Golf Course Sinkholes: A More Common Problem Than You Might Realize

  • Glenn Davis

By now there’s a decent chance you’ve heard the bizarre (and scary) story of Mark Mihal, the guy who was just playing a round of golf in Waterloo, Illinois, standing on the course, minding his own business… when he fell into an 18-foot sinkhole that hadn’t previously been visible. Thankfully he only suffered minor injuries, but the prospect of the earth’s surface beneath you suddenly turning into a crater that practically eats you alive like the Sarlacc is still unsettling, to say the least. Here’s what the sinkhole looked like:

Crazy, right? Well… yeah, crazy, but not as much as it might look on the face of it. While this is the first such story we can recall hearing about, golf course sinkholes actually aren’t all that uncommon. And unfortunately, in 2009, a similar story to Mihal’s ended in tragedy when a woman was killed in Japan after falling into a sinkhole on a course that opened up below her. A picture of that sinkhole:

Additionally, last November, a blog about maintenance at the course at By Oaks Country Club in Houston shared several photos of two sinkholes on the course, and the repair process:

Not quite as dramatic as the previous two, but a sinkhole’s a sinkhole. And the video below showcases multiple sinkholes that opened up on a Florida course last year (and also features Mark Joyella, formerly of our sister site Mediaite):

So… why all the sinkholes? Well, here’s a primer on how they’re formed:

Rainfall percolating, or seeping, through the soil absorbs carbon dioxide and reacts with decaying vegetation, creating a slightly acidic water. That water moves through spaces and cracks underground, slowly dissolving limestone and creating a network of cavities and voids. As the limestone dissolves, pores and cracks are enlarged and carry even more acidic water. Sinkholes are formed when the land surface above collapses or sinks into the cavities or when surface material is carried downward into the voids.

So it’s not so much that golf courses themselves are conducive to sinkhole formation as it is that areas with a lot of limestone (or similarly permeable rock) underground are susceptible. Maybe the drainage systems at golf courses create a flow of water that helps this process along (“Sinkholes can be triggered by human activities such as: overwithdrawal of groundwater, diverting surface water from a large area and concentrating it in a single point, artificially creating ponds of surface water, drilling new water wells”), but as non-experts in earth science, we can’t say anything for sure on that front. What we can say for sure: this story did not make us want to go golfing.