MARATHON, Florida — The road to Florida Keys Country Club was impassable, so Mike Bell parked his truck a half-mile away and started walking, picking his way through a debris field that included upended cars, toppled power poles, uprooted trees and the smashed hulks of boats from the marina across the street.

A few days earlier, on Sunday, September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma had scored a direct hit on the Florida Keys, making landfall at Cudjoe Key, 20 miles north of Key West, as a monster Category 4 storm packing 175 mph winds. Like most Conchs, Bell, the operations director at Florida Keys CC in Marathon, had evacuated; he and his wife, Cecile, rode out the storm 280 miles north in Port Charlotte.

Now, he braced himself for what he’d find.

It wasn’t pretty. More than 200 trees had come down on the course, tearing up the irrigation system and the hydraulics. The eight-foot storm surge had swamped and ruined the entire fleet of 40 carts, along with tractors and fairway mowers, spreaders and sprayers.

“I’m looking at all the damage,” Bell says, “going, ‘Oh, my God, no.’”

Then it hit him: what about the reverse osmosis system, which converts salt water to fresh water? Without it, there would be no way to nurse the turf back to health, if that was even possible.

“So, I run all the way out to our RO plant, past the debris laying everywhere, jumping over trees,” he says. “I get out to the RO plant, there’s no roof. Our retention tank, a 400-gallon reserve tank, is missing. All three of the pumps underneath the RO plant are gone. All the plumbing is gone. Then, of course, I look at the electronics. They’re all saturated and already starting to rust.

“I mean, it was completely destroyed.”

'Whole lot of devastation'

If you want to play golf in the Keys, a series of small islands extending southwest from the southern tip of Florida and connected by 42 bridges, there are precious few options.

Key West Golf Club, a Rees Jones design, is a popular municipal course on Stock Island, adjacent to the southernmost city in the United States. It’s a 3½-hour drive from Miami. There are two courses on Key Largo, Card Sound Golf Club and the Ocean Reef Club, but they are private and ultra-exclusive.

Then there is the former Sombrero Country Club in Marathon, a one-time private club that was a favorite of baseball great Ted Williams, according to locals, but struggled in recent years. Membership shrank from about 280 at its peak to around 100 in 2015. “We got to the point where we said, ‘Let’s sell it,’” said longtime member Bob Belcaster.

“It was a certificated, private member equity club for many years and was very successful,” said Peter Rosasco, a native of Key West and a lifelong Conch. “But in recent years, that business model no longer worked because of changing demographics and just changes in golf. The members approached me and asked if I would help them set up a new business model.”

Rosasco, a certified public accountant and real estate developer, partnered with Swedish-based Index Invest to buy the course and opened it to the public as Florida Keys CC. They planned to turn the 18-hole course, built on a former mangrove swamp, into an upscale resort, with a hotel and vacation condos.

Construction was to start September 15, 2017.

“We had closed nine holes and were getting ready to start redevelopment,” Rosasco says. “Then Miss Irma hit.”

The hurricane held seven trillion watts of energy, twice as much as all the bombs used during World War II. It smashed into the low-lying Keys, leveling everything in its path. An estimated 25 percent of houses were destroyed, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with another 65 percent sustaining major damage.

“We lost over 4,000 homes in the Florida Keys,” Bell says. “When you lose 4,000 homes and then you factor in the trailers … and then over here in Boot Key we had 480 boats in the water and only 40 survived. All of the boats ended up in the mangroves.”

The Monroe County medical examiner listed 17 deaths in the Keys. Locals say that figure is conservative and doesn’t count people with no permanent addresses who died on their boats.

“It was disheartening, what happened to the golf course,” Rosasco said. “But it was more disheartening for people who lost everything. There was a lot of devastation.”

Karen Leonard, the office manager at Florida Keys CC, decided to ride out the storm with her family on Big Pine Key. They holed up in a neighbor’s concrete house and witnessed first-hand the awesome ferocity of the storm.

“The power went out about 10:30, 11 o’clock on Saturday night (September 9),” Leonard says. “We woke up at 6:30 Sunday morning and the water started rising. It’s just like, ‘Oh, oh.’ We had to climb to the attic. There was a car in the garage and we could hear it beating against the wall.

“Our friends had stored gas cans for the generator and they were floating in the water. You know with gas cans, the smell? My husband was like, ‘We’re going to blow up.’ That’s the first time I got scared.”

The Leonards watched their Jeep “surf down the road and around the corner.” Fortunately, when the wind and rain subsided and they were able to walk home, they found their stick-built house standing, although with considerable damage to the roof.

Florida Keys CC wasn’t as lucky.

“Palm trees were either snapped off or uprooted,” Bell says. “All the hardwood trees came down. All the ponds were filled with debris. Chunks of turf were missing from the greens. You name it. And, of course, the (bunker) sand was gone. We thought our maintenance barn, which stands five feet above existing grade, would be OK. And that was not the case. We had a seven-and-a-half-foot surge here.”

The workforce housing near the course was destroyed, displacing the five-man maintenance crew.

