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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Golf storms back

Last fall, Hurricane Fabian tore through Bermuda, levelling homes, ravaging beaches and walloping the island's famous golf courses. Six months later, this British colony is on the road to recovery and its landmark greens, which showcase the country's lush terrain and surging turquoise sea, are back on track
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
BRIAN KENDALL

HAMILTON, BERMUDA -- 'Today, it's hard to tell a major hurricane ever hit us," says Kevin Benevides, the head pro at Bermuda's Tucker's Point Golf Club, surveying his course's pristine fairways. "But few people living here had experienced anything as destructive and frightening as Hurricane Fabian."

For 12 relentless hours last Sept. 5, Fabian's 190-kilometre-an-hour winds ripped the roofs off Bermuda's hotels, levelled oceanfront restaurants and beach houses, ravaged its pink sand beaches, and left the island's famous golf courses littered like battlefields with decapitated and uprooted palm trees and other debris. The Category 3 hurricane was the worst storm to hit the island in 50 years.

Fans of Bermuda golf reading the news reports feared for the safety of local playing partners and fretted about the damage done to Tucker's Point and other landmark courses such as Mid Ocean, Port Royal, Riddell's Bay and Belmont Hills.

None of Bermuda's eight golf courses was left unscathed. Fences and equipment sheds lay tumbled like match sticks. The abundant flowers, ferns and other foliage adorning the layouts of the subtropical island 1,000 kilometres east of the Carolina coast were withered and brown, burned by the saltwater deposited in torrents during the storm. Hundreds of casuarina trees, with their shallow roots, lay stripped and lifeless on their sides. Bunkers were swept clean of sand.

Fabian killed four people and caused an estimated $160-million (all amounts in U.S. dollars) in damage. In the days after the storm, Bermudians worked frantically to reopen the airport, as well as hotels, restaurants, golf courses and other tourist attractions of a holiday destination that attracts 500,000 visitors a year and where 50 cents of every dollar earned comes from tourism.

"We achieved a small miracle during the cleanup," says David Dumont, a spokesman for the Bermuda Department of Tourism. "People were out in the streets wielding chain saws and machetes, helping out government workers. We had the airport operational within three days. Unbelievably, considering the damage, about 60 per cent of our hotel rooms managed to stay open. And most of our golf courses were back in business within two weeks."

Despite their losses, Bermuda tourist operators felt fortunate that Fabian hit in September and not earlier in a high season that runs from April through October -- although many Canadians visit during the more temperate winter months, when daytime highs average just below 20 degrees.

Six months after the storm, Bermuda is still recovering but remains just as welcoming and lovely as ever. Sailboats and luxury yachts dot the harbour at Hamilton, the bustling capital, where mopeds outnumber automobiles. Handsome houses topped by stepped roofs to collect rainwater are painted in a palette of pastel colours. Oleander, frangipani, bougainvillea and hibiscus scent the warm breezes of the Gulf Stream.

Blessed by nature and relatively free of crime and pollution, Britain's oldest self-governing colony has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most beautiful and civilized places on Earth. As the ailing Mark Twain, a frequent visitor to Bermuda, famously wrote to a friend, "You go to heaven if you want to -- I'd druther stay here."

Bermuda, just 54 square kilometres in size, is remarkably rich in world-class golf courses. The sport has been a major tourist draw since 1922, when Riddell's Bay Golf and Country Club opened on a narrow peninsula thrusting into the Great Sound, where giant cruise ships glide and lost golf balls outnumber the fish. Though short at 5,713 yards, the course's tight fairways and small greens offer ample challenge, especially when gale force winds blow in. During the hurricane, swirling tornados and three-metre waves washed dozens of boats onto the surrounding shores.

About 15 kilometres north at the Mid Ocean Club, a superb course that has symbolized Bermuda golf since its opening in 1924, the only visible reminders of Fabian's wrath are a handful of dead trees, topped and awaiting removal.

Mid Ocean is where Bermuda's elite take their divots. Billionaires Ross Perot and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg own houses in the rolling hills overlooking the golf course. Another member, actor Michael Douglas, who co-owns the Ariel Sands beach resort, became a local hero in the days after the hurricane by using his private jet to deliver chain saws and generators, then staying for a week to help in the cleanup. Designed by Charles Blair Macdonald and remodelled with restraint and good judgment by the great Robert Trent Jones in 1953, Mid Ocean offers risk-and-reward golf at its best as it winds 6,520 yards through rolling inland countryside before ending dramatically with a par four that skirts the bluffs overlooking the sea.

At the memorably daunting 433-yard par-four fifth, where the fairway bends around a lake that is widest on the direct line to the green, Babe Ruth once stubbornly put a dozen balls in the water before finally hitting a home run.

