Long Drives/2011 Ford F-150
Austin to New Orleans in a Ford 2011 F-150 pickup
They say the only bad publicity is no publicity, but the folks who make their living in the tourism business on the Gulf Coast might beg to differ.
Battered by two once-every-century hurricanes in the same year, then slimed by the BP oil spill last spring, the the states of the Gulf Coast have been whacked by a potent one-two punch: First the disasters, then the perception among travelers that the region's infrastructure wasn't ready for them to come back, even when the reality was different.
To get at least some sense of how golf has fared through all the adversity, we decided to take the latest iteration of Ford's F-150 truck from Austin along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans for a four-day weekend.
The verdict? Come on in.
New Orleans was the headliner in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita in 2005, and for good reason. More than 20 percent of the city's residents have yet to return after the flooding, and swaths of urban landscape show the heavy scars. Some blocks are pockmarked with empty lots where homes, destroyed in the flood, haven't been rebuilt, and other areas have been scraped completely clear. But in the rocking French Quarter or the stately Garden District, it still feels like the New Orleans of 1970 -- or 1870. We walked Bourbon Street the week before Mardi Gras, and it was just as easy to get a beer, a five-course gourmet meal, a string of glittery plastic beads, a pole dance -- or arrested -- as it has always been.
Outside the preserved tourist core, it's far more evident how hard the rebuilding work has been. TPC Louisiana -- the site of the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic of New Orleans, and a 15-minute drive from the Quarter -- suffered catastrophic damage from Katrina. More than 2,000 mature cypress and oak trees and 30 acres of fairway turf were lost in the flood, and the course was closed for almost a year after the storm. It's awkward to say that the Pete Dye design is better because of the disaster, but it's true. The more open and strategic layout is more entertaining for the average player, and the staff is really happy to see you walk in the door. At $110 in the summer ($69 for Louisiana residents), it's a reasonable ticket to spend five hours inside the ropes of a PGA Tour venue, and worth every dollar.
The best hole is the par-4 12th. It plays 470 yards from the blue tees and features an S-shape fairway protected by sand on the left from an aggressive drive and short and right on the approach. Play away from the vast, 100-yard long bunker down the left side and you have to carry a 170-yard shot over 100 more yards of sand to the green. Or lay up way left, like I did.
One of the tastiest stories of resilience in the Big Easy happened in the gritty, Katrina-soaked Mid-City neighborhood, at the Parkway Bakery. Opened in 1911 and eventually serving the three shifts of workers at the American Can Co. across the street, Parkway adapted its bread in 1929 to contain heaping portions of potatoes with hot roast beef or fried shrimp in the now famous po' boy sandwich. Business trailed off after the can factory closed, and Parkway went dark in 1993. Neighborhood resident Jay Nix bought it from the sons of the original owner and reopened Parkway in 2003, only to get overrun by six feet of Katrina water in August 2005. Undeterred, Nix had the shop open in four months, serving 25 varieties of sandwiches authentic to the original early 20th-century recipes. For our po' boys, roasted turkey and alligator sausage gumbo with sweet-potato fries, we waited in a line that snaked out the back door and onto the patio.
Coming out of Parkway, we half expected to see a crowd surrounding the F-150. Whether by prescience or just plain luck, the truck Ford lent us for the weekend was done up in a paint scheme called Golden Bronze Metallic -- a dead ringer for one of the main colors of the New Orleans Saints' uniform.
If the locals weren't calling out "Who Dat?" in honor of the Saints, they might have been wondering "What Dat?" after getting a look at the delicate green "EcoBoost" badges on the side of the truck. The new F-150 comes with an available twin-turbocharged V-6 engine -- heresy for hard-core truck people. But the new, direct-injection six is more than just a trendy green-movement ploy. It's 20 percent more fuel-efficient, has more horsepower (365 vs. 360) and torque (420 vs. 380) and will pull 1,000 pounds more than its base eight-cylinder sibling, even if it doesn't fill up the engine bay quite as impressively.
You have to give Ford credit for having the courage to sell a truck that isn't really aimed at truck people. Our test rig could certainly tow a 30-foot boat or carry more lumber than your home-center charge card could support. But what the F-150 Platinum EcoBoost really does is carry four full-size people high above the road in quiet, leather-clad luxury. It also advertises, subtly, that you've got 50 grand to spend on a cargo bed you don't really use.
On the expanse of I-10, between Houston and Baton Rouge, the F-150 behaved just like an upscale sedan, but taller, and with acres more legroom and cup holders in front. Retractable running boards make it super easy to get in and out, and Ford has perfected its voice-activated Sync interface to the point that you can push a button on the steering wheel, mumble "Led Zeppelin," and the radio's brain will cue up any Zep song you have on your iPod -- even "Royal Orleans," which is about a guy who picks up a girl in the French Quarter and takes her back to his hotel before discovering she's a he.
Sometimes you just have to see things for yourself before you believe.