Among the iconic photographs that captured the punishing force of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022, one of the most memorable was taken at The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club on Sanibel Island.
It is one of those images that can make you laugh, or cry.
During the ferocious storm, the surge of water and the strong winds washed away stretches of beach, left cars and boats in unthinkable places and cut off the barrier island from the rest of the world for a brief time when the only road connecting it to the mainland was damaged.
And it left a hot tub on the 18th green at The Dunes.
“We actually had two others floating around in our lakes,” said Brian Kautz, The Dunes general manager for the past seven and a half years. “Funny, no one ever called us and said they were missing a hot tub.”
Removing that hot tub was likely the easiest part of the post-Ian recovery for Kautz and the rest of the team at the club, which opened 50 years ago, sits on 63 acres and is semi-private. The Dunes is owned by the Dahlmann family, which also owns four hotels on the island, Periwinkle Place and Sanibel Outlet Mall.
On Monday (Dec. 18) they and the club’s membership celebrated the reopening of the front nine of the golf course. The Dunes is the last golf course in Southwest Florida to reopen after Ian.
“I think it is not only important for our ownership, as we will be the first of their Florida properties to open. But it is important to our members, the community and our repeat guests that frequent us,” Kautz said. “This has been an extraordinary 14 months for so many and so many ways. Were grateful for ownership support, and hope and look forward to guests returning and enjoying the club.”
Why did it take so long (15 months) to have golfers hitting tee shots and sinking putts again? Many factors including the destruction of the golf course’s pump station − “the heart of the irrigation system,” Kautz said −and the loss of the sprinkler heads and the wiring. Kautz said the 15 control boxes for the sprinklers and all of the heads and wiring throughout the course had to be replaced.
“That is not only costly, but time consuming,” Kautz said.
We spoke to Kautz about the recovery process and the challenges of bringing this semi-private golf course back to life and what it means to the Sanibel community. And what happened to that hot tub?
Q. Can you explain or put into words just how badly damaged the golf course was in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian?
KAUTZ: Beyond the obvious of downed trees everywhere, the course was mostly brown from the salt water on the turf. There were dead fish and turtles everywhere. The 17th and 18th greens were void of the turf entirely. The grass just removed itself as it was being peeled off. There was damage in the first fairway where rescue helicopters had been landing and taking off. The sand in the sand bunkers was completely washed away throughout the entire course.
Q. Was the most significant reason for the lengthy closure of the golf course because of what the salt water did to the grass? Something else?
KAUTZ: Originally we had hoped to open the golf course in January to allow play to begin, knowing the conditions were going to be sub standard. Also, not truly understanding the extent of damage. We had to totally rebuild 17 and18 greens, so we gave up on the idea of temporary greens for those two and targeted March. When we got to mid-March and all we had that was green grass were the greens. While we had been watering with a water tank or hooking up hoses to the clubhouse or residents homes we had to make a decision.
Q. What options did you have?
KAUTZ: We felt we had two options.
1. We could either stay closed all summer and see what the rains of summer would bring and what the product would look like come October. Knowing business levels would be dismal no matter what.
2. We could take on the project of re-grassing everything except the greens and using Paspalum, a more salt tolerant grass. It took about a month for ownership to get onboard with the re-grassing project. Clarke Construction had been here a decent part of the winter rebuilding the greens and a few other projects, so we talked and they were able to take us on for the project.
Q. What type of grass was on the course before Ian?
KAUTZ: It was 419 Bermuda grass for the fairways and rough and tifeagle for the greens.
Q. The Dunes has a reputation for the wildlife that lives around the course. Is that something that has gotten back to “normal” more than a year after Ian? What are you seeing from the birds to other critters?
KAUTZ: The birds are coming with some frequency now, and we now have a couple gators. Where we used to have them everywhere, and the turtles, we don’t see any around as of yet.
Q. For someone playing the course again for the first time since Ian, will they notice anything dramatically different?
KAUTZ: We only made some minor modifications which those who have played will notice, those who have not will find the course in great condition.
Q. Whatever happened to the hot tub that floated on to the 18th green?
KAUTZ: My son and a crew from South Florida Pine Straw, the company he works for came out to assist us with the beginning of cleanup. They hauled it off the first day they were here after Ian.