Patrick Gramm of Gulf Stream tees off on the ninth hole of The Little Club on Oct. 20. A few trees like the one in the foreground did not survive Irma’s winds, but the rest of the course looked to be in prime playing condition. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Brian Biggane
Officials cited toppled trees and mangled vegetation as the main obstacles they needed to overcome in getting Palm Beach County golf courses back up and running in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
But while all of the dozen or so courses surveyed reported extensive damage, hardworking maintenance crews had most of them open within a week of the storm’s passing.
Sam Metott, who oversaw the cleanup at the Delray Beach Golf Club as assistant parks and recreation director for the city, said there was even a silver lining in the destruction.
“The greens and fairways on our course and most courses were largely untouched, so the fact they were closed for that time reduced the foot traffic to zero,” Metott said. “They were provided a little rest and we were able to hit them with pesticides and fertilizer, and our members are telling us they’re in great shape.”
A closer look at how some of the local courses fared:
The Little Club
Superintendent George Ralish estimated the private course lost “probably about 30 or 40” trees, mostly green buttonwoods, the majority of which were away from the prime playing areas. The club was closed for two days before the storm and six days after.
“We didn’t have power for eight days after the storm, and we’ve only had eight people doing the cleanup, so we’ve still got some stumps and trees with broken limbs,” Ralish said. “Some of our sump pumps went down as well, so we had four holes where we had standing water for several days.”
A tree company had been contracted to assist with the cleanup, and The Little Club is another that typically doesn’t get a lot of play until sometime in November.
“The course looks really good now — better than ever,” head pro Wanda Krolikowski said. “Sometimes the land just needs a good combing, but you can’t tell people that.”
Gulf Stream Golf Club
Manager Kevin Bauer estimated the sprawling private beachside property lost “roughly between 80 and 100 trees” but added that a lot of what was lost would not be noticeable when the course opened on schedule for the season on Oct. 20.
“We really had no structural damage to the [clubhouse],” Bauer said. “It was all about the trees and debris and flooding, and we’re almost 100 percent recovered from that.”
The most noticeable change after the storm was the disappearance of 10 towering palms that lined A1A in front of the clubhouse and were shredded by Irma’s winds. They have been replaced by six smaller Sylvester palms.
“They were probably the most prominent trees we lost,” Bauer said. “A lot of [the trees] we lost were in areas that are not prominent.”
Bauer credited superintendent Ryan Swilley and his crew for their cleanup efforts after he estimated the course lost about four weeks of normal maintenance to the storm.
Seagate Country Club
Chairman Anthony Wilson said his course lost 24 trees and was closed for a week after the storm passed.
“The bigger problem is it keeps raining,” he said. “The course drains well and comes back quickly, but all the rain has been hard to overcome.”
Wilson noted that his golf course crew also maintains the community around the course, requiring him to hire outside contractors to assist with the cleanup.
“It was a big job; guys were working from sunup to sundown,” he said. “We had a lot of sand on the cart paths — typical stuff that washes out and gets beat up.” He said the fact the club has so-called billy bunkers, which are designed to minimize sand erosion from heavy storms, was a big plus.
Red Reef Par-3
Greg Jerolaman, manager for the city of Boca Raton’s three courses, said 10 trees were lost and another 11 had major limb damage at Red Reef, but the vegetation between the beach and the holes east of A1A prevented sand from being a major problem.
“We had two banyan trees and a huge sea grape that were basically sheared in half,” Jerolaman said. “We spent nine days chain-sawing and cleaning up debris to get the course playable.”
The course was closed 12 days, beginning when the city declared a storm emergency on Sept. 8. It reopened Sept. 20.
Jerolaman said only two city employees are assigned full time to Red Reef, so the assistance supplied by a Parks Division crew for several days “really enabled us to reopen when we did. Our part-time staff were terrific, too. They weren’t required to assist but showed up in the searing heat and assisted with the cleanup as well. Quite heroic of them — as they are not spring chickens!”
Delray Beach Golf Club
Metott, who also oversaw the cleanup at the par-3 Lakeview course as well as Southwinds in west Delray Beach, reopened the front nine at the city course, just west of Interstate 95 on Atlantic Avenue, on Sept. 29 and the back nine a week later.
“We lost hundreds of trees, but the biggest issue was large broken limbs hanging down,” he said. “It was more a safety issue. A downed tree won’t hurt anybody, but those significant size limbs that could fall and injure people, we had to have contractors cut them down.”
The club became a staging area as a generator was brought in right after the storm passed so all three meals could be prepared for city workers.
Metott said golfers who got impatient at the pace of cleanup didn’t understand the dynamics at work.
“The management companies hired by the city and FEMA to do cleanup of the golf courses are the same ones that have been clearing the streets and picking up debris, so they have priorities,” he said.
General manager Robert Grassi suspects a tornado touched down near the clubhouse where three trees were lost and a water fountain was pulled out of the ground. Beyond that, the most significant damage was to a handful of banyan trees on the property.
“We still have two that need to come down because they took a lot of stress,” he said.
Grassi brought in an arborist who advised the club to replant younger trees that will have to grow their own root systems. But with planting season over, that will have to wait until spring. The private course is reopened but won’t get much play until most members return for the season.
“We lost a lot of trees,” Grassi said. “It looks kind of barren out there.”
Options include planting cabbage and eureka palms for protection and installing paspalum grass around the two lakes on the course.
Palm Beach Par-3
Head pro Tony Chateauvert reported that the paspalum grass on his course was a key to its reopening Sept. 17, a week after the storm passed.
“We had sand everywhere — the clubhouse was covered in it and it was a half-inch deep on the holes on the ocean,” Chateauvert said. “We spent two days power washing everything and the paspalum came back quickly.”
The closing of State Road A1A north and south of the South Palm Beach facility made reaching the club impossible for a time, and business was slow through the first week but has picked up since.
“We lost a couple trees but a lot of courses further west got impacted [more] than we did,” Chateauvert said.