It was the wind, and it was blowing right into the Jacksonville State senior’s face like a freight train.
The wind had blown at Silver Lakes before but hardly the way it has been felt since the tornado of last April 27 changed the look of the golf course forever.
Ironically, the wind that stripped the course of its character is now the character that defines the course.
“There’s no question you’re going to feel the wind; we lost 40,000 trees,” Silver Lakes director of golf Jason Callan said. “This golf course is much more open, no doubt about it. It’s changed, and it has to do with the amount of trees that were taken down.”
Those trees made every hole on the 700-acre Robert Trent Jones Trail facility an arena unto itself. The parking lot could be full, yet because of the trees there’d be places on the course players would think they were the only people there.
Today, after five months down and an estimated $5 million in repairs, the 36-hole facility is welcoming players with a look likened to links with hills.
A more apt term would be a links-parkland hybrid with wide-sweeping vistas never before seen from the course.
“I want to call it Silver Links,” Anniston golfer Matt Rogers said. “It sure is different.
“The trees make the biggest difference — with the wind and the views. You look about and see other holes and say what’s going on. It’s a little harder (to play) now because of what you were used to seeing.”
All four nines on the property were impacted by the tornado. The storm entered the property on the Short Course, touched some of the Backbreaker 9, then cut a path across the Heartbreaker and Mindbreaker 9s before hitting the housing development and exiting on its way to the Webster’s Chapel community.
Of course, some design changes had to be made to bring back the integrity of a layout Roger Rulewich, the mind behind the Trail’s original construction, called “probably the strongest collection of golf holes of anywhere on the Trail.”
After removing all the snapped and damaged trees, crews planted, in the areas laid bare by the storm, a variety of grasses that now cascade in a more friendly wind. They’ve removed the iconic mound in the middle of the No. 1 Heartbreaker fairway, where one player during the Sunny King Charity Classic once spread some ashes of his brother, replacing it with a yawning bunker. They added a large bunker in the No. 5 Mindbreaker fairway that was in the direct path of the tornado, and they’ve replaced the hazard down the left side of Heartbreaker No. 7 with a series of three lakes.
During the recent JSU Grub Mart Intercollegiate, tournament officials posted out-of-bounds stakes up the left side of that No. 7 hazard to prevent the long-hitting college players from using that path as a short cut, as Gary Wilborn did in 2008 to win the inaugural event of the Calhoun County Golf Tour. Not that the on-rushing wind that day would make that option any easier.
In addition, all the putting surfaces were regrassed with Champion Ultra Dwart bermuda from the original bentgrass — a process that was going to happen even without the tornado for less downtime at the height of the tourist season — but the greens remain firm and will remain so until they mature.
John Cannon, president of the SunBelt Golf firm that manages the Trail properties, cautioned using the word links to describe Silver Lakes’ new look. He said it was still “the same core golf course,” just with some different views.
“To me, it actually plays easier now,” said Ohatchee’s Ott Chandler, one of the county’s top players who claims Silver Lakes as his home course. “The greens are firmer, that’s the harder part, but it’s wide open. It doesn’t help me, but it helps the long hitters who might spray that tee ball anywhere and still have a shot.
“I liked the way the old course played better than I do the way it is now, just because the old way you had to hit a shot. These long hitters can just knock it out there and hit 7-, 8-iron into these par-5s, and that makes it rough. There are only about five or six holes that are different, but it’s still — to me — the cream of the crop around here.”
The Silver Lakes staff got a taste of what was to come that evening earlier in the day, but never would they have imagined the scope of what hit them.
That morning as they were preparing the course for a charity fundraiser with an anticipated field of 100 players, the first straight-line windstorm came roaring through the property with winds estimated at 80 mph. It took down trees in the Jacksonville and Pleasant Valley areas along Rudy Abbott Highway (Alabama 204). Several players in the tournament withdrew to tend to their businesses damaged by the storm. The tournament still went off, but the clubhouse had lost power to its televisions, lights and all its coolers.
The worst of it was still hours away.
Callan left the property shortly after 4:30. When he got home, he immediately turned on the TV to check the weather situation and that’s when he learned of the tornado’s direct hit on Tuscaloosa. Knowing there was no way to monitor the weather situation at the golf course, he called head pro Matt Ganshaw on the cell and told him to clear the course — there were about a dozen still on the Short Course — and send everyone home.
