Todd Graffagnini, a digital contributor for the New Orleans Saints, is a walker. You can find Graff pounding the pavement somewhere around this great city almost every day. During this pause in games we've asked the New Orleans native to let fans tag along and learn about the routes he takes and some of the city's sports history.
I love to walk.
We established this point a little over a month ago when this column began.
I also love to play golf. Now what better way to spend a morning than to combine the two. Walking 18 holes is how golf is meant to be played. Now obviously it's not a feasible thing for everyone. If you are able though, give it a try. I think you'll find that it's a pretty rewarding experience. Just you, the course, the ball, and your thoughts. You might find yourself even playing better because it's easier to concentrate on the task at hand. Thankfully during the pandemic, golf courses for the most part have remained open in this area. So it's time to head out to your course of choice and tee it up.
For this walking round, I decided to head to Avondale and the home of the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic, TPC Louisiana. Hard to believe it, but the layout from legendary course architect Pete Dye is 16 years old, though it's never been in better shape. We'll get to some of the changes in a bit, but let's start the round.
The front nine is pretty straightforward. Playing from the blue tees brings its own challenges, but nothing where you would consider the course incredibly difficult. On the contrary, it is a very fair test of golf, despite it being a tour event host. The key of course is to keep the ball in the fairway and avoid the trouble that bounds the fairways, specifically tree lines. Playing with my buddy Jeffery Carreras (who rode a cart this day due to foot issues) we teed off at 9:20 a.m. without much wind and manageable temperatures for early May. As I headed down the first fairway with my push cart, I thought to myself how beautiful this place was, the true marriage of south Louisiana nature and sport.
Our host today is Luke Farabaugh, the general manager of TPC Louisiana. Unfortunately due to the health crisis, their showcase, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, scheduled for April 20-26, was cancelled. Tough news for a club and course that was prepared to unveil a new look for the professionals.
He explained what the real pros were in store for and what us amateurs now get to enjoy on a daily basis.
"We closed for six months (for re-grassing) basically the day after the Tour event (in 2019), planned to re-open Nov. 1 and basically everything went as planned, close to budget, a little under budget The re-grassing process was essentially removing all the previous turf from fairways, around green complexes and the greens themselves, and then all the pot bunkers as well were also renovated. Old drains removed, new drains added, and new sand added.
"The greens went from MiniVerde to TifEagle greens, and the fairways went from TifSport to Celebration, a more aggressive turf grass, so there's a lot of positive performance as a result of that. The course is obviously in great shape and has been since we re-opened in November, so it is a little disappointing that we weren't able to host the Tour event this year. The weather was supportive as well, it would have been an amazing Zurich Classic for us."
Back to the round, if you can call it that at this point. I'm just kind of hitting it around with something desperately needed to jump-start this thing. Jeff is definitely outplaying me. I've already carded FOUR (yikes) double bogeys. Then on the short 312-yard par-four eighth hole, I got what I needed. This hole yields many options off the tee. I played it conservatively with a three wood. Hit the fairway leaving me with 103 yards to the pin. A wedge (my best of the day) to seven feet. The putt rolled straight and true and IN!! Birdie!! My spirits immediately rose only to have them sink again as my tee shot on the challenging par three 9th hole was one foot away from being spectacular, only to find the top of the 10-foot high grass wall bordering the left side of the green and into the lake below. Ugh. Maybe I can get more consistent on the back nine.
As I make the walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee (the longest walk on the course between holes) I realize that this is a very manageable walking course, Farabaugh said that on some Saturdays as many as 40 people will walk the TPC Louisiana. He also explained how all precautions have been taken to ensure guest safety.
"When COVID-19 was starting to get more prevalent in the area we changed the way we operated," Farabaugh said. "The biggest changes are allowing individuals to take their own golf carts. We've pretty much eliminated the direct interaction between a guest and an employee as well. The golf shop is closed, the grille is closed, everything is a to-go order, and we also have check in from the side, an old midway grille that we converted into like an auxiliary golf shop. We are trying to create that type positive experience where the customer felt they weren't going to be potentially infected by this disease if it was anywhere.
"We removed all furniture on site and everything that is still available is disinfected and sanitized multiple times a day. So while we are normally closed during the Zurich Classic, we were able to go off the cart path, normally cart path restricted leading up to the event, so we were open for two weeks. So our members and locals that are playing golf, and there are many of those, without question got the benefit of not having the Tour event being played and obviously the course is in great shape."
I agree with that assessment and as we make the head for home, I'm definitely playing much better than the front nine. I wind up parring three of the last six holes including 17 and 18. Hit a solid 6-iron to the green at the par three 17th and played the par-five 18th exactly as you should. Hit my approach 9-iron from 127 yards to about 10 feet. I'll show you the results of that putt with pictures. Sigh. Regardless, a good way to end the day, and even better was playing 18 holes in a smooth 3 hours and 20 minutes. Despite the 18th not lined down the fairway with the Champions Club and the huge grandstands behind the green, you walk off 18 with the feel of a professional golfer (just not the score) on a big-time course. It's that experience, Farabaugh said, that keeps golfers coming back.
"I would say not only because of our staffing and how committed we are to the golf course, it's going to be the best golf course experience they're going to have in the local market without question," Farabaugh said. "The golf course is going to be top-notch. Our staff is really committed and bought into what we're all about and that's producing a PGA Tour experience, not only for the Zurich Classic but 365 days a year."
So concludes another edition of Walks with Graff. As always, hope everyone out there is staying safe. Take care of yourselves and each other and get in a walk. Even if it happens to be on your favorite golf course.