Emma Talley’s golf course is a dumping ground for homes after the tornado

Emma Talley flew to Singapore this weekend to resume the LPGA season, but her heart is never far from Princeton, Kentucky. It’s a friendly, hopeful community with four red lights and a big sign that says “Emma Talley’s House” on the way to town. When Talley, 27, got her card for the 2018 season, a 5-foot-wide photo of her appeared in the local Wal-Mart.

Talley was halfway around the world in New Zealand when a devastating tornado ripped through her beloved Princeton on December 10, 2021, with winds of up to 190mph causing widespread destruction.

Talley’s parents’ house was fine. A piece of metal went through one of the windows but nothing major. The Talleys live on the 16th hole of the Princeton Golf and Country Club, and they weathered the storm in the basement of club president Fred Foltz, who lives near the 16th green.

Although Talley’s Greenspoint neighborhood was not directly affected, many families in the golf course’s other community, Country Club Hills, lost everything.

“My parents have survivor’s guilt, to be honest,” said Talley, who was able to broadcast local Southern Hemisphere news. As Talley was eager to get home to help, his mother told him to stay put. Someone might need his room.

Emma Talley at the 2021 Hugel-Air Premia LA Open at the Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles. (Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Brandon Knoth, a local lawyer, had lived at Princeton’s second hole for seven years with his wife and three children. He is the default girls’ golf coach at Caldwell Country as second daughter Claire is the school’s only player.

Knoth was in the corner of the basement on the couch with a girl under each arm when the tornado hit. Their ears popped from the pressure and the roar was so loud they couldn’t hear their house tearing above.

Had he known the seriousness of what was about to happen, Knoth would have brought their three dogs with them. When they went up to see the damage, the garage was gone with the dogs. Miraculously, two of the dogs returned, but their youngest, a one-year-old English Cream Retriever named Basil, did not survive.

Knoth’s wife and eldest daughter immediately returned from a birthday trip to Miami to find utter chaos. Some of the walls were still standing on the first floor, but apart from a few clothes from a chest of drawers, most were gone. There was a washing machine in the yard, but it wasn’t theirs.

Residents scoured the golf course to pick up scattered personal effects – shirts, ties and photos. The Knoth’s sliding glass door shattered into the living room and their chair flew across the yard, but somehow the Christmas stockings – in that same room – were still hanging from the mantle.

“We had just finished renovating our house,” Knoth said. “We loved it and never planned to leave it.”

While the EF4 tornado was Kentucky’s deadliest on record with 77 fatalities, incredibly, no one in the Princeton community died. The last census put Princeton’s population at 6,270.

Princeton Golf and Country Club. (Photo: Photo by Darren Ramey/Farless Realty)

Mayor Dakota Young said 62 homes have been demolished in Princeton and the number is expected to rise to 70 by the time insurance reviews are settled. Foltz said at least 40 of those homes are located in the golf course community.

Talley shared a GoFundMe link on her social media accounts to try and help raise funds. Fellow Kentucky native Justin Thomas joined her in raising awareness, as did top American Nelly Korda. To date, the Caldwell Chamber Tornado Fund has reached $155,737 on its target of $200,000.

Emma’s father, Dan, the town’s optometrist, was willing to pay out of pocket for Princeton residents’ contacts and glasses before her provider arrived with help. Her mother, Jennifer, helped sort through the debris to find clothes she could take home to wash again and again. The Talleys lent one of their cars to a friend. Two families are currently living in their home in Princeton while they winter in Florida.

“People need help,” Talley said. “There’s not much to say other than that.”

Emma and Mayor Young grew up together in Princeton and graduated from the same class. Emma’s mother used to make chocolate chip pound cake, Young said, when he came home to study biology.

Young graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in economics and, at age 24, became mayor of Princeton. Talley said he was one of the main reasons the city’s cleanup efforts moved so quickly.

The tornado hit on a Friday. Young said he contacted the golf course on Saturday to inquire about using part of their property as a landfill, given the lack of space in the area.

