Texas Gulf Coast Courses Back in the Swing After Ike

By: Steve Habel

Galveston Damage from Ike

It's been more than nine months now since Hurricane Ike - a storm that killed 37 people in the state of Texas and inflicted more than $11 billion in damages - swept across the Texas Gulf Coast last September.

Galveston, where Ike made landfall, was hardest hit, suffering nearly $3 billion of the state's toll. And it is there that the recovery has been most painful.

The last of the state and federal recovery centers on Galveston and Pelican Islands, which make up the city, didn't close until April. Reconstruction of the city's seawall still hasn't been completed, and only one of its fishing piers is usable. The city's economy is based on an $800 million tourism industry. Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said 47 percent of the city's tax base was in the hardest-hit west end of the island, and she predicted that it would take five years to build it back up.

"The measure of devastation can't be fully realized by these organizations and aid groups that have come to the region," said former Galveston County Sheriff Gean Leonard. "From living here for most of my life I can tell you things will never be the same, but also that the people of this region are fighters and will do all that can to rebuild."

Driving through the neighborhoods and down deserted streets in Galveston last month further illustrated the point that there is still plenty of work to do before the city - and the region - is back in the full swing. But with the end of the school year, the tourist season is upon the area, and people are still flocking to the coast for a respite from the stifling Texas heat.

Part of the call to the region is its golf courses, which are usually wind-swept and full of challenges and - in most cases - the lowest of priorities on many minds when tragedy strikes. We took a recent trip to the region and played a trio of the tracks that were affected by the wrath of Ike and are happy to report that golf is alive and kicking on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Wilderness

The Wilderness

The Wilderness offers remote challenges among protected wetlands. As Ike approached the coast, many experts predicted that the city of Lake Jackson, about 50 miles southwest of Galveston, would be Ground Zero for the storm. Once those warnings came in, residents of the town - home of the Wilderness Golf Club - battened down everything that could fly away and hit the highway.

In the final hours before landfall Ike turned to the east and spared Lake Jackson and The Wilderness the full brunt of the storm. There were still lots of rain and hundreds of downed trees and power lines, and it was this loss of power that affected The Wilderness the most.

"After the storm passed we had days and days of hot, sunny weather but we had no way to water the golf course because we had no power," said Kit Thomson, The Wilderness's general manager. "The course began to burn up because we couldn't get water on it fast enough. We eventually had to resort to using power generators to make our pumps work, but - for a while down here - those were few and far between."

Staff worked through the setbacks and difficulties and had the course up and back to normal within about a month after the storm. The efforts in the face of such hardship landed The Wilderness an award for KemperSports' 2008 Facility of the Year.

Designed by Texas-based Jeffrey Brauer and GolfScapes, The Wilderness opened in May 2004 and has since become one of the Gulf Coast's most popular tracks. After 30 years of battles with environmental groups and seemingly endless bond issues, court rulings and federal government hurdles, Brauer fashioned a course that saved most of the original site's trees and bounds up and down through the region's protected wetlands, giving it a natural flow by bringing tees and greens close together.

The Wilderness plays at 7,106 yards to a par of 72 and carries a rating of 72.9 and a slope of 126 from its back set of four tees. The course is very walkable, especially the front nine, which is more wide-open.

Much of the talk about The Wilderness when it first opened centered on its 551-yard, par-5 seventh hole, which ends with a putting surface that's 70 yards deep; you could hit it with any one of at least five clubs on your approach shot. Missing the green on either side can be penal. "I call that green a conversation piece and it seems to work because everybody mentions it," Brauer said.

Other front-nine highlights are the 451-yard par-4 opener, which is toughest with a back-right pin placement; the 225-yard par-3 eighth, which plays like an island green because of its elevated putting surface; and, the 485-yard, par-4 ninth, where you drive out of a chute of trees to a landing area guarded on both sides by bunkers and then venture to a mid-sized green that is the most contoured on the course.

