James Leitz played his second round of golf at City Park in 1973 when he was 13 years old.
His mom drove him that day from their house in Kenner to play the nine-hole junior course that was on site then — part of an 81-hole golfing complex that, to an eager and talented golfer such as Leitz, was like “heaven on earth.”
Not far from where he played that day was the same tee box where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and other greats teed off in the New Orleans Open. And every day was flush with activity — caddies grabbing bags, sun-burnished pros teaching lessons, gamblers and gawkers hanging around watching players drive balls down distant fairways.
Leitz wanted a piece of the action, and so he returned to City Park often — even when his family moved to the north shore a few months later. He was a force for some of the first golf teams at Slidell High, and he starred in several regional tournaments at the park. And even when he became a PGA professional a few years later, he often had City Park golf courses in his mind.
“Honestly, we all dreamed as kids what kind of golf course we could build on a piece of property like that,” said Leitz, now the head pro at Covington’s Tchefuncte Country Club. “The types of trees we have in Louisiana. And the lagoons. ... There were so many possibilities.”
Leitz will return to City Park on Friday for the grand opening of the Bayou Oaks at City Park Golf Course — a new imagining of the former City Park West and East courses, which were closed since Hurricane Katrina submerged large swaths of New Orleans nearly 12 years ago.
The new 18-hole, par-72 course was designed by famed golf architect Rees Jones, who has built more than 170 courses around the world; among them, 23 tracks that have hosted major championships and Ryder Cup tournaments.
The $26 million Bayou Oaks course was paid for with about $9.9 million from the state, $7.1 million from FEMA and $8.9 million from the Bayou District Foundation (a locally based non-profit that helped raise money to finance the course, its clubhouse, maintenance facilities and more).
Bayou Oaks is one of the most-anticipated course arrivals of the year, according to at least one national golf publication, and it’s the first course to open in the greater New Orleans area since the TPC of Louisiana opened on the West Bank in 2004.
“I can’t wait to see what it looks like,” Leitz said. “Everyone in golf is excited about it. Katrina was a death knell for golf there, even though the North Course reopened (in 2008). This is going to be a first-class facility that can only enhance public golf in the metro area.”
That’s exactly what Bayou Oaks and New Orleans City Park officials are expecting from the course, which will play anywhere from about 5,000 yards to more than 7,300 yards, depending upon the tees.
After its first three years, Bayou Oaks is expected to bring in about $5 million in revenue annually, though much of that total will go toward course maintenance. Another $800,000 will go to City Park for other purposes, while the Bayou District Foundation is expected to get several hundred thousand dollars.
A good portion of play is expected to come from corporate activity and tourists. A round of golf from Friday’s opening through June 4 will cost $89 on weekdays and $99 on weekends, which Bayou Oaks PGA Professional Alex Abruzza said is in line with other top-flight municipal courses nationally.
That price will come down in the summer, he anticipates, but if some consider that price high, that has done little to deter early interest. As of Monday, Bayou Oaks is booked solid Friday and was close to capacity Saturday and Sunday.
Like Leitz, Abruzza comes from a public golfing background — he grew up on a 36-hole pubic golf complex in the Seattle area — and he said it’s imperative that Bayou Oaks be accessible to every level of golfer in town. To that end, Abruzza said Bayou Oaks has partnered with the PGA to host the “Play 9” program this summer, which will introduce newcomers to the game with a shorter nine-hole outing rather than a full round of 18.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to commit to a full 18, which can take four, four and half hours to play," he said. “So we’ll be hosting some Play 9 events as a way to get people interested in the game. Maybe you’re too anxious to come out at 10 a.m. on a Saturday and tee off in front of a bunch of people. But maybe not so much on a Wednesday evening with just your friends.”
Bayou Oaks’ multiple tee placements also make the course challenging but manageable for all golfers. Abruzza cited Hole No. 2, which at 219 yards requires a lengthy carry over water and sand from one pin. From another, though, the green is reachable by a simple bump-and-run to an easy approach area.
“This course is designed with every golfer in mind,” Abruzza said. “Rees Jones just did a phenomenal job laying it out.”
Abruzza knows success at Bayou Oaks hinges in part upon accessibility to the public golfer. He’s learned the history of golf at New Orleans City Park, which goes back more than a century, and realizes that reaching out to potential golfers (and youth golfers especially) will be an important part of his job.
“City Park was the center of junior golf in the city for years,” he said. “We’re hoping to make it that way again. We may not be able to jump right in because there are so many fine points to getting a course up and running. But by next year, I’m hoping we can be that kind of hub of junior golf, with summer camps and things like that. We have that capacity.”
That’s music to the ears of Jimmy Headrick, director of the U.S. Kids Golf Gulf Coast Tour, which is producing some of the finest youth golfers.
“We’re hoping to gain golfers, and a course like City Park has a chance to be the flagship of the sport in our city,” Headrick said. “People need access to public golf — the youth golfer, the beginning golfer, the everyday golfer.”
Bayou Oaks joins the operational City Park North Course to give the facility 36 holes of play space. The par-68 North Course costs $25 (without cart) to play on weekdays and $28 on weekends. Combined, Abruzza is hoping the public finds exactly what it seeks.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make this the best golfing experience you can find,” he said.