natural disasters in 8½ months. When it got cold — and it really got cold in Lake Charles, Louisiana, last February — his team tossed plywood into a barbecue smoker for heat.

An Army veteran, Fray doesn’t bemoan the undesirable work conditions. Everybody in Lake Charles, Louisiana, experienced personal or professional hardship from the moment Hurricane Laura battered the city on Aug. 27, 2020, until water receded following what Mayor Nic Hunter calls a “1,000-year rain event” on May 17, 2021.

Blue tarps remain on damaged roofs and visitors walking downtown streets immediately notice boards covering high-rise windows. Recovering from one wicked weather event takes years. Recovering from four in nine months? That requires patience and persistence. Those who live in the 78,656-resident southwest Louisiana city own an abundance of both.

The City of Lake Charles unveiled Mallard Golf Club in October 2021.
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Two current sights outside the new maintenance facility where Fray’s Mallard Golf Club team starts and ends its days suggest all the incredible misfortune is behind Lake Charles. Instead of operating as uncomfortable workspaces, the containers provide supplemental equipment and supply storage. Instead of being used as a heat source, the smoker is available for its intended use: feeding a team introducing a new municipal golf course to a community seeking places to clear minds and sharpen bodies.

Only 13 new 18-hole golf courses opened in the United States in 2021. Mallard Golf Club, owned by the City of Lake Charles, managed by Sterling Golf and designed by Jeff Blume, was one of them. “It was a relief that we could finally play golf,” says Fray, the city’s golf course superintendent since 2010.

A seldom-experienced development and construction journey brought Lake Charles a recreational amenity with few regional or national peers. “It’s really a miracle that we are here,” Blume says. The smoker rests 10 feet behind Blume as he recites a timeline of events surrounding the development, construction and unveiling of Mallard Golf Club. Later in the early December evening, standing in downtown Lake Charles, with enthusiastic and affable residents ambling to and from busy restaurants, Blume reflects on a project that strayed from its timetable because of the unforeseen, yet achieved its purpose.

“There were a lot of obstacles to overcome — more obstacles than I had ever seen on any project — and we had to be creative to get there … and we got there,” he says. “When you open the course up, you sit there and go, ‘Wow, how cool is this that we actually got it done?’ And it turned out to be a great golf course, too.”

Topography and geography make Lake Charles vulnerable to natural disasters. The city sits 13 feet above sea level, with the Gulf of Mexico 30 miles to the south. During an afternoon tour of Mallard Golf Club, the wind whips hard enough to make hearing voices more than a few feet away difficult. Blume routed the course to resemble a Scottish links. No trees on the interior of the property aided the design ambition. The absence of trees helped Mallard Golf Club withstand Hurricane Laura better than surrounding tracts.

Unlike New Orleans, 200 miles to the east, Lake Charles missed the epicenter of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. A month later, Hurricane Rita made landfall in parts of southwest Louisiana, causing severe damage to multiple communities, including Lake Charles. The city then dodged the brunt of mega-storms for 14 straight hurricane seasons.

Lake Charles had economic momentum in early 2020, with the liquified natural gas, petrochemical and gaming industries driving development. “There were $1 billion worth of projects on the books when COVID hit,” longtime city administrator John Cardone says. “That put a few things on the backburner.”

The barbecue smoker at Mallard Golf Club has returned to its intended purpose after serving as a heat source.
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Economic growth is the reason the city pursued a new golf course. The Chennault International Airport Authority approached city officials a few years ago about the possibility of acquiring Mallard Cove Golf Course, a municipal facility bordering the airport. The city understood why the airport needed to expand, but it proceeded in a manner that never neglected the communal benefits provided by an enjoyable golf course.

Receiving land for a new golf course required innovative thinking and a unique public-private partnership involving the city, Chennault and local developer MorganField. Chennault purchased Mallard Golf Club from the city and MorganField donated 165 acres bordering one of its real estate developments to the city for a new golf course. The city used funds from the sale of the old Mallard Cove Golf Course to pay for construction of the new Mallard Golf Club, which will eventually include a limited number of homes along the course.