The back nine features more secluded holes. The 10th, a 535-yard par-5, is a risk-reward that provides no bargain for those who want to lay up because of water right of the fairway on the approach. No. 11 (at 326 yards) is a par-4 whose green can be challenged off the tee, but be aware of the steep sand bunkers left of the putting surface.

The 15th, a 572-yard par-5 with a semi-blind green, was inspired by a similar hole at Lahinch in Ireland and is the longest hole at The Wilderness. Your round ends with two tough par-4s, including the 461-yard closer, featuring a lake on the right, a narrow fairway and 100-yard bunker that guards the L-shaped green's right side.

And with no homes on the track it really does feel like you're in the middle of the wilderness. The rough areas are seeded with plants native to the low-lying sports in southern Brazoria County. You can also expect to see a healthy dose of hawks, raccoons, deer, bobcats and snakes, as well as an occasional eagle or birdie - as long as you can golf your ball - at The Wilderness.

For more information or a tee time, visit www.thewildernessgc.com.  

South Shore Harbour Country Club

South Shore Harbour is a Bay-area Jewel

The second stop of our trip to the coast was at South Shore Harbour Country Club, located some 25 miles inland from Galveston in League City, which is the northernmost part of Galveston County.

Here on the banks of Galveston Bay sits a private 27-hole facility designed by Dave Marr and Jay Riviere, and renovated and augmented by Jeffery Blume in the late 1990s.

Despite being in the direct path of Ike's destruction, the course and its low-slung clubhouse suffered only minor wind damage and some flooding, but was ready for play almost as soon as the wind stopped blowing and the broken limbs could be gathered up.

"We were extremely fortunate because we didn't get a lot of the damage that others got, but we did lose some trees and a lot of limbs," said John Martin, SSHCC's director of golf. "Our members were very involved in helping those less fortunate in our area, and I think everybody just put golf on the back burner for a while."

Since its debut in 1983, South Shore Harbour has certainly changed with the times. Once a links layout, with no trees and plenty of sand and flat holes, the track has evolved into a more traditional course with rolling hills, water hazards and other challenges.

There are tests aplenty at South Shore Harbour, and its best defense is the steady wind that beats off the bay. We played 27 holes at the course on the same day heavy winds postponed the first round of play at the Shell Houston Open, contested some 50 miles to the north of League City in Humble, so our work was cut out.

South Shore Harbour Country Club consists of a South nine, a Shore nine and a Harbour nine (thus the name), and each plays to a par of 36. South plays to 3,360 yards from the tips, the Shore is 3,522 yards and the Harbour comes in at 3,364 yards. The toughest of the configurations is the South-Shore 18, which has a rating of 73.0 and slope of 128.

The course's best holes are its par-5s; four of the six are reachable with the right wind conditions, while the best stretch of holes is perhaps the closing three on the Harbour nine. Both Nos. 16 and 17 are meaty par-4s and No. 18, a 501-yard par-5, features a small island green that leaves golfers with plenty of opportunity for fame or despair.

"No. 18 has one of the smallest island greens you'll see anywhere in the Bay Area," Martin said. "That hole gives you a great chance to keep a good score going, but at the same time can do damage to a good round with a bad approach. With that small island, you really have to hit a good shot to get on the green, then have to use caution in getting up and down."

Visitors to the area staying at the nearby South Shore Harbour Resort have playing privileges at the country club. Facility owners and staff members have all done their part to remain true to the golfers, both members and resort visitors alike, and South Shore Harbour Country Club continues on as one of the finest private facilities in the area.

The course is fun and demanding, and gives you chances to make up for mistakes by taking a few chances along the way. "The people who play at South Shore Harbour are here because they really enjoy playing golf here," Martin said. "We do our part to make it as fun and enjoyable for everyone who comes out to play."

For further details, visit www.sshcc.com.  

Moody Gardens is the Place to Play in Galveston

What a difference a few months make. In June 2008, officials at Moody Gardens Golf Course - located just a few blocks off the seawall in Galveston - were celebrating the reopening of the course after two years and more than $16 million in comprehensive renovations to the former Galveston Municipal Golf Course.

