We Were the First Golfers After Katrina

Where is Dr. Love?

I scanned the crowd near the entrance to the French Market. Tourists drifted along the sidewalk on a cool, overcast Sunday two weeks after Mardi Gras.

Where is Dr. Love?

I returned to the curb next to Cafe Du Monde. My girlfriend Kim sat in our car alone. Dr. Love was a no-show.

Which wasn’t much of a surprise. The first time we told him of our plan, during a friendly exchange outside the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street, he protested the dangers involved.

“You know what an anaconda can do to you?”

Our second conversation took place on Friday night, also on Frenchmen, but Kim had to remind me on Saturday morning that we’d promised to take Dr. Love golfing; I only remembered Dr. Love and I talking in drunk-sincere tones. Now it was Sunday, and Dr. Love hasn’t held up his end. Oh, well, he only had one club, anyway, and his fear of snakes seemed quite real.

During our first year in post-Katrina New Orleans, Kim and I were all about keeping promises. To ourselves, to the people we worked with, to the random strangers with whom we found common cause. Both of us had memories of the city from our time at Tulane in the late 90's, where we’d met, then gone separate ways. We reunited in the devastated Big Easy on a promise: we would give each other — and the place — a second chance. We did some dumb things in the name of keeping promises, but that earnest loyalty was essential to surviving in those early years of the recovery.

Our goal on that Sunday in March, 2007: play a few holes at the golf course in City Park. We’d hatched the plan on the assumption that no one had swung a club there since the storm, which flooded the entire park and left the fairways and greens part of a vast untamed savannah. Dr. Love entered the picture when we met him at the Apple Barrel a few months prior and noticed him using two golf clubs as crutches. He was a slender black guy, looked to be around 65, and said he’d fought in Vietnam, where his anaconda phobia originated. We were mostly interested in the clubs, but we’d also enlisted my friend, Tom, who had his own set. Dr. Love was the prospective last member of our foursome, but we couldn’t wait around all day.

We drove toward Tom’s house in Lakeview. Kim arrived in the city in late December 2005 in possession of a 1986 Ford LTD, boxy, tan and with much personality. The car matched the landscape and featured a cassette player usually occupied by one of two tapes: a compilation of early, ska-inflected Bob Marley, and a recording from the radio show I did at Tulane in 1999, back when we first knew each other.

Lakeview abuts Lake Ponchatrain and remains one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. It was also among the hardest hit sections of town. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Tom suffered heavy losses during and after the storm. He was a hard drinker and hadn’t made any preparations for evacuating. After ten feet of water filled the first floor of his house, he was rescued from an upstairs window and spent time living with his mother in retirement home in Pittsburgh, where we were both from. Tom was a lifelong pal of my father and the first person I knew when I arrived in New Orleans in 1995. Back then he worked for the mayor, cutting a dashing figure in the stories my father told of Carnivals past, when Tom would get them into exclusive parties where he seemed to know everyone. For years he had a gig writing car reviews for the local alternative weekly, which meant he had a new car every time I saw him. He’d occasionally pick me up on campus, a gin and tonic in one hand, steering wheel in the other, and drive like mad. “Gotta test it out,” he’d say. “For the review, of course.”

Now he was among the handful of people I knew in the city. When we arrived, a golf bag rested on the front porch. Tom’s set of Ping Zings sat for weeks in the floodwaters, and the bag still had some mold on it, the heads and shafts of the clubs muddy and slightly rusted. A couple dozen Titleist balls remained in the pocket where Tom stashed them prior to the storm, and the club grips were surprisingly intact. For this return to City Park, these were just the clubs we needed.

Before we left, Tom walked us down the block to show us what he called “Desolation Row.” Several identical shotgun houses stood in a line along an overgrown alleyway, all gutted, or so it appeared. We walked into the third house. It wasn’t gutted; in fact, it was barely touched.

Two playpens sat in the front room next to a couch and coffee table, everything covered in mud and mold. A collection of men’s shirts still hung in the closet in the bedroom, and the bed still had sheets on it. In the next room, a wall of shelves heaved with warped books and dusty CD cases. A stereo, a desk, a bed, more CD’s, a poster of Charlie Parker, a map of Spain — -all untouched. The kitchen was full of stacked dishes and all the markings of a busy life. We guessed that a young couple with two children had lived there.

The things they left behind, particularly the volumes of history and the selection of jazz recordings, gave me chills. This looks like my shit, I thought. I have that book; I own that album. Whoever they were, these people never came back to get a thing; everything was as it was left before the storm. I’d walked through a lot of freaky rooms in the last few months, but this petrified home felt somehow worse, like a nightmare where you recognize things you’ve never seen before in real life, parts of a life you might’ve chosen.

