NEW ORLEANS -- Springtime is "festing" season in New Orleans. That is, according to the collection of graphic tank tops on display in the French Quarter promoting this hot new verb.
From Mardi Gras in February to Jazz Fest in late-April, the party doesn't seem to take a day off. Temperatures are ideal for strolling the leafy streets in full bloom from Uptown to the French Quarter.
More golfers may soon be parading thru the streets of NOLA just in time for the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana. The South Course at Bayou Oaks at City Park is, officially, finally opening (April 21).
This new 7,302-yard Rees Jones design 10 minutes from the French Quarter elevates NOLA's standing among the south's best buddies trip destinations. NOLA is a place that is often overshadowed as a golf destination; the city is almost too fun to leave for five hours. But it's also likely a result of the fact there's no true golf resort or great multi-course options here. Trips become more a la carte in nature rather than a one-click golf package.
But with Bayou Oaks, golfers have three top-level destination courses to play, plus one of the world's great short course jewels in any urban core. What NOLA might lack in definitive bucket-list golf course architecture, it more than makes up for it as the country's figurative "Pebble Beach" of hospitality, dining and nightlife. No city in the south has more layers to explore.
On my most recent trip, I finally pried myself away from the city attractions to explore the area's top public golf courses. I can't speak much to the casinos or late-night Bourbon St. scene these days (with my wife and baby along for this trip), but between rounds we explored NOLA's marvelous architecture along St. Charles and Esplanade avenues, treasured parks and excellent cuisine.
Each time I leave New Orleans, I wonder what else I'm missing. Fortunately, the handful of must-play courses is pretty easy to sort out.
Staff at TPC Louisiana are particularly excited for this year's Zurich Classic as the new team format has strengthened the field to the point where now seven of the top ten players in the world are scheduled to compete. Pete Dye designed this tournament venue in 2004, and while the original site plan had a housing component, it never materialized, due in large part to the contraction of the area population after Hurricane Katrina. Instead, it's remained a round that drifts through dense native areas and is played in pure solitude. TPC and Audubon Park are the only two Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary courses in New Orleans, and in 2016 TPC also won its GCSAA chapter's ELGA award for environmental leadership.
Dye's greens are small at TPC and shot-makers will enjoy the subtle shaping of the holes here. Often times, if a draw fits a tee shot best, a fade is preferred on approach. There are two short par 4s where you can go for broke, and the 18th is a risk-reward par 5. After piping my drive down the middle, I took dead aim at the green...but the ball drifted right and into Tripod's watery lair. The resident three-legged alligator Alpha, who meanders between the ponds on 17 and 18, was taking the morning off during my round, but he's had a habit of being camera-ready by the weekend of the Zurich.
To reach English Turn from the French Quarter, you head over both the Mississippi River and Intracoastal Waterway to the "West Bank," which sets the mood for a decidedly water-heavy layout. I spent the day on the course playing a match with new Golf Course Superintendent Jonathan Juhas, who has the greens as pure as anywhere in town, and I rolled in the most putts of the trip here.
"That's what's great about playing a match with the superintendent," he said. "They want you to make the putt."
The routing at this former Zurich Classic host is a clever one: a lagoon encircles the course, and all the residences sit on the other side of the water. That means the lagoon is in play on virtually every hole. This is a 1980s-era Jack Nicklaus design, so expect smallish greens, and generally speaking, if you're playing away from water, you're likely aiming instead towards bunkers. The long, par-4 finishing hole was always considered one of the toughest par 4s on the PGA Tour, but the true climax is the 15th hole: a par-5 with an island green and certainly a leading candidate for the destination's signature hole. (And like TPC's 18th, my aggressive approach submerged.)
The 43,000-square-foot clubhouse has an equally massive locker room that could still host a full-field event and then some. The lounge has a fabulous lunch menu after golf. The waiter recommended the reuben, but I've yet to eat a decent Po-boy at home in Austin, so I waved him off and went with the shrimp po-boy.
After a morning spent at TPC, I headed back into the city to visit the place I was most excited to see on my trip.
What really makes New Orleans a special golf town isn't the PGA Tour venues, but rather a little city haunt that dates back to 1898: Audubon Park Golf Course, set on the northern side of this 350-acre park, gloriously appointed with live oaks and lagoons. The park plan was laid out by John Charles Olmsted, son of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed not only Central Park in New York City but also the Village of Pinehurst.