“When we first started looking at the project, we wanted to make sure that the golf course that was going to replace our existing golf course was a top-notch golf course,” Cardone says. The agreement, Cardone adds, required Chennault to build Lake Charles a course of “at least equal to or better than what we had.”

With the vision established and Blume engaged since 2017, construction commenced in fall 2018, shortly after the first surreal event in Mallard Golf Club’s development: the death of MorganField president Chad Thielen. A driving force behind the public-private partnership involving contrasting parties, Thielen unexpectedly died on Sept. 17, 2018, a few hours following the signing of papers transferring the land from the developer to the city.

MorganField’s interest in the course waned after Thielen’s death, forcing the city to play a more active role in the project, according to Blume. “Things probably would have happened differently had Chad lived,” he says. “The developer had a bunch of internal things to deal with, which meant the City of Lake Charles needed to pick up the ball. Whenever we needed something, they were there.”

The original construction budget was $5.5 million, but the city invested in multiple upgrades, including concrete cart paths instead of asphalt and the installation of the Better Billy Bunker system. The additions, which will reduce short- and long-term maintenance and improve course quality, increased the cost to $6.3 million. The city selected Houston-based Sterling Golf to manage the course.

“The city made a commitment early on,” Sterling Golf CEO Rene Rangel says. “They made a commitment to Jeff Blume, they made a commitment to Sterling Golf and they made a commitment to the residents of Lake Charles that they were going to do this right.”

Built on a former gas field and rice plantation intersected by a railroad, Blume’s Mallard Golf Club design includes wide fairways inducing varied shot angles, large greens with a blend of bold and subtle contours, and five sets of tees ranging from 5,385 to 7,181 yards. The land and design contrast the city’s previous course. Opened in the 1970s, Mallard Cove offered a tree-lined, parkland-style golf experience. As one of just 29 municipal courses in Louisiana, Mallard Cove had a loyal following and the city planned on keeping it open until Mallard Golf Club was ready for play. The turnkey transition never materialized.

“When we broke ground on Mallard Golf Club at the very end of 2018, we never could have imagined the devastation that our community would face in the years to come,” says Hunter, the city’s mayor since 2017.

Residents and visitors observed unforgettable scenes following Hurricane Laura.

Fray: “You saw trees through sides of houses, not through the roof. That’s one where you think, ‘How does that happen?”

Robert Fray (middle) leads the turf team at Mallard Golf Club. Also pictured are pro Jonathan Jester (left) and architect Jeff Blume.

Mallard Golf Club head pro Jonathan Jester: “I saw a house that was under construction that was pretty much almost done, and the roof collapsed on it. The roof was on top of the rubbish that came off the sides. It was like somebody had squished it down.”

Sterling Golf director of agronomy Nick Johnson: “The first time I came over here from Houston it took forever because traffic was so bad on I-10. There was plenty of time to look around and you can just see the slow progression of how much stronger the winds got as you got closer to Lake Charles and how much more significant the damage was. There was an accident and I had to get off I-10. I went through a little town called Orange and it looked like this tiny little town had just been wiped off the face of the planet.”

Hurricane Laura produced winds exceeding 150 mph and 5.54 inches of rain. Residents and businesses, including the in-play and in-progress golf courses, went weeks without power. Golf, rightfully, didn’t occupy anybody’s immediate thoughts.

“It’s at the very bottom of the list,” Fray says. “You’re not worried about the golf course when you’re trying to get your house and where people live in order.” Fray’s entire five-worker crew suffered personal losses. He eventually lost all five of those employees.

Once the shock of Hurricane Laura subsided, the city opted against trying to reopen Mallard Cove Golf Course. The storm destroyed 500 trees and the maintenance barn shifted off its supporting concrete slab. Fray and the city turned their attention to Mallard Golf Club, which experienced minimal damage because it lacked trees and large structures.

