Former PGA Tour player Kelly Gibson, design consultant for the renovation of the Joe Bartholomew Golf Course, was walking on the 15th fairway on a mid-September afternoon.
Work on the course, which was devastated by floodwater when Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans more than five years ago, is moving toward completion. The renovation is close enough to being finished that Gibson can visualize the golf shots.
On the par-5 15th, he stopped perhaps 75 yards from the green in what he said would be an ideal position for a player’s third shot.
On the old Joe Bartholomew, a player approaching the hole would have been hitting across flat ground. But on the renovated course, the approach will be more challenging.
“You have a downhill shot to the green, ” Gibson said, motioning down to the putting surface, which sits behind a mound. “There’re differences in the pitch and roll at this golf course that you won’t see on other courses in New Orleans.”
In almost every way, say Gibson and others involved with the project, the renovated Joe Bartholomew will be a first-class course.
“This is going to be the best golf course in New Orleans, ” Gibson said.
Judd Duininck, owner of Duininck Golf, general contractor on the project, compared it to transforming an old baseball stadium.
“It’s a totally new golf course, ” said Duininck, whose company is based in Minnesota.
The course architect is Garrett Gill, head of Gill Design Inc., a Wisconsin company.
“I think everybody will be pleasantly pleased and surprised, ” Gill said.
The city of New Orleans, which owns Joe Bartholomew, will decide when the course will open.
“We are pleased with the progress at Bartholomew Golf Course, ” a city spokesman said in a statement. “As the turf grows in and as facility renovations are completed, we will make a determination about course opening dates. The clubhouse and maintenance facilities are part of our 100 committed projects list.
“It will be a true joy to have a first-class, public golf facility for all of our residents to enjoy. This project will be a critical part of the rebirth of Pontchartrain Park, and we are proud to be a part of it.”
The grass — one type of Bermuda on the fairways and another type of Bermuda on the greens — is taking root on fairways, greens and tee boxes. Gibson said he’s hopeful that the grass will be grown in by November.
“As soon as the grass is completely grown in, that’s when the city will take over operation of it, ” Gibson said. “It’s going to be a reality.”
Ahren Habicht, construction superintendent for Duininck Golf, checked the 15th green on this afternoon. “One more top-dressing, this green will almost be putt-able, ” he said.
Cost estimated at $9.9 million
Perez, A Professional Corporation is managing the architectural and engineering aspects of the project. “We hold the contract with the city of New Orleans, ” said Perez’s Karri Maggio, the project manager.
MWH, the company hired by the city to oversee recovery projects, is overseeing the construction aspects of the project.
Gill was subcontracted by Perez.
“I brought in Garrett Gill, ” Gibson said. “He and I are partners.”
Gill and Gibson have collaborated on design projects at other courses, including Tchefuncta Country Club in Covington. They will be working together on a re-design of Brechtel Park Golf Course in Algiers.
The cost of course construction at Bartholomew has been about $9.9 million, the city spokesman said via e-mail.
Much of the money is through FEMA, and other funding is through a community development block grant, Maggio said.
The project is two-phased.
Phase 1, restoration of the course, is nearly finished. “We are essentially at this point in construction — just crossing our fingers and hoping the grass grows in quickly, ” Maggio said.
Phase 2 will be construction of the course’s buildings, including the clubhouse and the maintenance building. Those buildings are in design.
“It should be a pretty quick construction schedule once we’re able to get the project up for bid, ” Maggio said.
Groundbreaking on the project was July 4, 2009.
“I think the construction is going very smoothly, ” Maggio said.
Flood ruined 2005 renovation
Duininck’s company worked on the fairways and rebuilt the tees at Joe Bartholomew in the spring of 2005. The course was a few weeks from reopening when Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005.
“We finished it up around June, ” Duininck said. “They were going to grow it in when the hurricane hit.”
Flooding destroyed the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood and ravaged its golf course.
But when Gill first visited the site, he looked past the destruction and saw the potential for a rebirth.
“When I first stepped on Bartholomew, the course hadn’t been maintained other than Parks and Parkways mowing, ” Gill said. “What I saw was what a tremendous piece of property this really was. Think of it like a picture on a canvas. The canvas had mature oak trees and cypress. … It was an exceptional piece of property, especially for New Orleans.”
Said Gibson: “Joe Bartholomew picked a hell of a piece of land to build a golf course.”
The new design preserves the original layout while reshaping the property.
“We’ve totally modernized something that had been here for 60 years, ” Gibson said.
Said Gill: “I think what I’m most proud of is maintaining the integrity of the original Bartholomew design. Think of it as a skeleton. The way these holes were put together was almost perfect. … It’s not important for Kelly or I that our names are on it. We wanted to preserve the Bartholomew legacy. He was never given the credit he deserved.”
The course, called Pontchartrain Park when it was built in the 1950s by Joseph M. Bartholomew, was renamed for him in 1979. Bartholomew, the first African-American inducted to the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame, designed several local courses that he wasn’t allowed to play because of segregation.
“The more I’ve been involved with this project, the more appreciation I’ve got for the history, for what it is, ” Gibson said.
All of the lakes were dredged, and the material was used to raise the fairways.
“I’ve found golf balls from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, ” Gibson said. “I found the history of golf unfolding in front of my eyes as we were digging the lakes out.”
The designers brought slopes, bumps and undulation to previously flat ground.
“You call it sculpting, ” Gibson said.
The contouring has two purposes — helping drainage and making the course more interesting for the players, Gill said.
The course has been lengthened by about 400 yards, Gibson said. A par 72, the course will play 6,823 yards from the back tees and 5,314 yards from the front tees. There will be four tee boxes on each hole.
Nine lakes have been added, and a canal that crossed several holes on the original course has been eliminated. Every tree on the property was trimmed. The cart path is finished.
Also, power lines no longer cross the course.
“I didn’t think we could get those put under ground, ” Gill said. “Kelly initiated discussions with (Mayor) Nagin’s office. I give Kelly all the credit for that — and Entergy and the mayor’s office.”
Bird island treasured
A goal is to give players the feel of being in a park, Gibson said. He also said the designers made every effort to protect the environment.
“As a design team, we didn’t want that bird island to disappear, ” Gibson said as he watched birds gathering on an island on a lake alongside a fairway.
The course will have a double-ended driving range. Adults will hit from one end, which is near the clubhouse. The other end of the range, for juniors, is in the First Tee practice area, where there will be three greens and a learning center.
“The hope is to create a whole new generation of golfers, ” Gibson said.
He envisions the course as a site for tournaments, a future home for college teams and a center for instruction for youngsters.
The quality of the course and its affordability to the public will attract local players and tourists, Gibson said.
“I’ve really become passionate about this, ” Gibson said. “To me, it’s full circle in my career. This might be the most significant thing I’ve done professionally in my golf career, and I’ve played with all the major players. I’ve played with Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and everybody in between.”
A New Orleans native, Gibson said he wants to help redefine the golf market in the city.
“I hope we reinvent golf in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, ” he said. “City Park has to be part of that. Bartholomew will be a component.”
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Bob Fortus can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3408.