Field Test

Duck! You dummy...

Golf can be deadly, if you don't use your head. The results of our exclusive tests will show you why

June 1999

Justin Tune was doing his buddy a favor -- jogging back down the fairway to retrieve a dropped bottle of water -- when he was drilled in the head by a ball from the tee 150 yards away.

"It hurt," the 12-year-old from Twain Harte, Calif., recalls of that day last August. "And then I couldn't move my right hand all that well."

What Justin had suffered, the doctors later realized, was a cerebral hemorrhage to the area of his brain that affects muscle control. The good news: After six weeks and many test-filled trips to the hospital, Justin is back to normal.

"Because he was young, Justin healed really fast," says his mom, Stacy. "What bothered us most was that the golfer came up to Justin and said, 'You OK?' And then he just kept on going. There Justin is, dazed and bleeding, and the man who hit him played right on through."

Each year, nearly 40,000 golfers are admitted to emergency rooms after being injured at play, most by errant golf balls and flying clubheads. It's accidents like those -- and untold other injuries and near misses -- that led Golf Digest to conduct the most ambitious golf-safety test project ever attempted. We wanted to find out exactly what kind of damage can be expected from the most common types of impact -- and how to prevent it.

To help us find the answers, we recruited the perfect volunteer: a Hybrid III male anthropomorphic test device, a.k.a. a crash-test dummy. Five-foot-10 inches tall and weighing in at 180 pounds, "Crash," as we took to calling him, is designed to represent an average adult male. Other models are made to represent women and children.

High-tech dummies have long been employed by the auto industry to measure forces of impact and potential risk of injury. "But the only folks who are using them in the sports world are us," says David H. Janda, M.D., director of the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine. Based in Ann Arbor, Mich., Janda's organization investigates such hazards as fatal arrhythmias caused by baseballs striking children in the chest.

So we had our dummy, and we had the brains behind him. All we needed now was a sadistic golfer with pinpoint accuracy.

Enter Gene Parente, owner of Golf Laboratories Inc. and the inventor of the industry's leading robotic hitting machine.

hit in the head

Parente's machine is designed to duplicate different types of swings and to repeat them over and over at speeds in excess of 125 miles per hour. In short, the perfect device to hit the screaming duck hooks, wild slices and ugly shanks we needed to rifle at our dummy.

The hitting machine squared off against Crash on a bright, windless morning in January. The setting was an unused polo field in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., just north of San Diego. Our first test: to measure the risk of injury possible from an errant line drive off the tee -- the type of shot that could strike a player on a forward tee or a spectator watching a tee shot from just outside the ropes. We set Crash against a stack of hay bales 35 yards in front and to the left of the hitting machine. Technicians Brian Czach and Beth Kedroske from the Institute then connected sensors in his head to a sophisticated "data acquisition" computer positioned nearby.

The hitting machine was fitted with a 9-degree driver set to swing at 105 m.p.h., which would launch the ball toward its target at nearly 135 m.p.h. with an acceleration force approaching 40,000 g's. To dial in the duck hook, Paul Parente, Gene's brother and Golf Labs partner, set impact for a half-inch toward the heel and a tenth of an inch above the sweet spot.

With a push of a button, the robot wound up and sent the ball rocketing straight into...

The dummy's crotch.

The assembled onlookers (including a crew from CNN) groaned in unison, but the low blow meant nothing to Crash. Only the three accelerometers in his head were on-line. Parente tweaked the machine, and three swings later we were gathering the needed milliseconds of data from blasts off the dummy's forehead.

Getting hit head-on is every golfer's greatest fear. For good reason: The test data indicated a force of impact about a tenth of what would be expected in a head-on car crash. The likelihood of a fatality is quite small from such a blow. However, "impact at that speed could cause a concussion, cerebral bleeding or, for a child or an older person with osteoporosis, a skull fracture," says Janda. Our target was the dummy's frontal lobe, the hardest part of the skull.

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