The course had entered an advanced portion of its grow-in. Finding a way to irrigate sprigs without power represented the biggest post-storm tactical challenge. Johnson first searched for an industrial-sized generator to power the pumphouse. “That’s not something you’re going to get at Home Depot,” he says. “We couldn’t find one, and even if we did, it wasn’t cost-effective.” Demonstrating ingenuity that defines turf and construction teams, they located a pump they could integrate into the main line, allowing five to six irrigation heads to operate at a time.

Johnson works with superintendents and turf teams at seven Sterling Golf-managed properties. He lives in Houston and frequently makes the 150-mile trek to Lake Charles. A former South Florida resident, he has endured multiple hurricanes throughout his career. His visits to Mallard Golf Club following Hurricane Laura included bringing water, snacks, toiletries, generators to charge phones and electronics, and other essentials to Fray and his team. “You deal with people first,” Johnson says. Houston represented a popular destination for Lake Charles residents seeking food and other necessities. The round-trip journey between the cities takes five to six hours depending on traffic. Travel time doubled in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura.

Forty-three days after Hurricane Laura made landfall, Hurricane Delta hit the city, bringing winds exceeding 100 mph and nearly 10 inches of rain. The exacta of hurricanes resulted in more than 95 percent of the city’s structures sustaining damage, according to Cardone.

“Many of them were complete demos,” he says. “They were totaled. After Hurricane Laura, we had packages in place where we started picking up debris to help people out and there was still debris on the roadways. Six weeks later, Delta hits and you have to go back and reclean what you had been doing.”

In mid-February 2021, temperatures dipped into the teens, causing pipes to freeze and affecting the drinking water supply. On May 17, 2021, 12.49 inches of rain fell in 12 hours. Lake Charles’s misfortune — and the determination of its residents — attracted national media coverage.

“I don’t even think being here through it all you realized how much we went through,” says Katie Harrington, the city’s publication information officer. “You move from thing to thing. You rise to the occasion you’re called to every time something happens. I remember telling a producer, ‘This is a movie. If this wasn’t real life for me, I’d be telling you this is an incredible story.’ But we lived through it. This was real life for us.”

Rescue cat Mulligan is part of the Mallard Golf Club maintenance team.
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The completion of Mallard Golf Club has earned a role in the recovery story.

Even without the death of the developer and the natural disasters, the project presented huge challenges. The site’s past life created what Blume calls a base of “gumbo soil,” and trudging through it required knee-high boots. The rubber tracks on Morooka vehicles navigated swampy sections early in construction.

Crews from Eagle View Inc. and Duininck Golf installed seven miles of drainpipe, connecting every lake on the course. Blume routed the 13th hole around wetlands and designed 101 bunkers. Four underground gas lines factored into routing the 18th hole. The course is 18 feet above sea level, making it one of higher points in the city, but still a menacing number for design and infrastructure decisions. Lake Charles receives around 60 inches of annual rainfall. That total swelled during construction, with the city averaging around 80 inches of annual rain the past five years, according to Fray.

“That was part of the construction problem,” Fray says. “They would get an area shaped and you would get four days of rain. They then would have to drain it and pump it out before they would get a machine back into it to reshape.”

Now covered with turf and sand, the shapes and surrounds are aesthetically pleasing and infuse the flat site with character. The TifEagle Bermudagrass greens maintained by Fray, assistant Nick Sonnier and team average 6,000 square feet. Celebration Bermudagrass covers the more than 30 acres of fairways. Tifway 419 Bermudagrass surrounds bunkers and greens.

Yes, they are now talking turf around Mallard Golf Club.

They are also celebrating great shots. The city unveiled the course in early October 2021. An against-the-odds event occurred on opening day: two golfers, including a former member of Fray’s crew, recorded holes-in-one. An avid and accomplished golfer, Fray relishes learning the intricacies of the course. From first shovel to first course setup, the project took 47 months. Because Fray and others remained committed to their community, Lake Charles, Louisiana, boasts a new golf course.

“I was staying no matter what,” he says. “There’s something to be said about being involved in something special like this.”