We walked back to Tom’s place, put the clubs in the trunk of the LTD, and followed his directions to City Park.

In 1850 the philanthropist John McDonogh died and bequeathed his estate to Baltimore, where he was born, and New Orleans, his adopted home. Among McDonogh’s holdings was Allard Plantation, which the city took over in 1858. According to historian Lake Douglas, engineers from the firm of famed landscape architect Frederick Olmstead were contracted to design plans for an urban park, but soon fell into a legal dispute with the city over the quality of and payment for their plans. The land lay undeveloped until 1891, when a group of local activists formed a nonprofit and gained control of the property. Golf at City Park began in 1902 with a 9 hole course that eventually expanded to 27 holes by 1922. WPA money was invested to create a second course in 1935, and by the time of the levee failures in 2005, City Park boasted four courses.

When we pulled into the parking lot, we could see men hitting balls along the concrete porch of the driving range. As we walked to the first tee, Tom reminded me that this was the first hole we’d played together, back in the late summer of 1995 when he and my father stole me from freshmen orientation for a quick round. Now the tee markers were gone and the first fairway spread out before us in ruin. The grass looked burned, hay-colored with pockets of green weeds and mud hills. The live oaks on either side of the fairway stood leafless and weathered, almost frazzled.

Tom unsheathed his driver for the first time since the storm, I pulled out a dusty three iron, and we handed Kim a sand wedge, as it was the shortest club in the bag. I dropped three balls onto the wiry grass and proceeded to stretch out a little and take practice swings. A non-golfer, Kim struck the first ball of the afternoon, and won a bet with Tom that she’d make contact on her first try, though the ball traveled only a few yards.

As Tom stepped up to make his first swing, a National Guard Humvee appeared at the end of the cart path. The guard was a visible presence after the storm, giving New Orleans the feel of an occupied city. Humvees were nothing new, but watching the vehicle approach, I felt slightly worried. It proceeded slowly towards us, its beige body a perfect camouflage against the parched landscape. Undeterred by the patrol, Tom the decorated veteran hit two balls in a row in the Humvee’s direction. We laughed nervously about our “journalists” alibi as the Humvee got closer. I took a practice swing.

“How y’all doing?” I called over my shoulder to the two soldiers. Receiving no reply, I wiggled my hips and took my swing. The ball cut a bit to the right but the distance wasn’t bad at all. After watching the ball land, I turned to see the Humvee continuing down the cart path and into the parking lot. I felt like a phantom, like the soldiers didn’t even see us out there, like we were just ghosts of golfers past. Kim whacked her ball a few more yards, I picked up the bag, and the three of us made our way down the fairway.

It appeared the hole had been mowed at least once since the storm. Neighboring holes appeared more unkempt, but the grass on No. 1 was relatively low. The fairway was dotted with anthills. Every few yards we came upon another one, and though they looked dormant, a whack with a 3 iron revealed each to be populated by a swarm of fire ants. Those bastards are having a field day out at City Park and I was careful to avoid them for the rest of the afternoon.

Tire tracks ran down the middle of No. 1, though they were too narrow for a Humvee. Clusters of weeds and musk thistle hugged the edges of the fairway and sprouted here and there down the middle. The swamp was returning, I thought. The centuries-old trees stood ghoulish and untamed. All over the course, the spiky dandelions and soft clovers threatened to take back the entire course in another year or two. Every swing of the club resulted in a spray of dead grass. We knew where the green was supposed to be and marched steadily towards it, knocking our Titleists as we went.

I hadn’t golfed in probably 4 years, but when I was a teenager I played semi-regularly for a few summers, mostly with my father. The game always struck me as too frustrating to enjoy, though I liked walking the freshly combed fairways and the feeling of striking the ball with the sweet spot of my club. My swing is decent enough, and I have a fair understanding of iron play and the proper velocity for certain shots.

Today, of course, this was all fairly pointless, and I took few practice swings, instead walking up to the ball, lining myself up, and hacking away. On No. 1, this worked fine, because the dead grass propped the ball up a bit off the ground, in effect teeing it up for each shot. Tom reached the green first, and when the three of us made it there, I pulled out the putter. The green was just as rough as the fairway, but the finer grass had matted in different fashion, making it bumpy but fast enough to putt across. Tom selected a cropping of weeds in the center of the green as the hole, and we knocked our balls towards it. On the first hole, I’m guessing we took a total of 30–40 shots between us, and lost maybe 3 balls out of bounds. There was no pin to replace, and we made our way over to the ninth tee.

