Sylvain Cote
The Miracles Issue: Sisyphus Wins

After The Earthquake, How One Man Rebuilt Golf In Haiti By Hand

October 12, 2017

Sylvain Cote was in the frozen-food aisle of his local grocery store when the ground shook. Harder. Faster. He’d experienced smaller tremors twice before, but nothing of this magnitude. Once the building swayed from side to side, he knew it was a big one. He leaned against a column under a metal beam near the meat counter and waited.

“The longest 45 seconds of my life,” he says.

On Jan. 12, 2010, just before 5 p.m., an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter Scale rocked Haiti, killing 300,000 and injuring countless more. Its epicenter was about 16 miles southwest of the capital in Port-au-Prince, not far from where Cote lived.

Cote climbed over debris and crawled out of Olympic Market into a cloud of dust from fallen structures. It took him over four hours to drive five miles. He found his home standing, and his wife and then-3-year-old daughter unharmed. Not everyone was so lucky. More than one million people were left homeless, bringing more suffering to a nation that is already the hemisphere’s poorest and most disaster-prone. The earthquake was the worst in the region in more than 200 years.

Fearing more falling buildings, thousands of people streamed onto the fairways of Petion-Ville Tennis and Golf Club, which sits in a hillside commercial zone. In a matter of days, more than 55,000 people occupied the private nine-hole course, where Cote is a member, and converted it into the country’s largest “canvas village” of tents. The homeless improvised, grabbing whatever they could find—bed sheets, tarps, tires, plywood, sheet metal—as a means of shelter, and lined up to pay the equivalent of eight cents for a bucket of water.

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For three years the course was home to 55,000 refugees displaced by the earthquake.

Cote had originally moved to Haiti in 1998 from his native Canada for a short-term business project. The work became full-time, and before long he had a regular game—and caddie—at Petion-Ville, which is the second-oldest golf club in the Caribbean, dating to 1934. The earthquake was felt across the border in the Dominican Republic, where courses like Casa de Campo and Punta Cana attract players from all over the world. Petion-Ville, conversely, is Haiti’s only place to play.

The roughly 300 members of Petion-Ville realized it would be impossible—not to mention inhumane—to evict all the displaced people. “We had never seen such despair,” Cote says. For several years, the club’s 56 acres would serve the greater good. The pool was drained, and the eight tennis courts functioned as a warehouse for food, water and medical supplies. Actor and activist Sean Penn, through his nonprofit, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, brought a semblance of order. Penn’s temporary office was next to the ninth green, not far from a makeshift pharmacy. Church services were held under a blue-and-white-stripe circus tent on No. 4. An elementary school formed at the fifth, and along what was the second fairway formed a temporary hospital, bank, barber shop and a nail salon.

Thoughts of resuming normal club activity started to flicker in 2013. With support of the International Organization for Migration and Haitian authorities, internally displaced people were given a $500 relocation stipend and a roof over their head. It took 18 months to move every family and dismantle the camp.

The golf course was left in ruin. The club’s board of directors decided not to rebuild it. Too onerous a task, they said.

Cote pitched the board’s president to let him lead its restoration at his own expense. The board’s response: “Go ahead and do what you want, but don’t ask for our help.”

Cote refused to watch golf in the country die. He organized a skeleton crew of a dozen caddies and former course workers to rebuild the course by hand, one hole at a time.

Photo by Dom Furore

Sylvain Cote with three caddies who helped rebuild Petion-Ville's Golf Course by hand.

The process began by collecting and burning trash and trucking away piles of discarded metal and rubber. Every Saturday for more than three years, Cote arrived at the course at 8 a.m. and doled out assignments. When the rest of the workers saw him pick up a shovel and fill a wheelbarrow, they knew he was serious. “It was our project,” Cote says. “The guys were so dedicated and proud to contribute to restoring golf. They did the hard work—I was just leading them.” On weekdays, while Cote was at work, the longtime caddiemaster supervised and followed Cote’s instructions.

They started at the ninth hole, which sits atop a plateau closest to the clubhouse. Two feet of gravel covered the fairway, which had served as a parking lot. They used a backhoe, their only piece of machinery, to scrape away the rocks and remove piping that had transported water, as well as three large cement blocks that had held lampposts. This hole alone took nearly a year to complete.

Rather than re-create the layout, Cote let out the shaft on his imagination. Having lost some land at the former first and second holes, Cote erected a double green. Another green was seeded with bentgrass purchased at a Miami hardware store. Otherwise, they transplanted native grass. All told, they added four new tee boxes, including a stone wall at the ninth and a bunker guarding the green at the finishing hole. Par is 64. Cote’s best round, now age 50, is 66.

Cote and his crew breathed new life into the Caribbean tradition of “island time.” There was never a timetable for completion, rather faith in a perpetual forecast of sunny days to work. In the three years it took to repair the course, Cote kept his guys motivated with the promise of a steady paycheck, and the possible return of their former jobs. He invested $30,000 of his money and raised another $10,000 from other supporters. In addition to getting back a place to play golf, he saw rehabilitating the course as something of a social experiment that bonded a group of men in a common purpose.

“The project kept me going and gave me a reason to stay in Haiti,” he says. The club is once again the social hub of his life. “The members and staff are like a big family,” Cote says. In addition to playing more than 50 rounds a year, he swims laps in the pool and reads in the library.

When Petion-Ville’s golf course reopened in May 2016, the club hosted a scramble tournament to which all the workers had free entry.

During the celebratory barbecue, a club member approached Cote. “I never thought you’d do it,” he said. Cote just smiled.

Photo by Dom Furore

No. 6 at Petion-Ville Tennis and Golf Club

Photo by Dom Furore

One of two lawnmowers used to cut grass at the course.

Pictured above: Hole No. 6 green (left) and No. 2 green (right).


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