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Isabel weakens as Carolinas courses brace for high winds and storm surge

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Stay or go. Seasoned Carolina residents have become accustomed to this emotionally-charged decision over the years when confronted with threatening hurricanes. For inhabitants of North Carolina's Outer Banks - including golf course personnel - the decision became easier early this week in the face of slowly approaching Hurricane Isabel.

Over 900 residents were ordered Monday afternoon to begin boarding ferries from Ocracoke Island in Hyde County. The county's remaining 4,000 residents were urged to voluntarily evacuate by noon on Tuesday. Golf courses from Corolla to Nags Head shut down Tuesday morning as employees shored-up club houses and maintenance facilities before leaving.

"We boarded up at noon and we are headed out," said J.B. Meads, long time employee at Seascape Golf Links near Kitty Hawk. "When Floyd came through(in 1999) we spent three days cleaning up and that was after 60 mph winds.So this could end up being a lot worse."

Isabel, which flirted with Category 5 (greater than 155 mph winds) status over the weekend, was downgraded to a Category 2 on Tuesday with sustained winds of 105 mph. Still, forecasters at the National Weather Service's Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla. warn that the storm could intensify as it crosses the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Isabel is projected to make landfall somewhere between the Outer Banks and the Chesapeake Bay.

"All we can do is just wait to see where it hits," said Dave Mullineaux,head professional at Nags Head Golf Links. "We are closer to the Roanoke Sound than the Atlantic Ocean, so if it comes in that way it will be worse.We have five holes that are right on the sound but we are a links style course without many trees."

The NWS issued a hurricane watch from Little River, S.C. to Chincoteague, Va. Golf courses along the northern reaches of the Grand Strand are keeping a close eye on Isabel. Friday marks the beginning of the peak fall golf season and courses from Little River to Shallotte were counting on full tee sheets this weekend.

"We just don't need this right now," said Patrick Crean, general manager at Crow Creek Golf Club just north of Little River. "We have some big groups booked for Thursday and this weekend and we've been getting lots of calls about it. But so far they are sticking it out."

Crean said he will make a decision by mid morning tomorrow on whether or not to close the course on Thursday.

"If we close there's not much we can do," he said. "We will bring in the flags and hanging baskets and make sure we have plenty of gas and diesel and that the generators are working and hope we can reopen Friday."

Myrtle Beach area golf tour operators are getting bombarded with phone calls from concerned golfers who booked multi-day stay and play packages for this popular weekend. While most groups are going ahead with their planned trips, a few have backed out forfear of Isabel.

"We had one group of 12 cancel on us, but that is about it so far," said Jerry McGraw, president of Carolina Golf Travel. "The weather forecast for Friday, Saturday and Sunday is beautiful so if we can just get through Thursday we should be fine."

Outer Banks courses have a tougher road to hoe. Unless Isabel makes one final turn and veers towards New Jersey and New England, the handful of courses perched along these narrow strings of barrier islands will absorb some portion of the hurricane's wrath. On its current projected path, the heart of the storm would slam into the Outer Banks sometime Thursday.

"The golf course itself is the least of our worries," said Mullineaux. "The trees and the clubhouse and physical plant are what gets hit the worst."

Mullineaux and other Outer Banks course officials couldn't speculate as to how long local courses could be closed, or how much damage they are anticipating.

"We'll just head out of here and hope for the best," said Meads. (breakout box in If You Go format:) Hurricane Isabel at a Glance Sustained winds as of Tuesday 2 p.m. EST: 105 mph

Outer Banks golf courses: Closed
Grand Strand golf courses: Open Wed., Thurs. TBD
Isabel updates: The Weather Channel (weather.com), National Weather Service (nws.noaa.org)

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