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Hole In Their Hearts

An Illinois golf course earned notoriety recently when a man fell into a sinkhole, but that's not the hole AnnBriar Golf Course is defined by

March 15, 2013

NBC News came calling. Then Good Morning America and Fox News and the BBC, and before William and Nancy Nobbe knew what was happening, they were being bombarded by media from New York to New Zealand, and the weird thing was that all these reporters missed the story while chasing the news.

"The media has been driving us crazy," Nancy said, laughing in a way that failed to hide her bewilderment.

In the simplest terms, the Nobbes found themselves sitting on the most unusual 19th hole. Yes, that was the story, the thing that caused the reporters and cameramen and TV networks to descend on the tiny town of Waterloo, Ill., where Lewis and Clark passed through on their expedition to the northwest. And so the media passed through this week. But did anyone ever stay long enough to ask Nancy about the hole in her heart, the one that never goes away?

Maybe in some odd way this was supposed to happen to them. Maybe after 20 years there needs to be an excuse to tell the story of a golf course that brings immeasurable joy to a family even as it never lets them shake free of the anguish over their most profound loss.

Last Friday, AnnBriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Ill., about 25 miles southeast of St. Louis, made international news when one of its patrons, a man named Mike Mihal, was swallowed by a sinkhole on the 14th fairway. Mihal, 43, a mortgage broker from suburban St. Louis, dislocated his shoulder when he plunged 18 feet down the hole, but he was quickly rescued with the help of one of his friends, Ed Magaletta, and the Nobbe's son, Russ, the club's general manager.

Related: Golfer falls down 18-foot sinkhole in fairway

"How can you explain it except that it was a freak thing, a freak of nature," Russ said.

Sam Panno, a geochemist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, told the Associated Press that the region of southwestern Illinois has perhaps as many as 15,000 sinkholes. Of course, no one had ever stumbled into one on a golf course.

"It's such a fluke occurrence. You might get five holes-in-one before you ever fall into another sinkhole anywhere in the United States," said Columbus, Ohio, golf course architect Mike Hurdzan, who designed AnnBriar with his former partner Dana Fry. "But probably after what happened in Florida I suppose there's a fascination with sinkholes."

Indeed, perhaps the timing of the story added to its sensationalism. On February 28, a Florida man was swallowed by a sinkhole near Tampa. His body was never recovered.

"If the sinkhole story in Florida doesn't happen, that poor man being lost, I don't think what happened here goes beyond the local media," William said. "Now all of a sudden, the whole world is calling us."

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AnnBriar Golf Course opened May 28, 1993, and the occasion was as bittersweet as one can imagine when its namesake isn't there to share in the celebration. It was Ann, the oldest of the Nobbe's three children, their only daughter, who had prodded her parents into turning a substantial portion of their 345-acre farm into a golf course. Ann loved golf. William and Nancy knew little about the game.

"We didn't think much of the idea at first, but eventually she got us to like the idea," William said.

It was a tough sell for Ann. The Nobbe family had owned the rolling, wooded property since the 1880s. William raised hogs and steers and grew hay. He sublet other portions to local farmers. A pond that borders the sixth green used to be the favorite fishing hole of a frequent visitor -- former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who hailed from nearby New Athens, Ill.

William also ran a Chevy dealership. His grandfather had started it. Nancy's family ran the Dodge dealership next door. "If there was someone at the lot and we weren't there, her dad would call and tell us to get on down there. That's the kind of relationship we had. That's Waterloo, I suppose," William recalled.

When William sold the dealership in 1988, he was looking for something else to do besides tend to the things that make hogs a rather unenviable retirement hobby. Ann, 6 feet tall, athletic and energetic, had an idea. She loved golf, just as she loved most sports, from skiing to tennis to swimming. Ann wanted to quit her job as an office manager at a St. Louis realty company and run the golf course. That was the plan.

On the night of Jan. 26, 1990, when the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers met in the Super Bowl, the car in which Ann and her boyfriend were traveling hit an icy patch at a turn on Route 3 in Monroe County, about four miles north of Waterloo. Neither was wearing a seatbelt, and they were thrown from the car as it slipped off the road. The car rolled on top of Ann, crushing her.

Not two weeks later, at that very same treacherous turn, two separate one-car accidents occurred. There were kids in the cars. They got thrown. They all escaped serious injury.

"How can you even begin to explain something like that, except to tell yourself that it was her time, and that the Lord had other plans for her," William said.

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Ann Hills. Ann Woods. Ann's Golf Course.

For nearly a year the Nobbes couldn't bring themselves to talk about the golf course. Ann had been the driving force. She had seen the plans, and she had gotten excited about its potential. But she never saw one spade of dirt overturned.

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