After the disaster
The golf industry is slowly recovering from the havoc Hurricane Ian wreaked in September.
By: ROBERT J. VASILAK
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Every once in a while, people’s appreciation is renewed for things they once took for granted. Today, it’s happening to golf snowbirds as they make their annual migration to southwestern Florida.
The encouraging news is that the region’s golf industry is slowly but surely recovering from the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, just as it did after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017. Every course in and around Fort Myers was battered by Ian’s 150 mph winds, and some were flooded by a deadly storm surge. Yet most re-opened at some level of capacity within days after their power was restored.
Even the courses on ravaged, virtually inaccessible Sanibel and Captiva Islands appear to be making progress. Sanibel Island Golf Club was “trashed,” according to the owners, but they hope to have nine of its 18 holes playable by the end of the year.
There’s no timeline for full recovery, however, because many golf properties are dealing with circumstances described as devastating, catastrophic and unthinkable.
Jason Becker, CEO of Golf Life Navigators, a match-making service for private clubs and prospective members, estimates that some clubs won’t be operating at their usual standards until early 2023. Ronnie Miles, senior director of advocacy for the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA), said he thinks a few courses could be closed for up to a year. Geoff Lofstead, executive director of the PGA of America’s South Florida section, suspects that for some properties, recovery will be measured in years, not months.
As of late October, reports on the situation in one of America’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas were still trickling in.
Because the Sunshine State is so often punished by hurricanes — eight times since 2004 alone — its golf industry has experience with torrential rains and Category 4 and 5 winds. But Ian also brought massive storm surges that obliterated some coastal communities.
Here’s how owners and operators are addressing wounds — some that will never heal — in the aftermath of yet another storm of historic proportions.
“How could anyone possibly prepare for the kind of storm surge we saw on Sanibel Island and in Fort Myers Beach?” said David Kent, general manager of Crown Colony Golf & Country Club in Fort Myers. “I don’t know how anyone could prepare for a storm surge that completely covers your golf course.”
Kent said he knew of at least four neighboring clubs that were inundated: Forest Country Club, Kelly Greens Golf & Country Club, Lexington Country Club and Shell Point Golf Club.
Crown Colony took a big hit. The club’s cart fleet and the satellite boxes on its irrigation system were ruined. The bunkers on its course lost at least half their sand. Fortunately, though, the course is covered with paspalum, a salt-tolerant turfgrass, and Kent was able to reopen the front nine in two weeks.
Crown Colony still has major issues to address, however. Ian wrecked two of the three bridges on the course’s back nine, and the irrigation system on those holes can’t operate without them. The new bridges won’t be in place until sometime next year.
Ian’s fury has left some southwestern Florida courses in need of substantive upgrades that could be delayed indefinitely. Thanks to pandemic-fueled increases in revenue, many U.S. courses have scheduled renovations that could occupy the industry’s construction wing for years.
Course designer Kipp Schulties, who has worked extensively in the Fort Myers area, has booked five makeovers for 2023 and five more for 2024. His time, like that of many golf course architects, is fully committed.
I’m booked solid for the next two years,” he said, “and so are all the contractors, the irrigation companies, the grass guys. The courses that need work will eventually be rebuilt, but right now everybody is really busy.”
Crown Colony is among those being squeezed. There was a plan to replace its irrigation system and make other course improvements in 2026, but now management is eager to do the work sooner. Its best-case scenario: Spring 2024.
Winter is the season Florida’s golf industry can least afford to lose, so the NGCOA is trying to replace mowers and other equipment owners have lost.
“Getting access to equipment is always very challenging in times like this,” NGCOA’s Miles said. “We’re the connector. We connect need with resources.”
Ian wasn’t Miles’ first go-round with hurricanes. He sent generators, chain saws and other equipment to Puerto Rico in 2017 after Maria, and he made a similar shipment to Louisiana in 2021 after Ida, the second-most destructive storm to ever hit the state.
Of course, sometimes a delayed reopening isn’t because of a lack of equipment or an inability to hire contractors. Several holes at Sanibel Island Golf Club are being used as a dumping ground for debris.
The situation calls to mind what happened at Florida Keys Country Club after Irma leveled the Keys in 2017. At one point, part of the club’s course was reportedly covered by a stack of trash 60 feet wide, 25 feet high and 500 yards long.
In Florida, it’s often said that golf is life — a blissful illusion that evaporates when bedrooms are flooded and roofs are blown away.
All over southwestern Florida, displaced residents are agonizing about the future.
Lofstead said he knows a dozen PGA pros who lost their homes, not to mention cars and personal treasures such as artwork, musical instruments and photographs.
The state’s golf season has begun, hotels are full, and virtually every rental unit was long ago claimed by workers who follow the snowbirds to Florida every year.
Four of the several dozen properties that Troon manages in the area were either partly or completely closed in late October, but Bruce Glasco, the company’s co-chief operating officer, said he expects them to be back in business by early December. His most critical mission, he said, is to support about 20 Troon employees whose lives were torn to shreds by Ian.
“Our primary focus is on our associates, many of whom don’t have great resources for rebuilding,” he said. “We want to be judged on how we prepared for Ian and what we did afterward. We’re working around the clock to find solutions.”
Donations are coming from all over to help pay for food, clothing, rent, child care and medical expenses.
Troon is providing grants to its fulltime employees through its Troon Cares Associate Relief Fund. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America will give up to $2,000 to members who’ve been forced to relocate. The PGA of America’s Hurricane Relief Fund offers up to $10,000 to members who face financial hardships, and Lofstead said nearly 100 applications have already been submitted.
“The number,” he said, “is going to grow.”
Ian destroyed vast stretches of coastal housing and killed at least 114 Floridians, but the American relocation that began during the pandemic will continue unabated. The Wall Street Journal says the appetite for Florida real estate remains strong from both locals and outof-staters, and website traffic at Golf Life Navigators remains high.
“We’re still seeing a lot of interest for clubs in Southwest Florida,” Becker said. “Too many people want to live here, and there aren’t enough club memberships available.”
Becker, a Fort Myers resident, said he thinks some newcomers may be reluctant to buy waterfront properties, but experience has taught him that Florida’s many charms — warm winters, low taxes, affordable housing and year-round golf — usually outweighs the fears associated with hurricanes.
“Hurricane Ivan went through Naples in 2017 and caused a lot of damage,” he said, “but we saw no decline in demand.”
Hurricane Michael, which raged across Florida’s panhandle in October 2018, shuttered the 36-hole complex at Bay Point Golf Club in Panama City until March 2019, when one 18-hole course was revived. The other course still hasn’t re-opened and perhaps never will.
Ian could likewise doom some courses in the Fort Myers area. The courses on the mainland may need a while to mend, but they’ll likely survive. By contrast, Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island is said to be absolutely devastated, and the nearby South Seas Island Resort hasn’t posted any updates about its wellregarded nine-hole track.
People in the golf industry worry about them.
“Where it was bad, it was very, very bad,” Lofstead said. “The worst-hit areas — the coast at Fort Myers and the barrier islands — are in a very difficult situation right now.”
Lofstead knows that the road to recovery can be full of detours. But if he’s learned anything from working in the state, it’s that every hurricane makes the golf industry a little smarter.
“Whenever you go through a big storm, you learn from it,” he said. “We learned a lot from Irma, and we’re going to learn a lot from Ian.”