A river of challenges at Shawnee Golf Course

For superintendent Chris Gayheart, overseeing a golf course along the Ohio River has come with its fair share of recent water-related obstacles.


Shawnee Golf Course Louisville
A water rescue was in order last month at Shawnee Golf Course in Louisville, Ky., after a stray dog got stranded on what had become an island green. The rescue was a success. Photos by Chris Gayheart

According to the Ohio River Foundation, almost 10 percent of the U.S. population lives in the Ohio River basin. It certainly affects the livelihood of GCSAA Class A superintendent Chris Gayheart.

Weather — whether it be a nor’easter or a tornado — has made for a long winter, a late spring, and challenges for what seems to be many parts of the country. Louisville, Ky., definitely wasn’t spared. On three separate occasions since February, Gayheart has been tested by floods, evidenced by another flood event just last week that resulted in parts of Louisville’s Shawnee Golf Course beneath 30 feet of water. The submersion has delayed play at the facility, located on the banks of the Ohio River. “Now it’s coming up again,” says Gayheart, a five-year association member. “About every five years, we get a big one.”

Gayheart says the entire golf course is within 350 yards of the Ohio River (holes 15 through 17 are the closest — about 18 yards from the river), which stretches 981 miles, from West Virginia to Illinois. “Every year we seem to get a small flood, but this has been the worst,” he says. “Eighty percent of the course had silt on it, and 12 greens had at least a half-inch of silt. On some of the fairways, we’ve had 6 to 7 inches of silt. Only three of our greens were not under water.”

That’s what can happen when it rains 62 out of the first 88 days of the year, according to Gayheart’s tabulation.

Flooded green
Though it’s impossible to detect here, out in the distance is the No. 10 green at Shawnee Golf Course.

One of 10 golf courses under the umbrella of Louisville Parks and Recreation, Shawnee GC was home to the 1932 U.S. Amateur Public Links. Gayheart, who is starting his seventh year at the facility, was raised in southern Indiana and earned a degree in agronomy from Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.

Anytime Shawnee GC wants to dig within 100 feet of the flood wall, Gayheart must first contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approval. “We’re actually inside the flood wall. We’re between it and the river,” says Gayheart, noting that it’s a 30-foot wall.

During a flood last month, there was quite a commotion, as two walkers who had come to check out the flooding on the course spotted a stray dog that had gotten stranded on a flooded green. They reported the endangered pup, and Louisville’s fire department came to the rescue.

“There’s never a dull moment,” says Gayheart, who hopes Shawnee GC’s back nine will be open for play by this weekend, followed by the front nine and three-hole youth course in a couple of weeks. “That’s life on the Ohio River.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.