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Southwest Florida golf courses slowly recovering from Charley's wrath

Don and Joyce Molloy, members of Kingsway Country Club in Port Charlotte, Fla., were vacationing in the Rocky Mountains when they heard the news that Hurricane Charley had slammed into Florida's southwest coast, packing winds as high as 145 mph.

Four days of driving later, they arrived at the course and were horrified by what they saw.

"It made me almost physically ill," Don Molloy said. "I really identify with this property. To me, this is a tragedy."

The 6,700-yard private course, carved through a forest of oaks and pines in 1977, lays decimated - forever transformed by Charley's brute force. Jimmy Kerr, a Kingswood assistant pro, said Charlie destroyed between 7,000 and 8,000 trees on the layout. And it also left the course without a clubhouse. The elegant orange and white building is now surrounded by its own rubble, its roof destroyed in the storm.

Across the southwest Florida counties of Charlotte, Lee and Collier, where more than 160 golf courses dot the landscape, golf course staff members awoke to the same harsh reality early Aug. 14. At Port Charlotte Golf Club, a large pine had fallen into the clubhouse, destroying its veranda. In addition, the 6,840-yard semi-private course lost an estimated 3,500 trees, said Dave Keith, a pro shop staffer.

"They're saying we might be open in two months," Keith said. "I am sad because I love it here and we always have a good time. But the course will probably be lot easier to play now."

At The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club on Sanibel Island, the damage was less acute but still telling a week after Charley made landfall. Large oaks with massive roots lay flat on the ground in the middle of the 5,500-yard Mark McCumber design's fairways. Meanwhile, a sign posted on the clubhouse door before the storm hit served as a poignant statement of the now dashed hopes of The Dunes players and staff members.

"The Dunes will be closed all day Thursday and Friday," it read. "Weather permitting, The Dunes will reopen for business on Saturday."

But six days later, there was no sign the course would be open soon.

The news was not as bad at Burnt Store Marina & Country Club, a 27-hole executive course straddling the Lee-Charlotte county line.

As the storm rolled through, Burnt Store head professional Andrea Knox sat in her home just off the course listening to shingles peeling off roofs and trees crashing to the ground. She also worried about a potential storm surge that would have flooded the course, she said. Burnt Store sits just down the road from the intercoastal waterway.

But when Knox toured the course later that night, she was happy to see that the Charley had left the course at least somewhat in tact.

"I was so relieved that we didn't get the storm surge. We were really lucky," Knox said. "The turf didn't sustain any damage."

Burnt Store should be open in about two weeks, she said.

Many other courses didn't have to wait that long. Though Charlie knocked down trees on golf courses throughout southwest Florida and also caused significant damage to courses in the Orlando area, its path veered north of many of the region's most renowned and venerable courses.

While Charlotte County has 15 courses, Lee and Collier counties to its south have 83 and 71 courses, respectively, according to figures from the Florida State Golf Association.

The oldest course in the area is the Donald Ross-designed Fort Myers Country Club. Charley's winds knocked down about a dozen large fichus trees on the 8- year-old public layout, said Golf Director Rich Lamb.

"These were trees that were incredibly wide. They had a diameter between 15 and 18 feet," Lamb said.

Still, Fort Myers Country Club reopened just five days after the storm.

"We feel very fortunate," Lamb said.

At Naples' oldest course, the Naples Beach & Golf Club, the news was much the same. Located just across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, the 6,488-yard resort course had taken eight months to be cleaned up after Hurricane Andrew knocked down 250 trees in 1991, said Paul Andrews, the course's staff supervisor. But just a week after Charley, crews had cleared out most of the debris and golfers were enjoying a sunny, if hot morning on the course.

"Business is back to normal," said Tim Pitarys, one of the course's staff members.

Not all courses the weathered the storm could boast robust business, however.

Eddie Dalessandro is a vice president at WCI Communities, which owns five golf facilities between Punta Gorda and Naples, including Burnt Store and the upscale Tiburon resort where Greg Norman's Shark Shootout is held each fall. All of WCI's courses other than Burnt Store reopened within 72 hours of the storm, he said. But many people in the area have more serious matters than golf on their minds.

"People aren't focused on leisure," Dalessandro said. "I would be less than honest if I said this has not affected our activity level."

But instead of stewing about the situation, Dalessandro said that WCI was using its properties to help the community. Burnt Store, for example, became a Red Cross headquarters last week, he said.

For the members at Kingsway Country Club though, such benevolence may be only a small consolation.

Assistant pro Kerr said that with the course having lost an estimated 80 percent of its trees, there is talk of transforming it into a links layout.

"If we tried to replant the pines and oaks we lost we would not see them mature in our lifetime," he said.

Still, Kerr was resolute about Kingswood's future.

"It's not going to be the same as we knew it before," he said, "but it is going to be back strong."

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