SERVING THE GAME
History and Hope on Joe Bart Golf Course in New Orleans July 27, 2016 | New Orleans, La. By Darren Carroll

Eric St. Julian, a starter at Joe Bart Golf Course, has long appreciated the sacrifices the course's founder made to bring golf to the community. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

I’ve been fortunate when it comes to golf. I grew up learning the game at a private club on Long Island, and my career as a magazine photographer has allowed me to combine my appreciation of the game with the opportunity to capture the sport at its highest levels. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been lucky enough to document major championships on the great American courses, the storied links of the Open rota and other famed venues.

So when a friend at the USGA asked me to produce a photo essay about a little municipal course I had never heard of, tucked into a neighborhood on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in a part of New Orleans I never knew existed, I must confess to thinking not much would come of it. I never expected this little out-of-the-way track would have such a fascinating story to tell.

Joseph M. Bartholomew Sr. Municipal Golf Course is a mouthful – perhaps that’s why regulars simply call it Joe Bart. But more than just a person and a place, the lengthy name evokes everything from golf to course architecture to race relations to natural disasters to navigating the politics of city government. It’s a history of community building (and rebuilding), and passing on the story of a quiet, unassuming individual who helped build that community through golf.

First, some background on Joseph M. Bartholomew Sr. He was born in 1881, and by age 7 was working as a caddie at Audubon Golf Club in New Orleans, where he studied and copied players’ swings so well that he eventually shot the course record (62), presumably on the one day a week that blacks were allowed to play. At Audubon, he was taken under the wing of head pro (and 1908 U.S. Open champion) Fred McLeod, promoted to equipment manager and greenkeeper, and eventually hired away by Metairie (La.) Country Club. The members there were so impressed with his course design skills that they commissioned him to build their new course – but first, they sent him East to study course architecture under Seth Raynor.

He returned in 1922 and built the new Metairie course according to plans supplied by Raynor. It opened to accolades in 1925, and according to club history, Bartholomew was its first pro, from 1925-36. But there still weren’t many, if any, courses that blacks in New Orleans could play regularly. In 1956, Bartholomew, now a successful businessman with his own construction firm, changed all that by building one for them.

Photos: A New Orleans Muni, in Black and White

Joe Bart regular Burnell Scales, 71, grew up in the same neighborhood as Bartholomew, caddied at Audubon as a kid, and had nowhere to play. “We had to make our own golf courses,” he recalled. “We’d go down to the levees, or dig some holes in our neighborhood. That’s where we would practice our game.

Others sought out more formal conditions. Joe Hall, 75, remembered sneaking on at Metairie, where he was a caddie. One member had an interesting method of deterrence. “He had two bulldogs, and if he saw us he’d turn them loose on us. We’d have to jump into the canal to get away.”

Hall is the vice president of the Friends of Joe Bartholomew, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of its namesake and responsible for, among other things, installing a larger-than-life statue of Bartholomew at the course that bears his name. “Mr. Joe, his thing was to build a course for us to play. We didn’t have opportunities.”

Bartholomew saw that opportunity in the middle of the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood. He designed the course himself, used his own equipment to fill in what had been a swamp and hired locals to do the construction work. He brought in a black head professional, John Roux Sr., to run it.

People like Hall and Scales spread the story of the man, but the story of the course and the community it nurtures is being passed down, too. Frank Landry’s father played in all the big-money games there in the 1960s, and Frank remembered them fondly one day before heading out for a round.

“Alvin Adams, Ducky Gilbert, Charlie Harris, some guy named Buster – I never knew his last name. Those guys, if they were playing during this time, they’d be on the [PGA Tour]. But at the time that just wasn’t going to happen.”

It seems everyone came through Pontchartrain Park, and it was known for hosting exhibitions and barnstorming tours. Daniel Porter, who has been playing at Joe Bart since the 1970s, recalled that once a year hotshot traveling pros like Nate Starks, Charles Johnson and Bobby Stroble would stop at the course, taking on all comers. “This is where we got an opportunity to take a swing at the pros.” He smiled. “I’m not being braggadocious, and I’m too old to lie, but I got a check out of every tournament.” Porter still regularly coaches at Joe Bart’s First Tee clinics.

And it seems as though this generational handoff will continue. One Saturday morning, after the rest of his foursome hits, Rep. Cedric Richmond, of Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, tees up a ball for his young son Ced, who is riding along in his dad’s cart. Ced takes a mighty whack at the ball with a plastic club, and gets it airborne.

Richmond is a regular at the course when he’s on recess from Washington. Today he’s playing with Tom Martin, 66, who used to shag balls on the range for 25 cents as a kid, and Rickey Jackson, the former Saint and Pro Football Hall of Famer who’s known simply as “Linebacker” at Joe Bart.

This sense of community is what allowed Joe Bart to flourish even after desegregation. Sitting in his cart at the first tee, Levy Bouligny, a 74-year-old retired postal worker who volunteers as a starter, recalled, “In the early ‘50s, you could play at City Park one day a week. This was the only place you could play [every day]. After President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act we were able to go to City Park, but you still came here for the camaraderie. All the guys I knew as a teenager, they were playing out here.”

The golf course Joe Bartholomew built wasn’t just part of the neighborhood. In some ways, it has become the neighborhood.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Pontchartrain Park – the neighborhood – was under 10 feet of water. The course, overseen by the city’s Department of Parks and Parkways, was in ruins. Ann Macdonald, the department’s director, fought to get it rebuilt.

“We wanted to provide some sense of normalcy,” she said. “If you want the golf course to come back, you have to have the neighborhood. But if you want the neighborhood to come back, you have to have the golf course. It wouldn’t have brought any life or spark to that neighborhood if you didn’t have the golf course. They went hand-in-hand.”

After passage of a $13.5 million bond package, work began. The greens were redesigned – Emerald bermudagrass was installed and, to hear the long-timers tell it, the course became a bit more inviting as Bartholomew’s original small, raised, severely sloped greens were enlarged. The storm took down dozens of trees that created deceptive sight lines, and the wide fairways of the original routing remain. There’s now a First Tee facility at the back of the range, complete with practice greens and tees. The course reopened in 2011; in 2014 a new $4.5 million clubhouse replaced the trailer the course was operating out of.

Since then, the quality of the course and Macdonald’s desire to make Joe Bart “available to rank-and-file golfers” (witness the weekend $40 green fee, which includes cart) have contributed to a resurgence, with several golf clubs now using it as their home course. The number of rounds last year topped 27,000.

Eric St. Julian has an unusual, yet visceral connection to the course: his father, a regular, died after being struck by lightning in the first fairway. St. Julian points to the statue of Bartholomew that stands watch over the 18th green, where golfers of all races finish out their rounds. “What he did for black people benefited everybody. We all need heroes. And that’s what we’ve got there.”

Darren Carroll is a photographer based in Austin, Texas, whose work appears regularly on USGA websites.

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