For all the heart-wrenching images of destruction caused by Hurricane Ian, golf facilities on Florida’s Gulf Coast appear to have fared surprisingly well. Most were up and running, in some form or fashion, within a week of the storm’s Sept. 28 landfall.
“We feel really quite fortunate how we’ve come out of it from a facilities standpoint,” said Bruce Glasco, a co-chief operating officer at management behemoth Troon Golf, whose 10-brand portfolio includes 725 courses worldwide. Ten properties managed by Troon are in the vicinity of Cape Coral, which bore the brunt of Ian’s onslaught.
“Many of our employees were not as lucky,” he said. “Several associates have been displaced, which is truly unfortunate, but to the best of our knowledge we didn’t lose anyone because of the storm.”
Considering that at least 119 deaths have been attributed to Ian, and countless homes and businesses were destroyed, it may sound callous to speculate about available tee times. But the fact is, golf operators’ ability to bounce back from the calamity will affect thousands of people in the state’s workforce. As many as 500 Florida courses were in Ian’s path, two-thirds of those in the Gulf Coast counties of Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier.
The last independent, comprehensive study of golf’s financial impact on Florida was published seven years ago, but it’s safe to say the more than 1,100 golf facilities annually generate $8 billion-plus in revenue and contribute roughly 133,000 jobs, with collective earnings of nearly $4 billion , to the state’s economy. There’s little doubt that low-wage earners, such as course maintenance workers, restaurant staff and hourly golf shop attendants will suffer the most from Ian. In many cases, their ability to get back on the job has been impaired as they try to restart their lives, dealing with the loss of homes, transportation or family members.
Ian came ashore at the barrier island of Cayo Costa, between Port Charlotte and Cape Coral, with sustained winds of 150 mph—just shy of a Category 5 storm. Moving in a northeastern path, it pummeled Florida’s Gulf Coast from Sarasota to Naples with unrelenting rainfall and catastrophic storm surges. Among the first golf courses to feel Ian’s wrath were the historic Gasparilla Inn & Club’s Pete Dye layout on Gasparilla Island; the Tom Fazio designed Coral Creek Club, just south of Port Charlotte; and The Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island, which became disconnected from the mainland when the Sanibel Causeway was breached in five places. It’s no surprise that attempts to reach those facilities for comment were unsuccessful; the Gasparilla Inn & Club did post a notice on its website, saying that the resort “sustained significant damage” and would be closed until further notice.
As it tracked inland towards Orlando, Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm, which delivered its own brand of destruction in the form of biblical rainfall. Streamsong Resort, the highly-ranked 54-hole complex featuring courses laid out by Tom Doak, Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw, and Gil Hanse, which was built on a reclaimed phosphate strip mine in sparsely populated Hardee County, managed to dry out in time for an Oct. 5 reopening. The central Florida community of Lake Wales, home to Mountain Lake—a much-celebrated Seth Raynor design circa 1917—reported 17 inches of rain within 24 hours.
On the hard-hit Gulf Coast, obstacles to reopening are many. Courses were covered with debris from damaged homes and businesses nearby, as well as uprooted trees and fallen limbs. Clubhouses and maintenance facilities were flooded and suffered wind damage. Bunkers were washed away. Properties went days without electricity. In one case, a course superintendent discovered that 400 gallons of gasoline had been stolen from his maintenance area.
The storm surge briefly submerged some layouts; to remedy the ill effects of saltwater that permeates turf, those courses must be saturated and flushed out with fresh water via irrigation systems—a process akin to rinsing dish soap from a giant sponge. (That treatment is not necessary if the turf is paspalum, a grass variety genetically engineered to tolerate saltwater.)
Some municipalities implemented boil-only restrictions, which limited water use. Clubhouses that were flooded must deal with exposure to so-called “Class III” waters, which may contain dangerous levels of pollutants or toxins. Those buildings must be inspected and evaluated by hygienists, usually resulting in mandatory removal of porous surfaces such as carpets or drywall that were touched by Class III water.
Regarding the Troon facilities, “we have less than half a dozen that aren’t operational in some capacity,” said Glasco. “As for those who suffered the most, we still don’t have a timeframe as to when they will come back online. And they’re all in the Cape Coral area.”
Among them is Cape Royal Golf Club, which Glasco said “was hit pretty darn hard.” A pumping station was disabled; there was significant tree damage and clubhouse damage. “We’ve got some work to do there,” he said.
Del Tura Golf Club also “took it on the chin, very similar to Cape Royal,” said Glasco. “They’ve got prolonged issues. Three employees lost their homes, complete losses.”
Given the circumstances, Glasco said, there’s been no urgency to restart operations.
“We’re taking a little extra time, and many of the clubs have been willing to work with us as we bring people back after having their lives disrupted,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we have some challenges with staff. We have people who lost cars, families who lost homes. It’s pretty tragic. We’re incredibly fortunate, when you look at the photos, that we didn’t have loss of life, considering the damage.”
As for courses that have reopened, is anyone playing?
“That’s a great question,” said Glasco. “To be honest, it shows you where our focus is. I haven’t asked anybody for any rounds played info in the last week. We’re solely focused on what we can do to help our associates. But we’re glad that the golf courses can open and be available. I don’t want to pretend that we’re not commercial in our thinking, but really our focus is the other elements of the operation.”
For now, at least. Before long, Glasco acknowledged, golf operators in southwest Florida must redirect their efforts toward restoring rounds played—or suffer the long-term consequences.
“We’re part of these communities,” he said. “And many of these communities have been decimated. You can’t help but wonder, and quite frankly have some fear, about people’s ability to rebuild. I can’t help but be concerned not only about our business, but also the local community’s economic engine and how it gets back on its feet.
“I look forward to the day when the first thing I look at on my computer is tee sheets and play levels, not updates on repairs or clean up or how we address employees in need.”