Hurricane Harvey altered courses in Texas and Louisiana. Hurricane Irma battered Florida and parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. The two storms affected golf operations in states with a combined 2,300 courses, a total representing 16 percent of the nation’s golf supply.
Economic damage caused by a pair of high-pressure haymakers separated by less than two weeks will reach nearly $300 billion, according to an AccuWeather projection. The storms put an immediate strain on the golf industry as courses scrambled to concoct recovery plans and reopen.
“Planning is usually the first thing we always talk about in any scale of renovation project or improvement project,” says Nick Mazzella, business manager for GCBAA-certified builder Aspen Corp. “There’s always a great deal of planning before you get started and unfortunately storms don’t afford you a lot of time to plan.”
Often, it’s reactionary behavior when dealing with storms, Mazella says.
“It’s always a race to get the golf course opened again so revenue can continue to go through the facility, but sometimes you need to make structural changes that are underneath the skin of a golf course that have been affected as well. You don’t always have the luxury to go in there and do a quick cleanup job and get golfing again.” — Nick Mazzella, Aspen Corporation
“It’s always a race to get the golf course opened again so revenue can continue to go through the facility,” he adds. “But sometimes you need to make structural changes that are underneath the skin of a golf course that have been affected, as well. You don’t always have the luxury to go in there and do a quick cleanup job and get golfing again.”
Majors storms present recurring problems in some regions. Hurricane Irma produced major storm surges that slammed courses still experiencing lingering effects of Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall in 2016. Meanwhile, in Houston, Hurricane Harvey developed into the third major flood event in the last two years. “The sad thing is there are a number of courses that may not reopen,” Houston-based architect Jeff Blume says.
The timing of the hurricanes compound problems in golf-rich areas such as Naples, Fla., a snowbird haven with the highest concentration of private golf course in the nation, according to National Golf Foundation data. Multiple major renovations in the region had neared completion when Irma arrived. Naples brims with golf activity October-April.
“They get a ton of rain down there seasonally and we are used to doing our construction and building during this rainy season,” says architect Drew Rogers, who has multiple active projects in Naples. “You know it’s going to happen. You expect it. You expect setbacks, you expect damage, so do the contractors, and you plan for it.
“When things start piling up and it’s persistent wet weather and then you get hit with extremes with some of these storms, you can’t really plan for them,” he adds. “You just kind of have to swallow the bitter pill and dig your heels in and clean it up afterwards.”
Damage assessment is the first step in any post-storm rebuilding process, according to builders and architects who have worked with facilities following natural disasters. Courses involved in construction will likely be protected by a builder’s risk policy, but the situation is trickier for facilities undergoing normal operations at the time of a hurricane, flood or tornado. Historic floods also have caused major problems for numerous inland courses, especially those in low-lying areas.
“With the way any insurance company works, unless you go through the federal government and FEMA, a club can’t insure that big of a property against that big of a flood event,” says Brian Vitek, a project manager for GCBAA-certified builder Landscapes Unlimited. “There’s no insurance barrier that would do it. Then it becomes more of an assessment for the club, kind of like what you would do with an insurance company.”
In most cases, the superintendent is responsible for the immediate inspection of the site and initial debris cleanup. But some weather-related disasters require outside help, and qualified builders and architects offer assessment guidance.
“Most certified builders are very good at being able to figure out a good fix for whatever situation you have,” Vitek says. “We are all very good at working with clients at fixing the issue in a manner that benefits them because we have different construction techniques throughout the U.S. So, if you are as big as most certified builders are, you have seen a lot of things related to golf.”
Reputable builders are inundated with calls following storms that cause widespread damage such as Irma and Harvey. Aspen, for example, started receiving calls from previous clients less than 48 hours after Harvey left Houston, Mazzella says.
Harvey and Irma coincided with an uptick in golf construction and some companies had their fall 2017 calendars filled by the end of last fall. Devoting even “one or two guys” to operating equipment on a storm-recovery project would impact previously scheduled jobs, one builder told GCI. Cool-weather courses often try to complete as much work and interrupt as little play as possible during September, October and November.
Regionalization became a common response to the Great Recession among golf course builders, decreasing the volume of companies with national presences. The few remaining national brands employ project managers throughout the country who serve as the primary contact for superintendents and facilities seeking storm recovery assistance.
“The phone rings early and often,” Mazzella says. “We will have more than we can handle with essentially these two storms and with everything else that we had on the books. Most builders are very busy with the regular schedule right now and to find a builder who’s able to mobilize quickly and respond quickly to a storm situation is hard. We had some resources available and they were dedicated very quickly.”
Repair of rebuild?
McDonald & Sons, a GCBAA certified builder, handled the construction on The Old White TPC at The Greenbrier, a resort wedged between southern West Virginia mountains. A storm later described as “1,000-year flood” by climatologists destroyed large sections of the course in the summer of 2016. Resort officials quickly decided to rebuild the entire course to ensure the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic returned to the region in 2017. The project included a series of ambitious deadlines, with rebuilding the greens in time to properly seed the surfaces becoming the first construction priority.
Rebuilding The Old White TPC required a series of fluid actions by architect Keith Foster, forcing a construction team of McDonald & Sons and Greenbrier employees to react to in-the-field decisions. “We didn’t have time to draw it up,” McDonald & Sons senior project manager Kyle Trazskos says. “It was kind of paint it up in the dirt and build it. Every week you’re previewing where you are going, getting a game plan, building it and approving it. It just kind of moves.”
Quickly returning the course to a revenue-producing condition drives post-storm decisions, although the situation at The Greenbrier offers an example of a facility exploring all options. The storm allowed The Greenbrier to examine its place in the competitive resort marketplace, and a full rebuild led to the restoration of The Old White TPC and new-look Meadows course.
A similar situation occurred at Coal Creek Golf Course, a public facility between Denver and Boulder, Colo. A raging flood damaged course features, produced major erosion, and clogged drainage and irrigation pipe in September 2013, two years after the creation of a long-term master plan. The flood expedited the plan’s implementation, and the revamped and modernized course reopened in June 2015. “The entire master plan got done in one process instead of getting phased out,” Vitek says.
Sometimes, Mazzella simply says, “nature does the demolition for you.” And, in the today’s golf market, nature is demolishing more at once than anybody imagined.
“You have to have some humility,” Rogers says. “You’re never going to beat Mother Nature. You never know when she’s going to inflict her wrath on you. You have to look at each other and say, ‘We can’t control this. We just have to work hard to put this back together again.’ There’s no finger-pointing, there’s no placing blame. You just have to suck it up and get back in there, and get things back to normal. Sometimes that road is a long and an expensive one, which is tough for a client. It’s tough for me to witness with my clients. You don’t ever want to see them go through those hardships.
“But they are the reality of having a golf course and certainly when the golf course is in a location where it’s susceptible to flooding or certain damages associated with large storms,” Rogers adds. “You’re going to encounter them sooner or later. If it happens to your house, when the roof blows off, we just put it back on. It takes a little time, it costs a little money, but you get back after it.”