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Casino golf courses fall prey to Katrina’s wicked ways

Mississippi Gulf Coast — The golf courses owned by Coast casinos are also listed among Katrina’s victims. The three that were open prior to the storm — Broadwater, Grand Bear and Bridges — had downed trees along with wind and water damage. The Palace Casino and Beau Rivage Casino had courses under construction which also suffered at Katrina’s hands.

Janet Leach with the Mississippi Development Authority Division of Tourism and Mike Baronich, director of the Broadwater Golf Course, say they’ve been told that development of the two new courses will continue.

The Gulf Coast Golf Association’s Web site states that the Grand Casinos’ Grand Bear course had excessive tree damage and a re-opening date is to be determined. The site also states the Bridges Golf Resort at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis had damage and a re-opening date has yet to be determined.

The executive director of Hancock County’s Tourism Bureau, Beth Carriere, said, “The Casino Magic golf course had more damage on the west side of the course and they have started cleaning it up and cutting down trees that fell. Everyone here is working at rebuilding, and I’m encouraged about our future.”

Baronich, who’s directed the Broadwater’s course for over three years, said the course, which until recently was owned by the President Casino, had 150 trees down. “The course itself did pretty good and the club house had minor damage but was not under water,” he said. “We had no saltwater on our greens and wish the others could have been as lucky.”

The 198-acre Broadwater Course is located off Beauvoir Road in Biloxi, just north of the storm-defining railroad tracks. Baronich said the saltwater came within about 50 feet of the tracks but did not cross over.

The course recently came under new ownership and had planned to close next April for renovations. “We had golf booked through next April and would have closed next summer but now we’re going to close for these renovations,” he said. “I have no idea when we’ll re-open but we will. I’m guessing it will be about two and a half years.”

Harsh conditions

Saltwater on golf course greens is not a good thing at all, according to Dr. Gregg Munshaw, a professor and researcher in Mississippi State University’s (MSU’s) turf management program. “The big issue down the line is the saltwater on courses that sat there and was not washed through,” he said. “The grass is drought stressed and will turn brown. When grass is stressed out, the courses lose turf.”

MSU’s head golf professional, Billy Hoffman, said saltwater basically dehydrates grass and kills it. “The main thing was not having water or rain for several weeks to constantly keep the grass watered,” he said.

A monthly golf newsletter published by MSU was just issued and consists of “wall-to-wall hurricane information and how-to’s,” according to Munshaw. Additionally, a team of soil and plant scientists will make a trip to the Coast to assess what’s going on with the courses’ soil and turf. “We want to find out what issues they are facing and how much salt is there,” he said. “We’ll take grass and soil samples.”

Munshaw said different grasses tolerate stress differently with Bermuda grass tolerating stressors better than other types. Most golf courses on the Coast have Bermuda grass for that reason and because it stands up to high traffic. Sea Shore Paspalum grass has an excellent salt tolerance and is now being used on many courses in Florida.

“I don’t think anyone on the Coast is using that kind of grass now but it may be an option in the future,” he said, “but I think the biggest problem for the Coast courses now is no golfers. They will have to cope with a huge reduction in revenue and budgets.”

Silt and sediments in the saltwater surge that hit golf greens are also a physical problem for some Coast courses, Munshaw said. “That totally messes up putting greens because it causes the soil not to drain,” he said. “Also, there is a lot of debris, even things from houses, on the fairways. Course managers can’t hope things will be okay from diseases and insects. They must keep up with it every day, and they haven’t been able to mow and spray for insects.”

Where will people play?

As to the loss of golf business for the Coast, Baronich said, “People know what happened and there’s nothing we can do. I expect Gulf Shores and Pensacola will do good next snowbird season. The courses will be okay, but there will be nowhere for golfers to stay.”

Others hope much of this displaced golf business will remain in the state. Will White, sales and marketing director at Tunica National Golf Course in Tunica County, says he’s had a huge increase in calls for information on the Mark McCumber-designed course that opened in March 2004.

“We had a big fall season planned already and we’re busy trying to accommodate people who had packages booked on the Coast,” he said. “It’s made a big, immediate impact, and we’re shifting around and doing what we can to get people on our golf course.”

He is trying to accommodate several displaced tournaments scheduled for next spring and summer, including the 200-player Mississippi Municipal League’s event in conjunction with its annual conference.

“We see this as a responsibility to keep these tournaments in the state and we’re re-scheduling and doing what we can,” White added. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries and a lot of 20 to 30 player groups to accommodate.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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