How a hurricane closed one door and sent Forme Tour officials scrambling to open another
September 07, 2021
By Laury Livsey, PGA TOUR Staff , PGATOUR.COM
DALLAS, Pennsylvania—At 4:45 p.m. EDT, on Wednesday, September 1, the first raindrops began falling at The Ridge at Back Brook in Ringoes, New Jersey. The precipitation came as no surprise. Hurricane Ida had plowed into Louisiana a day earlier, bringing with it heavy wind and buckets of rain. Ida continued its northward path slowly losing wind strength but continuing as a major rain event. After landing on the United States, Ida rolled through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. New York and New Jersey awaited its arrival.
Within 33 minutes of the first drop falling, rain gauges showed an inch of water on the designated home of the Forme Tour’s season finale, the Forme Tour Championship at The Ridge at Back Brook. By 6 p.m., and additional inch and a half had come down, and suddenly flash flooding became an issue. By the time, the storm had moved on, the golf course received 8.59 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, most of it coming during an eight-hour stretch. Flemington took in a state-high 11 inches, while nearby Cranford and Hopewell topped the nine-inch mark.
PGA TOUR Director of Tournament Administration Claudio Rivas was the competitions official in charge of preparing The Ridge at Back Brook for the upcoming tournament. He left Orlando International Airport on Wednesday afternoon on his way to Newark. Midway through the flight and seated in 25A, Rivas looked out the plane’s window and didn’t like what he saw. “That thing turned pitch black,” Rivas said of the sky.
Safely on the ground after a landing he described as “horrible,” Rivas waited for his soaked luggage. He then boarded the train to pick up his rental car. “I walked to Avis, and the parking lot was flooded. I had water all the way to my ankles.” Inside his car, Rivas navigated the one-mile drive to his airport hotel. “It was probably one of the worst drives I have ever done. One mile. I couldn’t see. There was water everywhere. I’ve never seen rain coming down that hard,” said the native of Venezuela who has traveled extensively through Latin America working on PGA TOUR Latinoamérica. “I was driving five miles per hour.”
After arriving at the hotel, Rivas remained in his car for about 40 minutes, thinking the rain would slow. He chuckled at the thought now. “So, I made a run for it and was soaked by the time I got inside.”
Thursday morning, Rivas woke up to bright sunshine, Ida gone but the misery she brought still very apparent. Rivas planned to drive to The Ridge at Back Brook but had no idea what to expect. His GPS showed the drive was 90 minutes, but Rivas immediately encountered closed roads that were still flooded and blocked by abandoned cars. “There were police and fire trucks everywhere. It was chaos,” he said.
Amid all that, Rivas eventually took detours and slowly navigated his way to the freeway. He made it as far as Princeton when he encountered more street closures. Gushing water had overflowed the Millstone River’s banks. It was 11:15 a.m., and he still hadn’t made it to the golf course.
Some 50 miles away, Forme Tour Executive Director Greg Carlson was at Rolling Green Golf Club in suburban Pennsylvania. The night before he had been in periodic contact with The Ridge at Back Brook owner Joel Moore as Ida pounded Ringoes. Carlson also continuously looked at his phone’s weather app, tracking the storm’s path. Carlson wasn’t encouraged, and Moore later notified Carlson he was witnessing the heaviest rain of his life. The next morning, Moore texted photos of his golf course. At that point, the reality of the situation hit Carlson.
“Thinking about the time frame for the future and looking at the photos Joel sent, I realized it was going to be impossible to put on the golf tournament in four days at that golf course,” Carlson said. “When I saw the pictures and heard his assessment, I knew there was no chance.”
Carlson forwarded the images to Forme Tour Chief Referee Jamie Wiles, who was on site at Rolling Green, and said, “It looks like we’re going to have to find another golf course.”
Wiles’ first response? “Call Brandon Matthews.” The current PGA TOUR Latinoamérica Player of the Year was playing in the Rolling Green Championship on a sponsor exemption, and Wiles knew Matthews, a native of Pittston, Pennsylvania, and a Temple University graduate, might have suggestions about courses in the area. Carlson didn’t hesitate. He called Matthews, who was driving to the golf course to play the remainder of his first round delayed by darkness the night before. Matthews listened as Carlson described the Tour’s plight.
“I told him we may need a golf course replacement—preferably in the area—and is there any possibility he knew of a course where we could play next week,” Carlson said.
“Once I found out that they needed a place, I started making some calls to [courses] I thought might be available,” Matthews said. He zeroed in on Huntsville Golf Club. “The nice thing about Huntsville is they have a pretty open tee sheet for the most part, and the course is in amazing shape always. It’s one sole owner, as well, which is always a nice thing when you have one person calling the shots.”
At 11:30 a.m., Thursday, Tour staffers and Moore held a conference call. Collectively, they agreed The Ridge at Back Brook couldn’t host the tournament. Twenty-five minutes later, Rivas, still in a parking lot in Princeton unable to move, received a phone call from Carlson.
“We need you to come over to Rolling Green.”