Mid Ocean has reigned supreme in Bermuda for 80 years. But a total redesign of nearby Tucker's Point Golf Club (formerly the Castle Harbour Golf Club) by architect Roger Rulewich, who apprenticed under Trent Jones, has made it the equal in challenge and beauty of its better-known neighbour. "Five of the holes are completely new," says head pro Benevides, describing the changes made over the past few years to the 6,361-yard course.

"We also flattened landing areas, doubled the number of bunkers, built 10 new tees and recontoured all 18 greens. And many of the blind shots that characterized the old design have been eliminated."

The centrepiece of a posh, new resort community where waterfront homes sell from $4-million, Tucker's Point even features a new hybrid Bermuda grass, TifEagle, which Rulewich had air-freighted in sprig form from Georgia because the old turf lacked the consistency in green speed and colour he demanded. Heavy rain in the days after Hurricane Fabian washed most of the salt from Bermuda's fairways and greens.

Helping nature's progress at the remodelled Belmont Hills Golf Club was a costly new irrigation system, an innovation on an island where most courses still trust their good health to the almost always generous and evenly distributed annual rainfall. Heavily bunkered, with multilevelled greens and slender fairways, Belmont Hills provides yet another stiff test for golfers. And like every other course on the island, the 6,017-yard design by California architect Algie Pulley is ideally situated, offering panoramic vistas of the Great Sound and Hamilton Harbour.

Possibly even more stunning are the hilltop ocean views at the excellent par-three layout on the grounds of Bermuda's largest hotel, the 593-room Fairmont Southampton Princess, which won't reopen from storm damage until April, although the course is still in play.

Found smack in the island's verdant heart is the Ocean View Golf Course, a fully mature 2,940-yard nine-hole design owned by the Bermuda government.

A second government layout, the par 62, 4,043-yard St. George's Golf Course, sits oceanside at Bermuda's northern tip, within walking distance of the charming colonial town of St. George's, a designated World Heritage Site. Robert Trent Jones designed St. George's, as well as the south shore's Port Royal Golf Course, a 6,561-yard championship layout that ranks alongside Mid Ocean and Tucker's Point in the top tier of Bermuda courses.

Trent Jones, arguably the greatest of all course architects, took full advantage of the terrain by skillfully winding several of his fairways along oceanside cliffs. Even many of the inland holes at the par-71 government-owned layout feature elevated greens and tees to better showcase the scenery. Port Royal also boasts one of the world's most photographed holes, the unforgettable 16th, a gorgeous wind-blown par three perched on a craggy cliff high above the surging turquoise sea. Like all of the island's courses, Port Royal took a severe beating during Hurricane Fabian. But its famous signature hole emerged from the fury with barely a scratch, a seeming miracle that prompted grateful sighs of relief from fans of Bermuda golf everywhere.

Brian Kendall is the author of Northern Links: Canada From Tee to Tee.

If you go

GETTING THERE
Air Canada offers daily, direct fights from Toronto to Bermuda's international airport.

COURSES
All prices for green fees are in U.S. dollars, which trade on par with Bermudian dollars.

Riddell's Bay Golf and Country Club: http://www.riddellsbay.com; (441) 238-1060; green fee: $110.

Mid Ocean Club: (441) 293-0330; themidoceanclubbermuda.com; green fee: $200.

Tucker's Point Golf Club: (441) 298-6915; green fee: $212.

Belmont Hills Golf Club: (441) 236-6400; http://www.belmonthills.com; green fee: $75 weekdays, $95 weekends.

Fairmont Southampton Princess Golf Club: (441) 239-6952; http://www.fairmont.com; green fee: $66.

Ocean View Golf Course: (441) 295-9093; green fee: $58 (18 holes).

St. George's Golf Course: (441) 297-8353; green fee: $60.

Port Royal Golf Course: (441) 234-0974; green fee: $130.

Mid Ocean, Riddell's and Tucker's Point are all private clubs. However, concierges at most hotels can reserve advance tee times for guests. Bermuda also allows bookings up to 60 days in advance at Belmont Hills, the Fairmont and the island's three government courses: Port Royal, St. George's and Ocean View. Visit http://www.bermudatourism.com for more information. Bermuda's three government courses also share an automated reservation system; (441) 234-GOLF.

WHERE TO STAY
The Reefs: (441) 238-0222; http://www.thereefs.com. A small, luxury hotel. Cambridge Beaches: http://www.cambridgebeaches.com. A high-end colony of cottages.

Elbow Beach: (441) 236-3535; http://www.elbowbeach.com. A high-end, sprawling hotel. MORE INFORMATION
Bermuda Department of Tourism: http://www.bermudatourism.com; 416- 923-9600.

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