“They got out before the storm hit,” Bell says, “and just never came back.”

The superintendent, Tony Young, evacuated to central Florida. He returned to an apocalyptic scene, the once-pristine golf course almost unrecognizable. In the meantime, he’d gotten a job offer.

“I was willing to stick it out and do what was necessary but Peter and I came to a mutual agreement that it would be better for me to take the job,” says Young, now the superintendent at The Country Club at Silver Spring Shores in Ocala. “He’d have had to pay my salary without any income coming in.”

That left Bell and his right-hand man, Baltazar Vargas – the only member of the maintenance crew who stuck around – to try to piece things back together and get the course back on its feet.

Bell agreed to let the city of Marathon and FEMA use the nine holes that had closed as a temporary dumping ground before the trash could be hauled away. At one point, there were 1 million cubic yards of debris piled up, including some 3,000 pieces of what Bell calls “white trash” – ruined stoves, refrigerators, washers, dryers and air conditioners.

“You wouldn’t believe what it looked like,” Belcaster says. “It was 500 yards long and probably 60 feet wide and 25 feet high. It took them a long time to get it cleaned up. They brought in a car compactor and crushed it. Once they finished that, then they started hauling boats out of the water. There were 150 boats on the first hole. It’s the only big space in town.”

The clean-up would take months.

“We didn’t get a dollar from FEMA because we’re a privately-owned Swedish company,” Bell says. “We didn’t qualify for loans from the (U.S. Small Business Administration) because we’re foreign-owned. Our insurance company couldn’t decide whether our wind or flood insurance covered anything. They have to clearly determine whether it was wind or flood. I said, ‘Do you see that water mark? Do you see where the carts are? What’s the problem?’”

Bell, an engineer by trade – he was a hydrologist who’d worked in the oil industry – is 64. He and his wife vacationed in the Keys for years before building a house on Duck Key. A 7-handicapper, he joined Sombrero. When the course opened to the public and the previous operations director didn’t work out, Rosasco talked him out of retirement.

After Irma, why didn’t Bell throw in the towel, like just about everyone else?

“I’m just not made that way, you know?” he says. “I hate to quit anything.”

Says Leonard, “Mike is the true savior of this place. He could have bailed. He truly was the patron saint, and still is. It’s his love for golf. He doesn’t need the work. He’s just like, ‘I can’t let it go.’”

Community, course forge ahead

On January 14 of this year, 491 days after Irma decimated Florida Keys Country Club, the course re-opened nine holes to the public.

Two weeks later, Bell sits in his office, talking about the storm and its aftermath. Every 20 minutes or so, the phone rings and Bell studies the mostly empty tee sheet on his computer. Apparently, a bit of local advertising hasn’t been enough to get the word out yet.

“Yes, we’re open,” he says to just about every caller. “Nine holes, but we have double pins on the greens so you can play 18. It’s $62 for 18 holes, $42 for nine.”

After Irma, some members pitched in and bought 10 carts. They wanted to play the course before it re-opened to the public, clean-up be damned. Bell charged $23 for cart rental – the course got $5 and the owners got $18. “It was a pretty good deal for them,” he says with a smile. Eventually, the club bought the carts from the members, plus 10 more. Toro, Bell says, donated an $80,000 fairway mower.

He and Vargas, whose family bounced around from motel to motel after Irma and lived for a time in a FEMA trailer, fixed whatever they could and got the irrigation system back up and running. About a month ago, the club bought Vargas a new trailer.

“He knows everything about everything,” Bell says. “I can’t function without him.”

Bell’s background as an engineer was invaluable, but he knew little about agronomy. He still talks almost daily with Young about maintenance practices.

“Mike is really putting forth an effort,” Young says. “He’s a solid dude. I really do admire the guy.”

The greens have recovered and roll nicely, but some of the fairways are scarred and still healing. With the reverse osmosis plant inoperable, obtaining fresh water is an ongoing challenge. For now, Bell is buying it from the city, storing it in a 250,000-gallon tank and pumping it onto the course.

“Water is very expensive,” he says. “It’s like gold here. Can I ever put Pebble Beach out there? No, we just don’t have the water. If you don’t have water in a tropical climate, you have nothing.”

Rosasco and Index Invest are still going ahead with plans to build the hotel and condos, renovate the course and build a state-of-the-art “aqua range.”

“It will have 28 hitting bays pointing toward a lagoon that will have lights and fountains and targets,” Rosasco says. “People will be able to hit balls until well into the evening. There will be a putting area for kids. The golf course will be great. We have a 40-acre lagoon and we’ll have kayaking and charter diving and charter fishing and sunset cruises. We have something that’s pretty special and unique.”

The resort, he says, could open as early as 2021.

“But if we get another hurricane,” he adds with a chuckle, “it could be 2022.”

Gary has covered golf in Wisconsin since 1980 and is a multiple award winner in the GWAA writing contest. He was inducted into the WSGA Hall of Fame in 2017 and joined Wisconsin.Golf in 2018 after a distinguished career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.