“Now I’m trying to make a U-turn to get to Rolling Green on U.S. 1, and it was flooded, too,” Rivas said. He had to take another detour, with turns here and there, before he was finally heading west. The 54-mile drive that should have taken Rivas about an hour in normal conditions took four.
Meanwhile, Carlson and Rob Ohno, the PGA TOUR’s Head of International Tours, also began working the phones, calling golf courses within the TOUR’s TPC Network checking on availability. “I knew Brandon was doing everything he could to help, but we started asking just to see what was out there. Admittedly, we were getting to the point where we were trying to throw a Hail Mary,” Carlson added.
Matthews, a two-time PGA TOUR Latinoamérica winner during the extended 2021-22 season and a newly minted Korn Ferry Tour member, looked up Matt Occhiato’s number in his phone and called Huntsville’s head PGA professional. “I’ve played that course at least 50 times and have been around Matt since he’s been there,” Matthews said of his relationship.
Standing adjacent to the ninth green at Huntsville Golf Club Thursday afternoon, Occhiato looked at his ringing phone and saw a familiar name appear on his phone’s screen. Occhiato, who also coaches the Wyoming Seminary Prep boys’ golf team and was scoring the players as they finished their rounds, looked at his assistant coach and said, “Why is Brandon Matthews calling me?”
He was about to find out.
“Brandon explained the situation with the Forme Tour and what was happening at The Ridge,” said Occhiato, who immediately put wheels in motion. “I called my general manager, and he said he would talk to the owner, Mr. Maslow.” Then Occhiato waited.
Dick Maslow, a Brooklyn, New York, native who built Huntsville Golf Club in 1994 after selling InterMetro Industries, the company he founded, picked up the phone when Jeff Fry called. Huntsville’s GM explained the situation to Maslow, who didn’t take much time to ponder the question. As Matthews noted, the owner of the course didn’t have to take the proposition the club’s committee. Maslow is the committee.
“When Jeff explained what it was all about, I agreed with it and thought it would be a nice thing to do, to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the Tour,” the 89-year-old Maslow said while seated at a table in the dining room overlooking the course. “It’s a good time of the year to have something like this, so I just said let’s go ahead and do it.”
Occhiato returned Matthews’ call, sharing good news. Huntsville was in. Matthews immediately called Carlson.
The next step was to tour the course. Carlson understood the Tour couldn’t hold a golf tournament on a course sight unseen, so Carlson and Rivas made plans to head to the heart of the Pocono Mountains, outside of Wilkes-Barre. At Rolling Green, as the tournament played on, rumors swirled among the players about what was going on in New Jersey: Would there be a tournament the following week and, if so, where? With Carlson, Wiles, Rivas and Operations Manager Mike Hartviksen all fielding texts and phone calls from players, the Tour issued a statement from Carlson that went to both players and the media at 5:15 Thursday night. Carlson was optimistic things would work out with Huntsville Golf Club, but he wouldn’t know for sure for at least another 16 hours. His purpose in writing was to keep the players in the loop via a statement that was short and without much detail because, well, there were few details to share.
The statement read, “The site of our season-ending Forme Tour Championship at The Ridge at Back Brook in Ringoes, New Jersey, sustained extensive damage Wednesday and Thursday due to historic flooding associated with Hurricane Ida. The Ridge at Back Brook is unplayable, and repairs and reconditioning won’t take place in time for next week’s tournament. As a result, we are postponing the Forme Tour Championship at The Ridge at Back Brook as we evaluate the situation and examine our options.”
“The reason we waited until the end of the day Thursday,” Carlson said later, “was because we were trying to have a more clear, concise message in the statement. We knew we couldn’t play at The Ridge, but we weren’t sure we could find a course to play next week. The players also had to hear at least something official from the Tour.”
The two options Carlson and his team faced: Find a place to play the following week or wait until the week of October 4. With the Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying Tournament first stages set to begin and numerous Forme Tour players competing in those qualifiers, Carlson recognized the Forme Tour couldn’t hold a tournament opposite those qualifiers. If he couldn’t find a course to play on the regularly scheduled date, the Tour would have to wait all the way until early October to play its season-ending event.
The Rolling Green Championship had also suffered delays and issues associated with Hurricane Ida and needed to finish the tournament by Saturday. The Tour couldn’t even make its 36-hole cut until Friday afternoon.
“We were under the gun because Friday, guys were finishing their second rounds. If they didn’t make the cut, they were trying to figure out their travel plans. Mike was getting hounded,” said Carlson of Hartviksen, who also serves as the Tour’s Official Scorekeeper. Hartviksen, the first official players met as they finished their rounds, knew what was in the works. But without anything definitive he couldn’t say anything as the questions kept coming.
Friday morning, Carlson and Rivas got in the car, hopped on Interstate 476 and headed north for the two-hour drive to Huntsville Golf Club. What greeted the Tour officials when they arrived was a golf course set among rolling hills in a bucolic setting. It was a beautiful late-summer morning, the leaves already turning and oppressive heat giving way to morning temperatures in the 60s. Carlson and Rivas at first blush liked what they saw, but there was one issue—a potential deal-breaker.