Then in September, those same officials were powerless to keep the course safe from the winds and brackish waters of Galveston Bay, which flooded the course, uprooted trees and destroyed landscaping as Ike took its toll.

For five weeks, Moody Gardens Golf Club staff worked to get salt off the fairways, while pumping water out of bunkers and restoring the bridge that connected the 17th green to the 18th tee. Workers cleared the course of debris and put it back into operational condition.

"Given our location right on the coast and where the sea wall ends, the course made it through in remarkable shape," said Bill Pushak, Moody Gardens' general manager. "I was on the island Monday after the storm hit us on Sunday night. You can't imagine the damage unless you saw it with your own eyes."

Moody Gardens Golf Course

The course is build slightly above sea level, enough to where the 14-foot storm surge that hit the island didn't completely swamp the grounds. Pushak said Moody Gardens' clubhouse, which is 15 feet above sea level and built to withstand winds up to 140-miles per hour, made it through completely unscathed, save for some leaks and minor flooding.

The biggest problem the course faced from the storm was that its new irrigation boxes were submerged by saltwater. The whole system eventually had to be replaced at a cost of about $120,000. Bunker faces also had to be resodded and nearly 30 palm trees had to be replanted. For five weeks, Moody Gardens Golf Course had no power or phone, but crews still managed to get the course ready.

"We have heard that this part of the island was hit with 115-120 mph winds, but we were able to keep what we have intact," Pushak said.

The course was redesigned by Jacobsen Hardy Golf Course Design (the firm of PGA Tour professionals Peter Jacobsen and Jim Hardy) and has the potential to rank as one of the best municipal tracks in the state. Part of the renovation replaced the old course's Bermuda grasses with seashore Paspalum, and that may have been the saving grace for Moody Gardens Golf Course. Paspalum is saltwater-tolerant, but not necessarily saltwater-proof. It performed beyond expectations.

The old course's fairways were prone to flooding and saltwater damage, so the architects elevated the course two to five feet in places to improve its ability to slough off water.

In the months since the storm Moody Gardens Golf Course has enjoyed another new beginning, and the final pieces to the puzzle are still being put to place. All 71 of the course's bunkers had to be rebuilt (that task was finally completed in early June 2009), but the course was still ultra-playable and fun, especially when the constant wind kicks it up a notch.

Playing at 6,816 yards from the tipsand to a par of 72, the golf course is designed to be player-friendly and challenging at the same time, putting a premium on approach shots and pin locations. The course is rated at 72.6 and slopes at 127 from the back tees.

Jacobsen and Hardy created a design that keeps the best historical features of the former layout while significantly improving certain holes and overall course flow. Now the track's fairways curl around inlets and lakes edged with wispy grasses and there are even small elevation changes, rare on a site so close to sea level.

The front nine at Moody Gardens Golf Course features three par-3s, three par-4s and three par-5s. The round opens with a short par-5 (512 yards) that plays into the wind, peaks with the 570-yard par-5 fifth and sustains your attention with the 232-yard par-3 sixth and the round-the-turn and back-into-the-wind 584-yard par-5 seventh. Hit an extra club to the green at the 162-yard uphill par-3 ninth, which also plays into the wind.

The back nine at Moody Gardens asks for more precision off the tee, especially the 575-yard par-5 14th, which turns from right to left and narrows in the landing area, and the 341-yard par-4 15th, which seems easy until you factor in the bunker short and right of the green and all the danger along the right.

No. 16 (at 426 yards to an uphill green) and the closing hole (at a whopping 472 yards) are a tough final challenge. No. 18 requires a tee shot out of a chute of palm trees to a wide fairway and then turns hard left to an uphill, into-the-wind approach over water and a waste area - a heck of a way to finish.

Moody Gardens Golf Course just hosted its first anniversary with a customer appreciation day. Given the quality of this course and all it has been through in the first year, we look forward to many more years of play on the island.

For more information or a tee time, visit www.moodygardensgolf.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 media coordinator for Bechtol Golf Design, the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin 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.