The “18th Wonder”
Anything close to Chapel Hill’s record rainfall of Sunday turns the last hole of the Chapel Hill Country Club golf course into the “18th Wonder of the World.”
The usually pristine 500-yard par 5, which is bordered by two ponds and has a creek that must be negotiated for the second shot, becomes the unofficial “Lake Chapel Hill” and draws a crowd of gasping observers, amateur photographers and some braver souls who treat it like a water park attraction.
Once the rain subsided Sunday, waders, kayakers and a two lost deer were in the mini-rapids with dozens of cars stopped and people watching from the overpass bridge on Pinehurst Drive. The section of the golf course that sits between the upslope on the 11th fairway and the hill to the 18th green was literally under water.
(Video via Michael Kelley at the CHCC.)
It happens 6-8 times a year and, according to veteran head professional Rick Brannon, it’s the same with many golf courses that sit in flood plains because, frankly, nothing else can be built there. Having part of your golf course under water has become part of Brannon’s life.
“Every time something new is built up stream, it just increases the water flow,” Brannon said Tuesday as the latest clean-up commenced. “With development, there is always more run off. It happened when they built The Oaks, 1, 2 and 3. And eventually with Meadowmont. Basically, we are the drain for Chapel Hill. It is the reason the golf course was built here; it’s not usable for anything but a golf course because of the unbuildable land in a flood plain.”
When it happens as severely as Sunday, you can’t see the tee boxes, the cart paths or the railings of the bridge that carries golfers across the club’s own piece of Bolin Creek. It looks like a genuine catastrophe but, almost as amazingly, within 24 rain-free hours, most of the water drains away. Despite sloppy fairways, golfers actually are playing the next day.
(Below is the 18th hole on a clear day, and below that is the same hole this past Sunday.)
Brannon says, literally, the biggest obstacles to getting the course back into playing shape is the debris the water carries downstream. “You would not believe what we have to pick up after the water drains away,” Brannon said. “It’s almost like people dump their garbage cans in the stream when the storm starts.”
“When you’re at the lower part of a drainage basin, it’s like that everywhere,” said Gus Neville, a civil engineer and long-time member of the club who says in such floods “any reasonable person should stay away.” Or at least on high ground. But it is a sight to behold.
The water seemingly comes from everywhere beyond the sky. The entire Meadowmont development, which is a hilly 250 acres built on the old DuBose Farm sends water flowing down its west side around (and under some) homes that reaches the drains on Pinehurst Drive. That water crisscrosses under the street twice before finding the creek behind the 17th green and on to 18.
After overrunning Bolin Creek and flooding the 18th hole, the torrent eventually reaches the county line to Durham, follows Route 751 and winds up dumping into Jordan Lake. By the way, it’s the same creek that floods Eastgate Shopping Center before adding to the deluge on the last two holes of the country club on its way out of town. That’s what happens at the bottom of a town called Chapel Hill.
In Brannon’s opinion, the biggest contributor in last 10-15 years was the state building a water impoundment near highway 54 on the way to Durham. “That has had the most effect on water than anything,” Brannon said. “There is not a lot of fall between here and there, and because it doesn’t allow water to get out fast enough when it overflows it floods. Otherwise, that area would be drier. When it’s damned up, it backs up.”
Despite internal meetings and one with state of North Carolina officials, the CHCC membership has not found any solutions to the problem. “There wasn’t a lot we could address for our renovation in 1999, so we spent $1.5 million to re-contour the greens,” Brannon said, laughing. “By contrast, Finley spent 10 million to completely rebuild their course.”
In one manner, the state corps of engineers made it worse by installing a half-million-dollar drainage system along the 12th hole to help protect the people who live downstream. But a benefit to the country club is that during normal rainfall more water gets into the ponds on the 10th, 11th and 18th holes, which during summer draughts can almost dry up completely. The additional flow helps the club irrigate the entire course without having to buy water from Durham and pumping it in.
That’s not a problem this summer, when the rainfall has well surpassed last year’s first six months and is only 10 inches shy of the entire year. And not a single county in North Carolina is in draught status for the first time since 2010. When it rains here, it pours.
Last two photos via Jan Bolick