Nineteen days earlier, on August 15, the club aerated its greens, a process that punches holes in the ground to open room underneath the surface to spur better root growth. The club’s maintenance staff does the work on the greens. However, because of the size of the golf course overall, the club subcontracts the aerating of the fairways to an outside company. The greens and fairways aerification were to happen at the same time, but there was a fortuitous glitch that played in the Forme Tour’s favor. “The company we contracted with canceled on us. They pushed us to October,” Occhiato added. “I don’t think we could host this if we had aerated our fairways.”
“The aerated greens were the one holdup in the backs of our minds as we were looking at the golf course,” Carlson noted. “That was my only concern,” added Rivas of the greens. “The rest of the course is a jewel. The layout is amazing.”
Huntsville did sustain some hurricane damage, primarily washed-out bunkers. But the maintenance staff had already begun regrooming those by the time Carlson and Rivas began their tour.
“Basically, at this point two or three greens on the front (nine) still have some punch marks. So, I was 90-percent in,” said Rivas of his commitment level to recommending the course. As the duo visited each subsequent hole, evidence of aerification seemed less obvious. Based on what he saw—and didn’t see—Rivas was inclined to recommend the Tour strike a deal with Huntsville Golf Club as the new host of the Forme Tour Championship. Carlson was in agreement, his feeling that players would want to play on the scheduled date as opposed to waiting a month.
After four hours at the course, the duo drove back to suburban Philadelphia, an impromptu rules committee meeting taking place on the phone as Rivas drove south. The committee discussed everything in play—the competition itself, the players, the course condition and sponsor obligations, among other things. Committee members agreed to go ahead and sign a deal with Huntsville Golf Club, the new home of the Forme Tour Championship.
“We decided it was probably in the best interest of the Forme Tour and the players that we play this week at Huntsville Golf Club,” Carlson said. “We were in a difficult situation for no reason except the weather, and I felt the players would understand and be appreciative that we found another golf course in the matter of a day.”
In the tournament office Monday afternoon, Carlson shakes his head at the whirlwind 96 hours he had just experienced.
“I didn’t see how it could come together so quickly, especially in the area. You’re not just trying to find a golf course, you’re trying to find a golf course that’s playable with the amount of rain this whole area got. And we’re trying to have a professional golf tournament that will challenge these players. This doesn’t happen without Brandon,” Carlson explained. “Brandon doesn’t want to take any credit, but he was so instrumental in all of this. We’re not from here. We didn’t really know where to turn. Brandon stepped up and made this happen.”
Matthews, who isn’t eligible to play in the Forme Tour Championship, has already returned to his home in Tequesta in South Florida. He has no vested interest in the Forme Tour Championship other than the fact he has a pretty good idea what is going through the players’ minds.
“My whole thing was I felt for the guys who potentially are on the (Points List) bubble. They need to play that week. Anyone on that Tour knows whether it’s canceling that event or rescheduling an event to a later time wouldn’t be ideal for players. I can only imagine being in that situation, and I can understand what it would mean to get a golf course quickly. That’s the main reason I wanted to do it,” Matthews said. “I felt bad for everybody involved—from the players all the way to the Tour. It was a really tough situation they were in. I was fortunate to have connections to help out.”
By midday Friday, Huntsville Golf Club and the Forme Tour had an agreement, and at 5:15 that evening, the Tour notified players of the change and issued a press release.
“To get that golf course on short notice is pretty cool. Huntsville is amazing. The guys are going to love it because that place is really, really special,” Matthews added.
Last week at this time, Occhiato and superintendent Mark McCormick, and their staffs, assumed the Labor Day weekend club championship would be the final big event of the season. Now, everybody is preparing for a Forme Tour tournament that begins Wednesday and concludes Friday, with a 36-hole finale.
“Tuesday was going to be my only day off this week,” said Occhiato, acknowledging that his daughter, Evelyn, is starting kindergarten Tuesday. He squeezed in some Dad time, but once Evelyn was at school, off to Huntsville Occhiato went, along with his wife, Bridget, who runs the retail side of the golf shop in true family-affair fashion. “Bridget was getting ready to be all nervous about our daughter’s first day of school, and now she’s more nervous about this tournament,” Occhiato said, laughing.
Monday afternoon, Rivas wasn’t laughing, but he was definitely smiling. Much had changed in the two-plus days since his first visit to Huntsville Golf Club.
“The golf course is getting better by the minute, and the greens are not a concern at all. The superintendent and his team have done a great job. Everything looks better,” Rivas said. The tournament begins Wednesday morning. By the weekend, the Tour will have crowned its final champion of the 2021 season, and the top-five points earners will be on their way to join Matthews on the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour.
Maslow is also smiling. His golf course will be on full display. He’s happy to be involved. “It’s good to give back to the golf community, and it’s good for the course,” he said.
As Maslow stands up to greet a couple of his members, someone asks him what his role will be this week, as if making his course available isn’t enough.
“My job is easy. Just stay out of the way.”