The familiar beep-beep-beep of heavy equipment provided a fitting soundtrack behind John Brown’s conversation from somewhere on Palmetto Hall’s Arthur Hills course.
“We’re not going to breathe easy until it’s over,” Brown Golf’s chief executive said Wednesday, moments after disclosing that the Hills course will reopen Friday, taking yet another Hilton Head Island layout off the unavailable list.
So much accomplished. So much still to do.
Not quite seven weeks after Hurricane Matthew hammered the Lowcountry, putting all of everyday life on hold far beyond the fairways, golf’s progress report is compellingly positive. Not counting the Hills course, more than 550 holes have been reopened to visitors and locals with a yen to tee it up.
The flip side: That still leaves 135 holes typically available to the public where crews remain at work to get things open. Though most are in the final stages, at least two courses won’t be ready until sometime in 2017.
“Lots of folks are still working at it,” said Cary Corbitt, the Sea Pines Resort executive who also heads up the Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association. “But our restaurants are back in business, our hotels are back in business.
“We’ve got a great message to say out there. We did take a hit, but we’re making a great recovery and have some great products to offer.”
Sea Pines reopened its courses for play two weeks ago and has been strategically replacing certain lost trees at Harbour Town in anticipation of next year’s RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. All public and semi-private courses on the mainland have reopened, some within just a few days of Matthew’s departure.
The Golfweek Amateur Tour Championship made its annual visit last week, bringing more than 650 players to the Lowcountry even after being postponed a month. Competition was scattered among seven courses from Sea Pines to Eagle’s Pointe in Bluffton.
Some of those venues, though, were last-minute replacements for Palmetto Dunes, which remains a week away from opening. Portions of Port Royal and Fripp Island resorts also have dealt with larger-scale damage, and only on Monday did Shipyard get the last of its three nine-hole layouts running.
“It’s definitely tough. We want to be open,” said Brad Marra, general manager at Palmetto Dunes. “But we realize that what we’re doing right now will help us in the future.
“Our November/December customers have been loyal to us for 20 or 25 years. To give them an experience that isn’t up to what they remember from us is not what we want to do. That’s a tough decision, but it’s the right decision.”
Not only did Palmetto Dunes suffer heavier tree damage than many places, Matthew exposed sinkholes on all three of its layouts. So beyond the massive task of debris removal, crews also have had to fill and stabilize those weak spots.
“We had three or four of them,” Marra said, emphasizing that none were larger than the circumference of a golf umbrella. “You can’t drive a car into it, but it wouldn’t be good if anybody walked into one. We’re just doing all we can to make those areas safe.”
All three Palmetto Dunes courses are scheduled for a Dec. 1 reopening.
Port Royal has just nine of its 54 holes available, with Barony’s back nine opening early this month. The Robber’s Row course is still a few weeks away, as resort officials put an early focus on getting the property ready for the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival two weekends ago.
Fripp Island’s Ocean Point course may have taken the heaviest hit — not only tree damage, but a storm surge that left eight holes flooded with seawater and more than half of the scenic 18th hole under 3 feet of sand and needing reconstruction.
“It’s just taking time,” said Char Cormier, Fripp Island’s director of golf. “We had to rebuild the green, at least a third (of it). The bunker was gone; the seawall was gone; the cart path was gone. The road next to it was gone.”
Fripp Island also must replace an entire fleet of golf carts in the flooding. The neighboring Ocean Creek course is open for play, accommodating members and resort guests, but Cormier has had to give up some outside tournaments.
For now, all signs point toward Ocean Point staying closed through year’s end.
“When people ask when we’re going to open, I just say, ‘When we can,’ ” quipped Cormier, who heaped praise on superintendents Kevin Lashley and Jerry Ross for heading up a reconstruction project handled entirely in-house.
Finding capable tree removal companies was seen by many as the biggest hurdle in the cleanup process, with courses not only competing with each other but so many other large-scale projects after Matthew.
“You need buckets, you need climbers, you need a lot of things,” said Brown, whose firm operates eight courses in the area. “You don’t need just a guy with a chainsaw. And not every tree company that converged on our region is honest.”
Brown noted he had to fire one service in a pricing dispute but now is in the process of locking in one tree service to handle work at all his courses — nationwide, emergency and non-emergency.
Likewise, Sea Pines had to part with its original tree company after it was agreed it couldn’t handle that massive a job. They instead lined up Davey Tree, a national company that has worked with several other prominent courses.
Said Corbitt: “I think the number of golf courses we have open is wonderful, especially in a relatively short time.”
That said, the work is far from finished.
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Hilton Head Island
- Palmetto Dunes: All three courses scheduled for a Dec. 1 reopening.
- Palmetto Hall: Hills course set to reopen Friday; Cupp course remains closed until early December.
- Port Royal: Robber’s Row and front nine at Barony are closed until early December; Barony’s back nine is open.
- Ocean Point: Closed until January as rebuilding continues from severe storm surge.