Editor’s Note: In light of the flooding in Houston, we are sharing this story of loss and redemption from last year. Please contact the GCSAA for your donations.
Forgive Matt O’Dell if he does not trust in “The Farmer’s Almanac” or believe in local legend.
O’Dell, the superintendent and general manager at Aberdeen Golf Club in Eureka, Missouri, has experienced the wrath of the 500-year flood twice in the last 16 months. You can’t blame him if he is just a bit gun-shy every time the skies open and the rain comes pouring down.
“They [the natives of the area] said after the first time that it was the 500-year flood, and the good news was I would never see it again in my lifetime,” O’Dell says. “Well, it happened again. That was a quick 500 years. You never forget what happened, and brace yourself a bit every time it looks like a big rain.”
He admits that the experience has tested his resolve, not to mention being a challenge for his family and staff. But with the support of his owner, family, golfers and others, Aberdeen is back in business – and better than ever, according to golfers.
Dick O’Connor, a regular at Aberdeen, said that one month after the torrential downpours, the course looks as good as ever. “You can’t tell this place was underwater a few weeks ago,” he says. “The course is in great condition and there is no debris anywhere. I know it is trite to say this, but the place has a family atmosphere, from the owner to the staff to the golfers. Everyone pitched in to help, and the golfers are extremely loyal. They weren’t going to quit playing here.”
What a Normal Day at Aberdeen Looks Like
A public course owned by the Dollarhide family, Aberdeen has a links feel to it; 10 percent of the bunkers feature sod walls and flat bottoms. It is situated along the banks Meramec River basin. The bunkering is strategically placed, and when the seasons change, winds cause the course to play differently throughout the year. The winds also tend the swirl on portions of the course, adding to the challenge. Rated as the third-most-difficult challenge in the St. Louis metropolitan area, Aberdeen is a popular tournament venue, hosting U.S. Open qualifiers and several PGA section events.
“We do our best to maintain it the way it was designed to be played,” O’Dell says. “The bunkering is done just right. He [designer Gary Kern] did a great job with the bunkers; they always seem to be in the way.”
“It’s just a fun course to play,” O’Connor adds. “The staff does a great job and the atmosphere is fun. The parking lot always has a lot of cars in it, and on the weekends it’s just packed. It’s a popular course.”
Aberdeen Floods: Take One
To get the full picture of what O’Dell and his staff has faced, one has to go back to December 2015. O’Dell, a native of England, returned to his homeland with his wife and child to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Day. Back home in the southwest suburb of St. Louis, the rain began to fall, and fall, and fall. In all, 11.75 inches of rain fell in a three-day period, flooding the Meramec River, which borders the course on three sides. His home sat a few hundred yards from the banks of the river and the clubhouse was just up the hill. Both were flooded.
Because of his travel itinerary, O’Dell was unable to return home immediately to deal with the issue. He was getting communications from friends and co-workers, but the kicker came when he was watching the Golf Channel and aerial footage showed the course – and his home – engulfed in water. That’s when the severity of the situation hit home.
“Imagine seeing that on television,” O’Dell says. “It was pretty demoralizing. I couldn’t get home to do anything about it. We felt trapped and helpless.”
Upon returning home on January 5, O’Dell surveyed the damage. His own home had 4.5 feet of standing water on the first floor and a completely flooded basement. He estimates that 95 percent of their possessions were lost. The cart barn, maintenance facility and clubhouse had 5 feet of standing water. The clubhouse was gutted and 20 percent of the maintenance machinery was ruined.
On the course, 17 of 19 greens were underwater, 75 percent of the bunkers were lost, gravel paths were washed onto greens, and some late-fall turf work was damaged. The Herculean task of clean-up and restoration included removing debris, brushing fairways, replacing bunker drainage, adding 400 tons of sand, verticutting greens (later followed by aerating), and repairing the practice green, which had a 12-foot by 4-foot hole in it.
At the same time, drywall work and new appliances were needed for the clubhouse. The interior of his home was gutted and O’Dell helped assist contractors with repairs while his wife and daughter stayed with friends.
After the December 2015 flood, O’Dell and his staff began to “flood-proof” the course. They removed sand from several bunkers near the river and in low-lying areas and sodded them. Smaller floods are not uncommon, so dealing with washed-out bunkers is a way of life. He even took precautions for his home, adding “flood-resistant” floorboards and moving electrical outlets higher on the walls.
When the water reaches 28 feet, it starts to back up through the course’s drains and bunkers. At 38 feet, nearby homes have water in the basement and more than half of the course is underwater. At 46 feet, the clubhouse is flooded, the golf course is inaccessible because roads are closed, and water is filling the first floor of homes near the O’Dell residence.
Aberdeen Floods: Take Two
On April 29, the skies opened again, dumping 12.5 inches of rain in three days. Although the volume was greater this time, the timing of the storm and the long-term forecast gave the staff an opportunity to prepare, taking things off the floor and placing them on pallets.
Given those preparations, nobody expected things to be as bad as they were. The first five feet of drywall in his home and the clubhouse had to be removed, as well as all of the carpeting. O’Dell said 60 percent of the bunkers were lost and 300 tons sand was ordered to repair them. He says the “blessing” this time around was that the weather was conducive to a huge volunteer effort from golfers and other superintendents in the area. Greens were flushed to remove the silt, debris was removed, and the greens and fairways were aerated. Remarkably, the effort resulted in the course opening a mere two weeks after the flood.
The Silver Lining
It is understandable that O’Dell is a bit shaken by the results of the past two years. Still, he has no plans to leave Aberdeen because he’s come to love the community, the course and the people.
“It’s been such a blur,” O’Dell says. “In one sense it’s been a waste, because everything we had done to get the course in the best condition it has ever been is now gone. But there are people who are suffering much greater losses. I think of the people back home in England, dealing with terror, and I realize how blessed we are.”
If there is one bright spot, it is O’Dell’s supportive family, which grew by one when his daughter Emma arrived on September 6, 2016. He calls his wife Aaron the “true hero,” having had to re-establish a home for the second time and move the family from friend to friend for lodging while their home is being repaired. He says for their sake, they are considering moving to a house out of the flood plain.
“One of the great parts of my job is I provide a means for people to get away from work and other pressures,” O’Dell says. “People love being out here to enjoy the environment of the golf course. That keeps me going. I love being out on the golf course, too.”