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Gray Plantation golf course fighting its way back from Rita's destruction

By Steve Habel,
Gray Plantation 16
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Watch out for the water on No. 16 at Gray Plantation golf course in Lake Charles, La. (Courtesy Gray Plantation)

Before Hurricane Rita ravaged Gray Plantation in Lake Charles, La., the golf course had already racked up accolades from some of the most prestigious publications in golf. Gray Plantation is still rebuilding, but it's a fine round of golf, well worth a play on your next Gulf Coast golf vacation.

LAKE CHARLES, La. - The acclaim for Gray Plantation golf course has been overwhelming from the start, but the real chance for the course to show off its chops and promise will be in the coming years, as the track and the entire city of Lake Charles works its way back from the havoc and destruction caused by Hurricane Rita in 2005.

Before Rita had her way with southwest Louisiana, Gray Plantation had racked up honor upon honor as one of the nation's top 100 courses (by Golf Digest) and one of the top courses you can play for under $50 (Golf Magazine). But the hurricane hit the course really hard, and from what we saw on a recent visit to Gray Plantation there is still plenty of work to be done.

"The storm took a lot out of the course and the staff," said Neel DeRouen, Gray Plantation's director of golf. "The natural beauty of the native underbrush is missing, and 75 percent of our trees were destroyed from that storm, but we will rebuild for the future."

The staff is doing a heck of a job. On the day we played the course - an unseasonably cold and windy Easter eve morning - the features that made Gray Plantation so noteworthy were in evidence. All the greens have come back after being inundated with salt water from the 30-foot storm tide, and the track was in superior shape.

But it is going to take some time for the course to be what it once was; only Mother Nature can do that, and it is slow work.

"I am lucky for having witnessed the creation of Gray Plantation," DeRouen said. "There were just a few of us fortunate enough to have seen the early beauty. I wish more golfers could have seen the course before and during construction, because it would help them appreciate the golf we have now even more."

Built in 1999 and renovated by the winds and waters of Rita, Gray Plantation is today a beautifully landscaped 18-hole, 7,200-yard semi-private golf course that challenges pros and entertains amateurs of all skill levels. The course was designed by internationally respected golf course architect William "Rocky" Roquemore, who has put his stamp on more than 100 courses around the world. Golf Magazine describes Gray Plantation as "a delicate mix of Southern charm and Cajun fire."

The natural beauty of Louisiana's Bayou Country is an integral part of Gray Plantation's unique charm and challenge. Water, both the adjacent Calcasieu Waterway and via the course's 60 acres of man-made lakes, contributes to the course's difficulty and aesthetics. The wet stuff comes into play - literally - on 11 holes.

Nature also provides some unexpected spectators from the natural wildlife that call the bayou around Gray Plantation home. Golfers are likely to spot wood ducks, egrets, alligators, deer and an occasional fox on the edges of the marshland.

"It's nature and golf, and the land felt like it needed to have golf played on it," DeRouen said. "The par 3s are unique, and our two drivable par 4s are appealing and enticing."

If you are not really ready for the challenges Gray Plantation has in store, they'll quickly grab your attention. There's plenty of trouble - along with all that water, there are 94 bunkers - but there are few forced carries off the tee and most of the trouble can be avoided with conservative play, as Roquemore put an emphasis on tough par 3s, creating two with island-like greens.

You open your round with a mid-length par 5 with a deep bunker playing sentinel in the front of the putting surface. No. 2 is a 387-yard par 4 uphill with a green surrounded by four bunkers, and the 430-yard par-4 third requires one of your best efforts off the tee to navigate the narrow, dogleg-left fairway.

No. 4 is another mid-range (429 yards) par 4, with a heavy strand of trees defining the left side and water coming into play for the first time on the right side of the green. The fifth hole can be one to score on if you can place a drive in the narrow fairway between five bunkers and hit a short iron close to the hole on the undulating green.

The sixth is Gray Plantation's signature hole, a 168-yard par 3 with the smallest green on the course; it's perched on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by water. If the tide is out, it seems like you could walk from tee to green through the bog, and the hundreds of drowned golf balls in the shallow, murky water tell you just how hard this hole is.

No. 7 is the front-side's real tester, and is the course's toughest hole by handicap. A par 5 playing at 589 yards, the real decision is on the devilishly difficult second shot, when players are forced to thread the needle into the fairway past a wetland or lay up for a dangerous long-iron approach over swampland. The green is shallow, sloped back to front and always requires one more club than you think.

The front side ends with the 145-yard, par 3 eighth, which requires a dart to make sure you miss the seven bunkers that surround the putting surface, and the 439-yard uphill par-4 ninth, which demands a mid- to long-iron second shot that must carry the two huge bunkers guarding the front of the green. It's a heck of a way to end your first nine holes.

The back nine winds its way around Gray Plantation's huge irrigation lake. No. 10 is a 540-yard par 5 that can be reached if you can avoid the bunkers front and left of the green. The 11th features a split fairway with the lake in the middle, but the right side split is only 15 yards wide and closer to the water than the left side. Those brave souls confident in their game can go for the green, which is a 260-yard carry over the lake.

The 12th is a 401-yard par 4 with an L-shaped green that gives you a great chance at birdie, and No. 13 is a 213-yard par 3 that calls for a carry of 170 yards over the lake and another 30 yards over a front bunker.

The 14th effectively takes the driver out of your hands and asks you to be precise on your second shot to a green that slopes severely from back to front.

No. 15 is a 544-yard par 5 with a slight right dogleg along the lake, allowing you to get a shot back if you can get the ball to stay on the sloping, 44-yard deep green surrounded by water. The 16th is the second par 4 on the backside that can be driven, but this hole also requires a 270-yard drive over water to even have a chance. It may be best to take a long iron or fairway wood and leave yourself with a wedge to one of the most receptive greens on the track.

The 17th at Gray Plantation is the second of the course's pseudo-island green holes, with water on three sides and a ridge in the middle of the putting surface that will cause all balls hit to the back side to bounce off the green and into the water. This one is much tougher - in my book - than the more ballyhooed sixth, even though it is handicapped as the easiest hole on the course.

You end your round with the long, uphill par-4 18th hole, playing a mid or long iron to a green guarded by bunkers front left and right and back left and right.

Gray Plantation: The Verdict

I don't know how good this course was in the years prior to September 2005, but it is quite a test now and a real joy to play. If I had two things I would change about the course it is that residential building is beginning to encroach on the track (sorry, that is not going to change) and that the course is mostly flat (but I can't see how that can be helped in a location so close to the water).

We enjoyed our round at "The Gray" and expect to try to play the track every time we are in the southwest Louisiana area. Remember, too, that Gray Plantation was a charter member of the Audubon Golf Trail in Louisiana.

Green fees, which include cart and range balls, are $50 on weekdays and $65 on weekends, with discounts for twilight and seniors.

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

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