They cleared the property about 6, and the tornado roared through about an hour later.
“I just had a bad feeling about it, trying to rush out of there,” said Ganshaw, now head pro at the RTJ Trail’s Grand National facility in Opelika. “We’ve had plenty of storms come through (before), but for some reason I just wanted to get out of there and get home. It was just a scary feeling; you would never imagine. I remember closing that gate shut and just wanting to get out of there.”
The next day, they couldn’t believe the devastation. Numerous homes in the development adjacent to the course were destroyed or heavily damaged. The course’s maintenance shed and what all the equipment it contained was obliterated. The clubhouse sustained damage.
Interestingly, the playing surfaces — the tees, fairways and greens — appeared undamaged and beyond the debris that covered them looked as ready to play as they did the day before the storm hit. The initial thought was to perhaps get some part of the golf course open within a month, but after a few days it was determined the damage was much more extensive than anticipated and it was just impossible to let anyone on the course.
Dr. David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama and the founder of the Trail, described the devastation as “massive.” Damage estimates at the time were placed between $3 and $5 million; corporate officials have since said they have spent nearly $5 million bringing it back on line. There was some consideration whether the property would even re-open, leaving the Trail without a presence in Northeast Alabama.
SunBelt Golf ultimately presented the RSA three options to move forward, but it was up to the owners to make the call. Moved by the outpouring of support of local business and community leaders, Bronner refused to abandon the facility that wasn’t one of the Trail’s more lucrative and after a major facelift it re-opened in September. Cannon said he “never really thought” they would walk away from the project.
“I can only tell you how wonderful and overwhelming people have been concerned about the facility, the well-being of our staff, the golf course, and how excited they are we’re still in Northeast Alabama,” Callan said. “That means a lot to us and that means a lot to our company and Dr. Bronner.
“What a lot of the community has to understand is they were the ones who allowed Dr. Bronner to make the decision he made in keeping this facility in Northeast Alabama. It wasn’t just him, but business and community leaders in this area who stepped up and said don’t take this away, let’s clean it up and make it better and keep it in our part of the state. The only thing I can say is thank you to everybody who voiced their opinion and come out and play the course, which has helped and let’s us know how much they appreciate that we’re still around.”
Once they got the go-ahead to proceed, workers spent the next five months cleaning up and making the facility whole again. While there was no golf being played, the clubhouse was soon reopened, resuming its function as an entertainment hub as well as a gathering place for the workers.
And the players are coming back, apparently in near-record numbers.
Rounds are up approximately 9 percent over the same period a year ago. Callan reported the number at 550 in the January-through-April period — the highest in the same time frame of any year since 2007. Officials also have noticed an increase in “traveling rounds,” those played by golfers coming from different parts of the country, and tournament and outing bookings have returned. They report the reaction of those players to the transformation has been overwhelmingly favorable.
Attribute the uptick in play to the unseasonably warm weather during these first four months of the year that entices golfers to play and the curiosity toward just what the new Silver Lakes has to offer. Considering the circumstances, it likely will run neck-and-neck with the private Anniston Country Club for practice rounds to the Sunny King Charity Classic in July as players try to get a look at how to play the changes.
“People just want to see what happened,” Callan said. “It’s new, it’s renovated, and people like new things.”
Cannon met an out-of-town foursome who played the facility a couple weeks ago and reported they loved the course but were saddened at what they saw on the drive to the clubhouse.
“It looks like it’s going to be better than ever,” Cannon said. “Over time I think we’re going to build up some new fans there. Everybody’s been complimentary and excited we’ve actually reinvested in the property. We couldn’t be happier than where we are right now.”
A year has passed, but Callan’s office still holds some reminders of that devastating day — a piece of debris, a broken hole marker. But it’s not the damage to the golf course that has stuck with him most. It was the impact the tornado left on the families and the communities.
“I think about the people who lost lives and family members,” he said. “I saw it here; it humbles you.
“I understand, I truly do. That’s what this is really all about, this one-year anniversary. We’re not going to forget those people. Yes, this is a golf course, (but) people lost their homes, families were destroyed. I’m going to say one year later look how far these families have come. I hope that people who lost something in this storm on this destructive day have ... been able to rebuild like we have. That’s what I hope for. I will never forget it.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.