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Contraband Bayou Golf Club in La. in full swing after hurricanes

By Steve Habel,
Contraband Bayou - 17
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Standing on the tee at No. 17 offers one of the truly magical views at Contraband Bayou. (Courtesy Contraband Bayou Golf Club)

After taking hits from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Contraband Bayou Golf Club in Lake Charles, La., is back on track and quickly earning its reputation among Gulf Coast golf courses as a must-play.

LAKE CHARLES, La. - The Contraband Bayou Golf Club at the opulent L'Auberge du Lac Hotel and Casino has gone through a heck of a lot in its two-plus years of existence. And that was after it went through a heck of a lot just to become a golf course.

But once you play Contraband Bayou, you know it has all been worth the effort. This is a course on track to establishing itself as one of the best in the region, following the plan fostered by architect Tom Fazio for his lone public course in the state of Louisiana.

Contraband Bayou emphasizes the area's marsh and lowland features of the natural Louisiana environment to enhance its unique 7,036-yard, par-71 championship layout. The site, next to the main property of the L'Auberge and built out of 227-acres of land that used to be underwater as part of the Calcasieu Waterway, presented many obstacles in its design and construction, the most challenging of which was building a golf course in swamp-like terrain. More than 400,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved during construction.

"The highest elevation on the course is 14 feet above sea level, which made it hard to implement a successful drainage system," said Billy Rase, Contraband Bayou's director of golf. "But with the use of mounding and more than seven miles of subsurface main lines, our course drains exceptionally well."

The track was completed in December 2004 and opened in late May 2005 with its official unveiling set for August 2005, but those plans were delayed when Hurricane Katrina roared into Louisiana at month's end. The debut was rescheduled for the end of September, but that's when Hurricane Rita blasted the Lake Charles area, causing major flooding in the city and damaging the golf course, the hotel and many area buildings and homes.

"Because we had built this course out of the swamp, many of the tall trees that we had planted on the course just did not have the root system and good base under them because we had been through only a few growing seasons," said Ray Butgereit, who at the time of the storm was Contraband Bayou's director of golf. "We lost about 1,200 60-foot trees, and the winds stripped away a lot of the underbrush that framed the course and made it feel secluded. It was a tough hit while we were still trying to establish ourselves."

The course has rebounded well and is on its way to being better than the layout Fazio first visualized. Earlier this year Contraband Bayou's staff completed $500,000 of improvements to the golf course, rebuilding all of its bunkers, introducing five acres of sod, removing hundreds of dead trees and stumps and landscaping many focal-point areas.

And the word is out on Contraband Bayou. During the past six months the course's rounds have increased dramatically from the previous year's 23,000.

"What I like best about Contraband Bayou is the playability of the golf course," Rase said. "When a golfer leaves here he is not drained. Also for the most part a group can play in four hours or less. It's an enjoyable outing."

Contraband Bayou features all the attributes that make Fazio courses so appealing: there are plenty of favorable bounces on the long par 3s (but none over 200 yards), long par 4s, short par 4s (three at less than 375 yards) and a monster par 5 (the 611-yard 10th).

You begin your round with a 373-yard, dogleg-left par 4 that favors the right side of the green and features the deepest green on the course. No. 2 is a testing par 3 at 196-yards, with a bunker at front left to catch short shots and a false green to lure you into a false security.

The third hole is a 435-yard dogleg-right with bunkers at the bend, and the 169-yard, par-3 fourth gives you a chance for birdie to set the table for the best five holes on the front side.

The fifth hole, a 346-yard par 4, is the type of hole that can make your round without breaking your round - if you know what I mean.

"The fifth is my favorite hole because of its risk-reward factor," Rase said. "You can hit driver and come very close to the green, if you don't push it right into the water that works its way in 100 yards out. Or you can play it safe and use a long iron off the tee and have a short iron in. Most importantly it is a birdie hole - everyone likes to make birdies."

The 557-yard par-5 sixth winds lazily to the left and can be attacked as long as you can negotiate the mounds on the fairway that could cause stance issues for a long approach. Number seven - the hardest hole on the course by handicap - is a 452-yard tester that requires length and placement off the tee and a little patience on your second shot.

The front side ends with the 421-yard par-4 ninth, a slight dogleg left up a hill that was truly affected by Rita's wrath. There were originally a set of three trees that guarded the left side of the fairway about 75 yards from the green, making your second shot much more difficult than it is now.

The backside starts with a 611-yard par 5 that really gives you a chance to score if you can just keep the ball in the middle for three straight shots. You will need to take advantage of the 10th because No. 11 (a 411-yard par 4) and No. 12 (at 452 yards the second toughest hole at Contraband Bayou) will exact their toll if you are not prepared.

The 12th is another of the holes that were most affected by Rita, as three large trees that once guarded the right side at the landing area off the tee are gone and have been replaced by saplings.

Nos. 13 (a 189-yard par 3) and 14 (at 369 yards rated the easiest hole on the course) can help you get your confidence, back but don't take them lightly, especially the 14th, which requires a good tee ball with a fairway wood or long iron and has a deep bunker right of the green.

The 15th turns back toward the hotel and has one of the widest fairways at Contraband Bayou; even though it is a 424-yard par 4, this hole is a birdie opportunity. No. 16 is a lot like the previous hole, just a lot narrower and more demanding.

That sets the stage for the final two holes, which are among the best at Contraband Bayou. First comes the 17th, a 196-yard par 3 over water and sand to a sloping green. Here, standing on the tee looking down at the green and the hotel looming in the background, is one of the course's truly magical views.

No 18 finishes your round with a long, uphill, tough par 5: bunkers on the right at the landing area off the tee, on the left in a lay-up area on your second and an elevated green protected on both sides by sand. It is a great way to finish and will leave you wanting more.

Contraband Bayou: The Verdict

This track is a combination of aquatic and natural vegetation on the edges of eight spectacular lakes that will challenge golfers of all skill levels. With at least four sets of tee boxes on every hole, Contraband Bayou will provide a unique playing experience for all - and the course is only going to get better.

The greens have been knocked recently for poor conditioning (mostly for their lack of speed), but we found the putting surfaces in great shape, rolling fast and smooth. This, too, will improve as the course matures.

As good as Contraband Bayou is now, one can only imagine how wonderful it would have been had the hurricane not ripped it apart. Given time - and a little patience - expect this track to be one of the best in the area.

Green fees (including cart fees and range balls) are $85 on weekends and $59 on weekdays, with discounted fees for twilight play. Local residents also get a break on the cost of green fees.

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Contraband Bayou - NinthContraband Bayou - Fourth

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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