Fazio Track & National GC of LA all the Talk in Southwestern Louisiana

By: Steve Habel

It's been almost five years now since Hurricane Rita blasted through Southwestern Louisiana, causing more than $11.3 billion of accumulated damage as far north as Ohio. Much of the discussion of hurricane relief on the Gulf Coast since the summer of 2005 has centered on the devastation of New Orleans and points east in Alabama that came under the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, but Rita's legacy is still being felt as well by the coastal communities south and west of the "Big Easy."

One of the areas hardest hit by Rita was Lake Charles. Known as a haven for Texans hankering for gambling action, the SWLA region was in the midst of a casino building boom when Rita roared ashore near the Texas-Louisiana border in September 2005, barely a month after the bigger Katrina almost wiped New Orleans off the face of the Earth.

Rita was the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the most intense tropical cyclone ever observed in the Gulf of Mexico. Rita's storm surge caused extensive damage along the Louisiana and extreme southeastern Texas coasts and completely destroyed some coastal communities. The storm killed seven people directly, and a reported 120 souls perished in evacuations and from indirect effects.

An offshoot of the gaming business has been the proliferation of high-quality golf courses near casinos or as part of new resorts, giving visitors the chance to play another type of game out in the fairways and greens. Plans were also underway in the city of Westlake, just north of the lake, for a new course not directly affiliated with the resort-casinos.

But given that golf courses and the sites for such are exposed to the elements, many of the area's top tracks sustained severe damage from flooding and high winds. When Rita struck, tens of thousands of trees snapped and were uprooted, salt water roared onto greens and fairways and stayed there for months, and the underbrush - shrubs, saplings and low-hanging vines that grow under the trees - was swept away.

View from 17th Tee at Contraband Bayou

Contraband Bayou GC Punished by Rita in its Infancy but Now Up to Snuff

The fledgling Contraband Bayou Golf Club at the opulent L'Auberge du Lac Hotel and Casino, built atop 227 acres that was once underwater as part of the Calcasieu Waterway, endured horrible damage from Rita, with salt water contaminating its putting surfaces and the loss of more than 1,600 60-foot-high trees.

Contraband Bayou GC, Tom Fazio's only public course in the Pelican State, utilizes the area's marsh and lowland features of the natural Louisiana environment to result in a unique 7,036-yard, par-71 championship-caliber track.

The layout was completed in December 2004 and opened in late May 2005, with its official unveiling set for August 2005. Those plans were delayed when Katrina roared into Louisiana at month's end. The debut was rescheduled for the end of September, but that's when Rita blasted the Lake Charles area.

Because Contraband Bayou had been built out of the swamp, many of the tall trees that Fazio's team had planted on the course just did not have the root system as they had been through only a few growing seasons. The winds stripped away a lot of the underbrush that framed the course and made it feel secluded.

Contraband Bayou presented many obstacles in its design and construction, the most challenging of which was building a golf course in swamp-like terrain. More than 400,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved during construction. The highest elevation on the course is 14 feet above sea level which made it hard to implement a successful drainage system. The use of mounding (a Fazio staple) and more than seven miles of subsurface main lines now helps the course drain exceptionally well.

In the almost five years since Contraband Bayou felt Rita's wrath, the course has rebounded well and is on its way to being better than what Fazio first visualized. Two years ago the staff completed $500,000 of improvements to the course. It rebuilt all of the bunkers, added five acres of sod, removed hundreds of dead trees and stumps, and landscaped many focal point areas.

Par-3 4th Hole at Contraband Bayou

Last year, work was done to narrow the fairway and waste areas on the seventh hole to allow for more road construction into the resort/casino; the green at the ninth hole was moved left and a bunker was added near the putting surface to create difficulty; and a new tee was built on the course's signature hole - the par-3 17th.

On May 20, Contraband Bayou will shut down for eight weeks to replace the turf on the still-affected-by-Rita greens, moving from Tiff Dwarf to Champions Bermuda. The course will also switch the nines (so when reading this story take that into consideration when playing Contraband Bayou after mid-July) and square off all the track's tee boxes.

"We are making these moves to improve the quality and quantity of play at Contraband Bayou," said Bill Belcher, the director of golf operations. "The greens have never really been the way they should be after the damage from Rita, and this will be a good time to make some other changes that will make a great golf course even better."

Contraband Bayou features all the attributes that make Fazio courses appealing: there are the plenty of favorable bounces incorporated into the par-3s (none are over 200 yards), long par-4s (two play in excess of 450), short par-4s (three are less than 375) and a monster par-5 (the 611-yard, 10th, which will now be the first hole under the new configuration).

The round starts off with a 373-yard, dogleg-left par-4 that favors the right side of the fairway and features the deepest green on the course. No. 2 is a testing par-3 at 196-yards, with a bunker front-left to catch short shots and a false green to lure you into a security that doesn't exist. The third is a 435-yard dogleg-right with bunkers at the bend, and the 169-yard, par-3 fourth provides a birdie chance in preparation for the best five holes on the front side.