“They didn’t hesitate,” said Young, who set a 45-day goal to wrap up major cleanup efforts. They finished in 43.

Princeton Golf and Country Club. (Photo: Photo by Darren Ramey/Farless Realty)

The landfill is approximately one acre in size and has 60 full homes buried within it as well as countless garages, sheds and roofs of other properties. Built into an existing hill, it blends in well with the current landscape and does not interfere with existing golf holes. Young called it a godsend.

“You wouldn’t guess there was a landfill there,” Foltz said, “ever.”

Knoth said the tornado was at least eight houses wide. This is the number of people in a row who have been pulverized in his street.

The Knoths are trying to make plans to rebuild on that same land, and their new home would be located near their old home, now covered in dirt.

“He will be buried there behind us forever,” he said.

A cardinal rests on Claire Knoth’s hand the morning after a tornado destroyed the family home in Princeton, Kentucky. (Photo: Tara Miller)

Fortunately, downtown Princeton was spared. Residents still go to work and school every day. Some simply no longer have housing in the city because they have to face exorbitant construction costs. With construction costs up nearly 20%, many in Princeton find themselves unable to rebuild what they lost.

“We’ve heard costs of $250 to $275 per square foot,” Young said. “It’s extraordinary.”

Golf course superintendent Lee Childress lives about 30 minutes from Princeton and said the tornado circled about 15 miles south of his home. He had no damage. The next morning, he drove to the golf course, bringing a change of clothes and a generator to an employee who lives on the course.

Childress, an excellent player in his own right, has been superintendent of the local club for three years now, and Foltz said the course was in the best condition he had seen in his arrival over 40 years ago. Unfortunately, only four holes were unaffected by the tornado. Stealing two-by-fours, Foltz said, caused significant damage to the greens.

Princeton’s front nine holes were designed by famed architect Perry Maxwell in the 1930s, and the trees were the main source of protection against low scores, as they rocked at around 6,600 yards. With nearly 300 trees lost, they’ll have to get creative with the tall grass.

Princeton Golf and Country Club, before the tornado. (Photo: Photo by Darren Ramey/Farless Realty)

Princeton Golf and Country Club, after the tornado. (Photo: Photo by Darren Ramey/Farless Realty)

“That was probably the most impressive thing, in a bad way,” Childress said. “The force of Mother Nature being able to tear a mature oak tree from the ground and move it 5 meters.”

They had hoped to open nine holes in March, but damage from an ice storm began to mount in early April.

“Hopefully this front nine can be a sanctuary for people,” Talley said.

Everyone in the Knoth family had a set of clubs and they kept two golf carts at home. They still couldn’t find one of the carts, but the other was lying upside down on a pile of garbage. Someone told Knoth, “I bet that thing will always work.”

The cart had no seat or roof, but Knoth put down a piece of plywood and hit the gas one day and it went like a bullet.

“It’s Lightning McQueen,” Knoth said, referring to the main character from Pixar’s “Cars.” “We joke that he was struck by lightning.”

Brandon Knoth’s golf cart, truck, and home the day after the tornado. (Photo: Photo by Darren Ramey/Farless Realty)

In her first LPGA tournament of the year, Talley gave away cash every time she birdied to help Princeton. Later this year, she plans to help with a fundraising event in Paducah, Kentucky that would benefit reconstruction efforts in and around Princeton.

Before boarding a plane bound for Asia, Talley live-streamed his high school district’s basketball game. It follows Princeton just as the city follows it. There is a kind of monument dedicated to him on the first tee of the country club. Members hope to have all 18 holes open by the end of the summer. Lee said their biggest need right now is manpower.

“Everything was shattered,” Childress said. “We have to go around and almost sort by hand the shingles and small debris that we can’t pick up with any type of equipment.

Talley feels renewed energy for his golf game this season. After having to rebuild her momentum last year, she isn’t shy about declaring her goal of making the US Solheim Cup squad next year in Spain. No doubt there would be a viewing party at the club. Any excuse to celebrate and support one of their own.

“I think that’s what’s cool about a small town,” Talley said. “There is a lot of hope.”

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