The ninth appeared completely untouched since the storm. The tee was thick with weeds. We gave Kim the 3-iron and I took the sand wedge, skying up my first shot. As we began to walk, it quickly became evident that No. 9 was a total ball trap. The dried grass was a few inches thick, and walking was akin to trudging through fresh snow.

In the first 40 yards, we lost countless balls, as the grass swallowed them up. Several times, one of us would barely hit the ball, sending it two or three yards, then spend another 2 minutes trying to dig the ball out of the grass, into which it had settled like an egg in a nest. Several times I banged my club on the ground in faux-golfer fury, cutting a swath in the earth. No greenskeeper was there to catch me.

“Hey,” Tom reminded me. “A bad day on the golf course is better than a good day at the office.” Throughout the afternoon we made comments like that, complaining of slick greens, absent rangers, and thick rough, and citing “winter rules” when we made friendly drops or dug balls out of the grass. We joked a lot during the “round.”

On a deserted stretch of a park that 18 months ago sat underwater, I felt at times like we were at the bottom of the ocean, or on the surface of another planet. I was certain that ours were the first clubs swung through that grass since the storm, that our feet were the first to tread some stretches of that land. Yet our footsteps were light, we laughed at our location, the pace of play was dreamlike and unburdened by time or score.

In 2013 the park’s administrators announced plans to construct a $24.5 million championship-level course atop the fallow remains of the holes lost to Katrina. Protests erupted in 2015 when the park began the process of clearing cypress trees and live oaks on the site. Why, opponents asked, were public space and public dollars — including $6 million in FEMA funds and $9.5 million from the state — being directed to an elitist sport like golf? One protestor occupied a cypress tree for 11 days before tumbling and breaking his leg. The project moved forward.

At the time, it seemed possible that the course would never come back. To employ golf terms, we lived in a city of hazards, of gaping wounds in the physical terrain and a spiritual destruction that trivialized idyllic games and the idea of “par.” With so much of the city’s space crumbled and disfigured, it was hard to tell what was off limits or out of bounds. We spent afternoons exploring abandoned strip malls, and our evenings smoking cigarettes in the LTD as we coasted aimlessly through empty neighborhoods, listening to Bob Marley and avoiding packs of stray dogs. At City Park, the mood was a little lighter. To swing a golf club felt comforting, or rather, it felt like we were comforting the course, forgotten by a public with too much to worry. And in a city where the laws seemed either suspended or mad, we reveled in the freedom to make up the rules as we went along, to make believe we were out for a quick round of 3 and 1/2 holes.

We stopped to inspect the ranger’s station, now an empty hut. Kim crept through the door and peered through the dirty glass, pretending she was working a summer job. Inside, we found everything gone save for a lone plaque dedicated to the winner of some tournament’s “Flight D.”

We drove to another section of the course, where we teed off in front of a grove of immense oaks. As we set up for our second shots, a Siberian Husky or possibly a Malamute came running onto the fairway. It circled Kim and me, then crossed the road that runs through the course, and disappeared into the wilds.

“Look out for that wolf!” I yelled at Tom, who was searching in vain for his ball under a tree. A minute later, the dog’s owner appeared, smoking a cigar and wearing all black. We directed him up the road.

On the green, we made our final shots into a cluster of clover and shook hands. “Good game.” Later at lunch, we promised to play on the first Sunday of every month, and I felt sure we’d stick to it. Golf never was my game, but that afternoon was different, a cross between a much-needed game and stealthy reclamation. Like much of life in New Orleans in 2007, we’d need a lot of balls.

In fact, our threesome never played City Park again. Tom’s liver finally gave out and he passed away just before Christmas 2011. We hadn’t talked in years after a falling out due to his drinking and cursing. I only found out via the obituaries, and the phone call to my father was sad, quick. Kim and I spot Dr. Love once in awhile, but we’re not on Frenchmen Street much anymore. We never golf, but we like taking our son to City Park to chase the ducks.

According to City Park, more than 37,000 rounds of golf were played in 2014 on its two reopened courses. There are no Humvees to greet the hackers. As the city celebrates the tenth anniversary of Katrina, I think about those wild days when simple things like golf had a sense of mission. The city felt like a frontier in those first few years. That New Orleans was too savage for romanticizing, and today’s New Orleans deserves praise for its comeback. Still, it’s difficult not to feel nostalgic about that afternoon when we took swings at the wreckage. Like the course, our existence was feral, unsure and wildly beautiful.