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Harvey survivor van der Walt on PGA Tour comeback trail

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HUMBLE, Texas – Dawie van der Walt still has one of the final pictures saved from the calm before the very literal storm.

In the hours before Hurricane Harvey destroyed the greater Houston area last August and nearly took his home with it, van der Walt stood in his backyard with a collection of meat ready to go.

“I was grilling,” van der Walt recalled. “I was like, ‘If I’m going to go down, I’m going down grilling.’”

Van der Walt lives in Kingwood, Texas, about a 20-minute drive from the site of this week’s Houston Open. While many area pros felt the effects of the storm to varying degrees, the burly South African’s family took a direct hit that led to a harrowing escape.

As the rains came on the night of Aug. 26, van der Walt’s two-story house quickly began to take on water. Once they had a foot of flooding in their living room, he decided to call 911 only to be told that there were already too many houses with 5 feet or more of water. There was nothing emergency responders could do to help.

So van der Walt scrambled his wife and two young daughters, grabbed the few belongings they could and headed outside in search of rescue.

“We got in a kayak, but the current was too strong,” he said. “So finally we found a boat, and we put the girls on a boat and made it out.”

Van der Walt’s tale is one you could likely hear from thousands of Houstonians: no power for five days, with 3 feet of flooding in his house by the time the rains subsided. The months since have simply been an effort to get back to a sense of normalcy.

“It’s hard to keep your attitude up with what happened to him,” said Chris Stroud, who was van der Walt’s teammate and roommate at Lamar University. “It’s still not done, he’s trying to fix a lot of things. He’s had a really tough six months since Hurricane Harvey.”

Van der Walt won twice on the Tour in 2015, but his rookie year on the PGA Tour didn’t go as planned. He returned to the developmental circuit last year, and he counts among his blessings the fact that he failed to qualify for the Tour Finals last fall.

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Instead of heading to Columbus for the first postseason event, van der Walt headed home after a season-ending missed cut and made it back to Houston less than 12 hours before the water came pouring past his front door.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, he spent his hours moving as many possessions as he could to the upstairs (and unscathed) portion of his house, setting his alarm every three hours to change humidifiers and re-position fans in an effort to dry things out downstairs.

With a mounted microwave the only appliance that survived the storm, van der Walt’s family soon became reliant on a plug-in oven and some fish-cleaning equipment that they hooked up to the plumbing to turn into a makeshift sink.

“We were basically camping in our house for three or four months, eating with plastic knives and forks,” he explained.

Professional golf quickly got put on the back burner, as van der Walt turned his attention to salvaging the home he and his family had shared for two years. While many of his neighbors had to return to their day jobs after the storm, he was able to stay home with his father-in-law and find any way he could to help accelerate recovery.

“A lot of it was cleaning up after workers, so they could work until 4 and not 3:30,” van der Walt said. “But we did all the insulation, electrical. We built some stuff, I made some furniture. I helped the guys put in all the windows.”

Van der Walt didn’t have any previous construction experience, but he became a quick study out of necessity.

“I’ll tell you what, I feel like I’m an expert on a table saw now,” he said. “Basically we tried to do as much as we could. We would watch YouTube videos until it got to a point where you needed skilled people for certain stuff.”

Those efforts helped van der Walt’s home become one of the first on his street to return to functional. The construction crew is still there this week, finishing up a few odds and ends and completing a new paint job. But his neighbor’s house remains uninhabitable, and progress on other nearby homes is slow.

Recovery also isn’t cheap, as van der Walt estimates his out-of-pocket expenses have exceeded $250,000 – and that doesn’t count the car he lost that didn’t carry liability insurance, which he only replaced this week after purchasing a new ride from a friend at a buyer-friendly price.

“I thought it was going to be $200,000, but it’s been well over $250,000,” he said. “Every day, there’s just more stuff. I can’t tell you how much stuff I’ve had to buy twice. Like, I already bought this. Now I’ve got to go buy it again.”

Stroud and fellow Houston resident Bobby Gates organized the Hurricane Harvey Relief Pro-Am at Bluejack National in December, a one-day event that raised more than $1 million. He shared that the van der Walts are one of 40 affected families who will receive a five-figured portion of those proceeds.

“We’re really excited that we were able to get him a check,” Stroud said. “Hopefully that will relieve some pain.”

Van der Walt played a handful of events at the start of the year, first on the Tour and then in his native South Africa. But he didn’t break back onto the PGA Tour until this week, when after his application for a sponsor exemption was denied he went out and earned one of four spots available in Monday’s qualifier.

It’s somewhat fitting that his first PGA Tour start since the 2016 Wyndham Championship came Thursday in front of friends and family, as van der Walt opened with a 2-under 70 just a few miles from the house that Harvey tried to take away.

“He’s so talented. He just needs opportunities,” Stroud said. “He’s a PGA Tour player. He doesn’t need to be on the Web, he needs to be out here. He’s good enough to win.”

For a man who has been put through the wringer over the last six months, van der Walt has somehow managed to maintain an affable personality. He remains blown away by the amount of people, both friends and complete strangers, who have offered their services or found a way to chip in as he and his family attempted to rebuild.

It’s been a trying period that has taken time, effort and significant resources away from his pursuit of a professional golf career. But he’s hopeful that a good round at the right time on Monday might be the spark he needs to reclaim a regular spot against the game’s best.

“If I can shoot about 62-62-65, I can win this thing and maybe break even,” he said. “After all the taxes and all that stuff, I should be about back to even.”