Tide turns on the tees: Big Easy swings into life

New Orleans this week hosts its first major sporting event since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. But will the Tour help to attract tourism in its wake?

In terms of history it will not quite rank up there in the pantheon of "one giant golf shot for mankind" alongside Neil Armstrong's, but Lee Westwood's drive at 7.15am today will have infinitely more resonance than your usual opening tee shot at a PGA Tour event. Because this is the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and this is the first major sporting event to take place in the city since Katrina did its worst in August last year. No, Westwood has never been so privileged.

Indeed, the Englishman acknowledged as much before his practice round yesterday, saying: "I'm honoured." It was a simple expression from the 1998 champion, but the perfect one. Because everyone at the aptly named English Turn Country Club will feel mighty honoured these next four days - the players, the caddies, the officials the fans. But the most honoured will undoubtedly be the city. It feared it might never see a sporting day like this again.

Of course, in the wake of the hurricane there were far bigger concerns. When lives are at stake it is rather straightforward to forget pursuits that are nothing more than pastimes and it is quite obvious that opening up roads is seismically more important than opening up fairways. But over the months, as New Orleans fought the unequal struggle even to envisage any sort of normality, it realised it needed sport. For sport is now big business and without the latter the Big Easy has no chance. And no, we are not talking about Ernie Els.

"We want to show America that our city is recovering," the tournament director, John Subers said. "We're vibrant, we're alive, we're open for business." But, just like the rest of the city, Subers is aware that this is a precarious existence. After the floods retreated the task was enormous; when the tide of sentiment inevitably does the same it will be doubly so. Purse strings have a nasty habit of taking precedence over heart strings in the long-term scheme of things. "That is why this week is so vital," Subers said. "To show we're worth it. The people want to come. They need to come."

Alas, they have not all come. For despite the mood being of the decidedly positive variety yesterday, there were a few all too conspicuous negatives. As the organisers looked around their Pro-Am and the ranges and saw just three of the world's top 10 in attendance their joy in completing the miracle and merely getting the event on must have been tinged by some sorrow, not to mention anger. As must have been David Toms'. Of the Tour professionals from Louisiana, Toms has been most vocal in talking up the magnitude of these proceedings.

"It is very important for the PGA Tour to have taken a stance and become the first major sporting event to return," the world No 8 said. "It's going to be very good for the city to show that it can still entertain people like it always has, and be good for the sponsors - Zurich Financial Services - to bring guests into the city. That's why I've talked to some of the players about appearing.

"It's something I felt an obligation to do as I think it's important to the tournament's future. It's important to showcase it on television, the rebuilding effort. The more quality players in the event, the bigger the television audience will be."

Tiger Woods would have been the most obvious and irresistible draw, but even before he decided to take a mini-break from the game to be with his dying father, this man of genuine charity decided New Orleans to be a good deed too far. One (big one) down, two to go. Els was the next to extend his apologies as he returned to Wentworth for some time at home. Then came Vijay Singh, usually an ever-present on Tour and a past champion of the Classic, but strangely missing this time in spite of repeated attempts to gain his entry. In truth, this titanic trio's absence is no more objectionable than that of Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Adam Scott or Luke Donald. But when you consider what a major-type field might have meant to the area - and when you note that the Masters champion Phil Mickelson is not only competing but has also donated millions of dollars worth of his corporate image in television adverts to promote the week - it is galling all the same.

So why the stay-aways? The cynics would be forgiven for suggesting total self-absorption as the principal reason, although to be fair there was another theory being mooted in the locker-rooms. "There was a lot of concern about the perception of a bunch of millionaire Tour players playing for so much money when there is still so much devastation locally," said Mike Rodrigue, the chairman of the Fore!Kids Foundation, the charity which manages the Classic. "That's why the players have all been given a pledge card on which they can put a percentage of their winnings to be given to one of four charities."