No. 5, a 346-yard par-4, is the type of hole that can make your round without breaking it - if you know what I mean. You can hit driver and come very close to the green, if you don't push it right into the water that enters consideration 100 yards out. Or you can play it safe and use a long-iron off the tee and have a short-iron in.

The 557-yard par-5 sixth winds lazily leftward and can be attacked as long as you can negotiate the mounds on the fairway that may cause stance issues for a long approach. The front ends with a 421-yard par-4, a slight dogleg-left up a hill that was truly affected by Rita handiwork. There were originally a set of three trees guarding the left side of the fairway about 75 yards out, making your second shot much more difficult than it is now.

The back nine starts with a 611-yard par-5 that really gives you a chance to score if you can just keep the ball in the middle for three straight shots. You will need to take advantage of the 10th because Nos. 11 (a 411-yard par-4) and 12 (at 452 yards the second-toughest hole at Contraband Bayou) will exact their toll if you are not prepared.

The 12th is another hole adversely affected by Rita, as three large trees that once guarded the right side of the landing area have vanished and been replaced by saplings. Nos. 13 (a 189-yard par-3) and 14 (at 369 yards rated the easiest on the course) can help regain confidence, but don't take them lightly, especially the 14th, which requires a good tee ball with a fairway wood or long-iron and has a deep bunker right of the green.

The final two holes are among the best at Contraband Bayou. First is the 17th, a 196-yard par-3 over water and sand to a sloping green. From the tee looking down at the green and hotel in the background is one of the truly magical views of this track. No 18 is a long, uphill par-5 that has lots of trouble: bunkers right of the landing area and on the left in a layup area for your second, and an elevated putting surface protected both sides by sand. It is a great way to finish and will leave you wanting more.

Contraband Bayou features a combination of aquatic and natural vegetation on the edges of eight spectacular lakes. With at least four sets of tee boxes on every hole, the track provides a unique playing experience for all - and it will only be getting better.

There's been a knock on the conditions of the greens (mostly for their lack of speed), but we found the putting surfaces in great shape and rolling fast and smooth. This, too, will improve as the course matures.

As good as Contraband Bayou is now, one can only imagine how wonderful it would have been if it had not been ruined by the hurricane. Given time - and a little patience - expect this track to be one of the best in the area.

For additional information or a tee time, visit http://www.ldlcasino.com/golf.aspx.

3rd Hole at The National GC of Louisiana

New Challenge awaits at National Golf Club of Louisiana

About five miles as the crow flies north of Contraband Bayou and a 15-minute drive around Lake Charles and back into the woods, sits the brand-spanking-new National Golf Club of Louisiana, a big-shouldered Dave Bennett-designed course. Opened for play in August 2009, the track and surrounding community are still in its growing stages, so much so that there is no clubhouse or parking lot at the course and some of the roads leading to the club are still under construction.

The National Golf Club of Louisiana is the centerpiece of a new, 600-plus-acre master-planned neighborhood in Westlake, a town just above Lake Charles.

Bennett's 6,946-yard layout features 14 lakes and 80 bunkers and some of the area's largest and most challenging greens. Stately Louisiana pines and dramatic vistas highlight the experience, while five sets of tees offer fun and challenging rounds for both recreational and accomplished players.

Greens Complex at No. 5 at National GC of Louisiana

The course's premium TifSport fairways and rough and MiniVerde greens will keep their deep-green color year-round and provide excellent surfaces. The National's fairways are wide but gentle slopes and rolling terrain can be unforgiving, so be precise with shots off the tee.

The facility went through more than 10 years of planning and countless hours of work, most done under the guise of Billy Casper Golf. BCG oversaw construction and grow-in of the course and directs the course and property maintenance, staffing and training, clubhouse operations, food and beverage, merchandising, golf instruction, marketing and public relations, special events and financial management.

There's a lot to like about what Bennett has fashioned at The National, which carries a rating of 73.5 and a slope of 132 from the tips. Each of its four par-5s (the longest of which is 537 yards) are reachable with a pair of good shots and the collection of par- 3s (159, 192, 176 and 199 yards) offer the opportunity to use different clubs in different directions, a hallmark of a well-designed track.

What makes The National really worth the trip to SWLA are its two-shotters, the best of which are the 433-yard third hole, the 433-yard 10th (despite being the same length, they dogleg in opposite directions), the 457-yard 16th (the course's No. 1 handicap hole) and the closer - a 415-yard dogleg-left with water right and a green pinched on both sides by sand.

Four of the holes at The National (Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 11) are virtually dead-straight, and everyone knows that playing a straight hole is the hardest challenge in golf.

The National Golf Club of Louisiana also sports an expansive practice area with a one-acre, all-grass driving range, a 12,000-square-foot putting area, two 3,000-square-foot short-game areas and 1,500 square feet of bunkers. From the driving range, golfers can take aim at 14 target greens from 50 to 400 yards.

If you're into a top-notch bang-for-your-buck golf outing, head to The National Golf Club of Louisiana. The venue recently held the Adams Golf Pro Tour Series 2010 Southwest Louisiana Open, and the course is as good as many of the region's best. That secret is already out, so make sure you have a tee time before heading here.

For more information, visit www.nationalgcla.com.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.