The golf course, rebuilt in 2001, is a joyful -- but by no means easy -- par 62. It's well conditioned and avid golfers will love every shot. Greens are small (besides the double-green shared by No. 1 and 16), often gently elevated and well-protected by bunkers and run-offs.
The golf teams for nearby Loyola University have Audubon among the rotation of area courses they play. "I love for them to play out here," said Allan Martel, an Assistant Professional at the course who is also an assistant coach for the Loyola golf teams. "There's no better place to work on your iron game."
Maybe it's because of the magnificent old homes that border the park's perimeter, or the charming clubhouse lying beneath towering oaks, but staff say they are constantly asked by newcomers if the golf course is private.
Not so. It's just a finely executed and affordable oasis that feels too good to be true to be in the heart of any big city.
Stay and play in New Orleans
For our visit, we stayed in the French Quarter at the Maison Dupuy hotel on Rue Toluouse. It's a great location, a matter of blocks from the I-10 onramp to the West Bank, which is useful for catching morning tee times. The poolside cabanas in the courtyard, one of the French Quarter's largest, is a wonderful spot for post-golf relaxation or to shake off a late night out. The restaurant, Bistreaux, has a full breakfast menu with heaping portions, plus bargain cocktails and half off wine at happy hour. Two blocks from Bourbon St., the hotel is energetic at night, but is located just far enough away to be a respite from the madness.
New Orleans restaurants
Fun creole dives and finer dining co-exists wonderfully throughout town. A favorite in the French Quarter on this trip was Brennan's, which served excellent barbecue lobster claws, redfish and cocktails in a classy outdoor courtyard...For Po-Boys near City Park, visit the historic Parkway Bakery & Tavern, which has served them since they were invented nearby in 1929 to feed striking railroad workers...Between rounds on a 36-hole day, we fueled up at Camellia Grill, a legendary diner at the corner of St. Charles and S. Carrolton Ave. A juicy burger with a runny fried egg on top was followed by an obligatory fist-bump to the waitstaff (which has been a tradition here for a long while now)....I can't eat enough etouffee or gumbo, and the courtyard at Oceana Grill, with crab cakes and crawfish etouffee dishes, made for a mood-setting dinner on arrival. For a creole and jambalaya dive, Coop's Place is worth the wait...For our final meal, we went out in style at Atchafalaya, a cozy, "slightly sophisticated" restaurant with a wonderfully warm waitstaff in the Garden District that serves southern-inspired seafood dishes. Oak St. has a handful of notable restaurants in between Audubon Park and private clubs Metairie and New Orleans C.C.. DTB serves up southern cooking in a modern setting, while a couple blocks away, Jacques Imo's is a dive with seriously good cajun fare serving everything from duck to rabbit to shrimp dishes.
More golf around NOLA and Louisiana
There has been some contraction of the golf scene in the past year in Louisiana and around the city. La Tour, a course that's struggled to find its footing as a private or premium public course, closed this winter. Also, Bayou Brierre Golf Course, a 27-hole bargain course, closed in January.
The remaining courses that are open are generally very affordable. Among the best, on the West Bank (east of New Orleans, but on the west bank of the Mississippi) near English Turn, Lakewood Golf Club dates back to 1961 but was updated in 2009 by Ron Garl, and is a notch below English Turn as a semi-private option.
Also on the West Bank, Stonebridge Golf & Country Club features an 18-hole championship course and 9-hole executive course. Reviewer SlowHandPoet calls it a "top three value for the money" in New Orleans. The North Course at Bayou Oaks has emerged from of some conditioning woes to their greens a couple years ago and now in better shape. It's longer than Audubon Park, but just a casual and in some ways a little easier around the greens. In La Place, Belle Terre Country Club made the best-of Louisiana rankings in 2015 and 2016.
For those driving to NOLA, consider Louisiana's Audubon Golf Trail, which has a collection of 19 courses throughout the state, many of which are located juts off main arteries like I-10 and (the far more pleasant) I-90. I stopped off at The Atchafalaya at Idlewild for a quick round, and enjoyed the courses's great clubhouse and amenities for a value green fee.