On Thursday morning, the annual Zurich Classic of New Orleans tees off at TPC of Louisiana in Avondale, bringing together many of the world’s top golfers, including defending champion Seung-Yul Noh, in pursuit of $6.9 million in prize money.
Meantime, construction continues on a new $25 million golf facility among the majestic oaks in historic City Park, another reminder that progress is being made in metro New Orleans nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina left the 1,300-acre property battered and left for dead.
And while golf, private and public officials are reluctant to acknowledge the elephant in the room, it seems inevitable that the annual New Orleans stop on the PGA Tour one day will complete the circle and return to City Park where it originated in 1938.
It’s a matter of when, not if; most likely at the end of this decade when the agreement between Zurich officials and TPC of Louisiana expires after the 2019 tournament.
Until then, once open for business to the public in February 2017, the new City Park golf facility plans to pursue championship competition at every level, from First Tee to high school to collegiate and professional events.
In fact, one national tournament had to be waylaid some four years ago. An agreement apparently was in place for the new City Park golf facility to host the 2011 PGA of America National Club Championship, an agreement that was contingent on a new championship Rees Jones-designed course being up and running in advance of the tournament.
No course, no tournament, no problem.
“With five tees on every hole, we are building this course to host every level of competition,’’ said Mike Rodrigue, a founding member of the Bayou District Foundation, which has been the driving force behind the golf facility. “To have a course of this caliber basically in the middle of the city, it just doesn’t happen. We already are a destination city, but to have championship golf three miles from the CBD, with plenty of hotel rooms nearby and a street car as a mode of transportation, it just doesn’t happen.
“The fact that we have the beautiful specimens of plantation oaks like nowhere in the world, that is our sacred cow. It gives us a unique look. The commerce possibilities are endless. We’re so excited.’’
Realistically, championship golf may not be played at the new City Park facility until the course matures and tweaks can be made, perhaps not until 2018 or 2019. By that won’t prevent facility officials from going after potential events long before.
“There’s no real active push right now to bring any events there at this point because they’re just breaking ground,’’ said Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. “But anytime you add a world class facility to your city, it opens up the ability to bring more events to the area. We’ll be working closely with the Bayou District Foundation to see what the possibilities are. NCAA events are certainly one possibility.’’
The Champions Tour and LPGA Tour are other potential business opportunities, Rodrigue said.
“The Fore!Kids Foundation (which oversees the production of the Zurich Classic) would be more involved in those events because (the members) know the market based on their professional golf background,’’ Rodrigue said. “It comes down to finding a title sponsor, and we’d have to be sensitive to other pro tour events being played in Lafayette (web.com Tour); Hattiesburg, Mississippi, (PGA Tour): Biloxi (Champions Tour) and Prattville, Alabama, (LPGA Tour).
“But our city could host a senior event (Champions Tour) and a PGA Tour event in the same year. It’s done elsewhere, and we could do it. I don’t know if New Orleans would go for a web.com event.’’
For this week, the golf world will be focused on the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. One thing is certain: The tournament will be played at the 7,399-yard Pete Dye layout in Avondale through 2019 until further notice.
“We see anything that promotes golf in our city as a positive,’’ said Steve Worthy, chief executive officer of the Fore!Kids Foundation. “Increased awareness of golf at every level helps in our ability to raise funds for children’s charities in our area. What is good for golf in New Orleans is good for the Fore!Kids Foundation and the Zurich Classic.
“We hope, in fact, that City Park’s new course will attract championship events at all levels of amateur and professional golf. That would not only be good for golf but generate additional economic impact for the greater New Orleans community.’’
Worthy added: “Zurich Insurance is extremely pleased with the facility and its ability to host our tournament each year. Staging a PGA Tour event is an extremely complex process that only a very few facilities can accommodate. We are extremely fortunate to have such a venue in TPC Louisiana.’’