But, as much as he has welcomed signing that particular type of card, Toms can see so many other benefits. "Geoff Ogilvy [the Australian professional] asked a while back what was the point of bringing everybody together to play for six million and one guy leaving town with a million bucks - how does that help the city?" Toms said. "Well, as far as a guy leaving town with a million, he's still going to pay some taxes to the city. So there's that for starters. But what I think it'll do, first and foremost, is show to a worldwide audience that, hey, they are having a golf tournament there. Everything must be OK if these Tour players that are used to being looked after extremely well and staying in nice places and all that are prepared to go there. Why, it must be all right. If nothing else, it'll prove that the tourism part of it is up and running."

But, above all else, what the staging of this tournament proves is that the force of human will is up and running in New Orleans golf. In fact, it is in the last, hand-waving stages of a veritable marathon.

It is worth going back to the first hours after Katrina hit to understand the depths from where the organisers have come. On the Thursday after the city's levees had burst, anxious officials huddled around a computer screen to see the first images coming through of the damage wreaked at the TPC of Louisiana, the PGA Tour-owned course which was the assigned host of the Classic. What flashed up was a lake where a course once stood, and the fairways from Atlantis stretched as far as the camera could see. These were not the only ones. One greenkeeper of a municipal course turned up to find some unwanted guests on his.

"We had dead sea trout in the clubhouse," said Peter Carew, the superintendent of Bartholomew Golf Club. "While on the course we had sharks, redfish, drum - all the damn saltwater fish were out here."

Such stories, apocryphal or otherwise, began doing the rounds and within a few days the New Orleans organisers were summoned to the headquarters of the PGA Tour, who were justifiably concerned and spoke at length of contingency plans for the event which first became a PGA Tour stop-off in 1938. "It wasn't just our courses they were concerned about, but the economic support of the local people," Rodrigue said. "The PGA looked at the Country Club of Louisiana in Baton Rouge and a few other places to switch it to. But you could have compared that to the Saints [the American football team] playing in San Antonio.

"Once it's been moved to another area, you don't know if you'll ever get it back. They thought we were devastated, but we were lucky to have English Turn. That was our only option."

While the TPC of Louisiana had lost as many as 4,000 trees, English Turn, the event's old host, had just 300 lying horizontal. Some were stood up and tidied up, the majority were sawn up and moved out, but what was left, and what has since been brilliantly transformed, is a layout good enough for the world's finest and, with prices reduced for both the normal tickets and the corporate boxes, the professionals will also have the crowds and the clink of the glasses they are used to.

Whether those same blessed noises will echo again in 2007, however, is the PGA Tour's guess, just as it is the guess of the National Football League whether the Saints ever return full-time or the National Basketball Association whether the Hornets come back for good.

"They're like many CEOs of national companies in America now - looking at what is going to happen here," Rodrigue said. "I'm confident we will return, but I'm living and seeing it every day."

This week he has been unable to believe his eyes as the fruits of much labour yield their riches once again. Yes, the task was big and far from easy, but at last New Orleans is swinging again.

New Orleans sports blown into exile... and the prospects of return

American Football

After their "home" games in last year's NFL season were split between San Antonio and Baton Rouge, the New Orleans Saints are due to return to the city's now infamous Superdome to play the first game of the 2006 season on 25 September. It all might still end in tears, however, as it has not been confirmed where the Saints will be playing in 2007 and beyond and rumours are hot that they may be switched permanently to San Antonio.

Basketball

Now referred to as the "New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets", the NBA franchise did return to the city for a one-off game last month but have since returned to the home they made last season. They will remain there next season as well, but the promise has been made that they will come back to the New Orleans Arena in 2007. But as Oklahoma City has come out in force to support the Hornets, and as attendances were falling in New Orleans before Katrina, the wise money is on a permanent relocation.

Other Sports

There are a few success stories. The New Orleans Zephyrs, the minor league baseball side, returned to the city to start their season three weeks ago while the Fair Grounds Racecourse will be used again from November onwards and will host its traditional Kentucky Derby Trial. But New Orleans' main football team, the Shell Shockers, who play in the US equivalent of the Ryman League, sum up the despondency of other teams. They are playing their home games in Kenner, Louisiana.

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