BOB WEST ON GOLF: Upgrades at Zaharias bringing golfers back

Published 2:20 pm Tuesday, June 6, 2017

George Brown’s decision to sell Bayou Din Golf Club late in 2016 has turned into the catalyst for Port Arthur’s Babe Zaharias Memorial Golf Course getting a makeover that has triggered significantly increased play and considerably less grumbling.

Although the transformation remains a work in progress, most regulars have seen enough to be convinced Brown is dedicated to turning The Babe into something that would no longer embarrass its legendary namesake. For starters, greens that were once a bumpy eyesore are amazingly well grassed and smooth.

Nearly everywhere you look, in fact, evidence of a culture change is present.

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A fleet of 60 new golf carts appeared shortly after the first of the year. Marshals were hired to patrol the course, with a mandate to enforce a 90-degree rule and keep players on cart paths around the tee boxes and greens.

The work force doubled in size. Extra equipment, including a greens roller and a spray rig for chemicals, was made available. A consultant with a proven track record was hired to provide guidance on upgrading the greens. Even the golf shop has taken on a brighter, more comfortable and outgoing feel.

There is plenty of credit to go around, starting with former head pro Ed Campbell, his replacement, Mitch Duncan, course superintendent Darrell Reaves and his hard-working staff and the City of Port Arthur. Without Brown’s financial commitment, however, it would not be happening.

The president of Aquila Golf not only has put his money up, he’s been hands on with what has become sort of a pet project. He’s at the course several days a week, showing a keen interest in the changes being made and soaking up feedback from what were once harsh critics.

Meanwhile, Campbell is at least partially responsible for what is taking place.

After working with Brown and his father for over 40 years, his suggestions seem to carry more weight than ever. Now semi-retired but still a regular presence at The Babe, Campbell strongly encouraged many of the steps that are being executed.

“It has been rewarding for me to see what is taking place,” says Campbell. “The golf course is 100 percent better and is going to keep getting better. I can’t say enough about the way George has gotten on board. He has taken so much more interest than he did in the past.

“Once he sold Bayou Din, he wanted the lease at The Babe more than ever. I am just tickled to death with what I am seeing. I am so happy that our golfers have a better place to play. It’s been a pleasure to see the pride George is taking in this. It clearly means a lot to him.”

Brown, who for whatever reasons was not able to provide enough resources for Zaharias to keep from getting rundown in the past, leaves no doubt what his priorities for it are these days.

“It is a matter of pride for me,” he said. “I wanted to prove we could turn The Babe around. We have opened up the pocket book. I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel to be out there and hear the positive thoughts coming from the golfers.

“I have to give big-picture credit to Ed for his suggestions and for going out and finding consultants on agronomy. And I am so pleased with Mitch and Darrell Reaves. They are so dedicated. Everybody is taking pride in what we are going. It is also gratifying to see the city being so receptive and getting involved.

What has surprised Brown the most is how quickly the greens have gone from among the worst in the area to something he can brag about.

“I couldn’t have imagined turning the greens around as fast as we have,” he said. Obviously, we hired a great consultant and Darrell and his staff have done a terrific job following his suggestions.”

As for Duncan, he seems to have been the right guy at the right time to step in and get things moving. A teaching pro with a growing reputation, who is still learning things about overseeing a golf operation from Campbell, he is quietly putting his stamp on the day-to-day workings at Zaharias.

“I am just super proud to be a part of what we have been able to get accomplished in the past five months,” he said. “It is more than I expected. I am like everybody else in that I didn’t think the greens would come around this fast. The process we are doing with the consultant is really working.

“I’m extremely happy with George’s commitment. When we first sat down, I told him the tools I needed and he’s been 100 percent. Ed, for sure, has been a big help to me. When he speaks it carries a lot of weight. Darrell is the engine who is implementing. He and his guys take so much pride in what they are doing.”

As was suggested early on, what has transpired with the greens is just one step in a process to restore Zaharias. Improving the tee boxes is next, and that project is underway with extensive watering and top dressing to make them more level.

After the tee boxes comes a challenge every bit as imposing as the greens – growing grass on long barren fairways. Duncan says the timeline on that one is somewhat longer, but he’s hopeful it can be completed by the end of the year.

“We’ve talked with consultants and a rep from a chemical company,” he said. “We don’t have the best soil on our fairways. But we are told that with plenty of watering, fertilizer and spraying there is no reason we can’t grow grass. It will happen.”

Helping things along, hopefully, will be increased input from the City of Port Arthur. Assurances have been made of repairing an irrigation system with too many leaks. That alone would be a vital contribution because of how much Aquila staff manpower has been drained in dealing with the leaks.

The city has already contributed to the culture change by cleaning and repainting the clubhouse. Also on its to-do list is work on the cart barn and fixing deteriorating bridges on No. 1 and No. 9.

“I am encouraged by the city’s interest,” said Duncan. “The city manager seems to be behind us. They have created a golf committee. I think there is an appreciation of what a nice golf course can mean. This, after all, is the largest park in the city.”

One of the many benefits to the city could be financial. In its contract with Aquila is a clause that, after a certain number of rounds have been played in a given year, the city gets a percentage of the fees from additional rounds played.

“To my knowledge, there has never been enough play for that clause to kick in,” Duncan said. “It could happen this year. I have gone back over several years and our rounds played are way up. As long as we don’t have weather-related problems, I believe that number will keep rising.

“We are getting great word of mouth on our greens and that is bringing additional golfers to check them out. Plus, we are getting extra play because the course drains faster and we are back off cart paths quicker after heavy rains than anywhere else.”

All in all, a lot of arrows are pointing upward at Babe Zaharias. That much is certainly owed to the legend whose coattails are being ridden.