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.
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.
"Location of the impact is all-important," adds Janda. More serious injury would likely occur with impact to the side of the head or to the face, particularly the eye.
Fatalities do occur. Seven years ago, Thomas Grennan, a sales manager for Miller Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, was enjoying a company outing at the famed River Course at Blackwolf Run Golf Club in Kohler, Wis. Grennan, 64, was on the fairway of the seventh hole when he was hit on the right side of the head by a ball struck by a playing partner 45 feet away.
Grennan was conscious when he was taken to a local hospital, but died three days later of a cerebral hemorrhage. "They flew him to Milwaukee, but there just wasn't time to save him," says David Albrecht, the head professional at Blackwolf Run.
Most injuries occur to golfers playing their home course, whether it's a tony private club or an up-and-back "shooting gallery" run by the city. But medical experts and golf insiders agree: The most frightening place in all of golf is just outside the ropes on pro-am day. "The Tigers and the O'Mearas can hit the ball down a two-inch alley, but those amateurs are scary," says Janda, who calls for the gallery ropes to be pushed back during pro-am play.
Though Charles Barkley may have replaced former President Gerald Ford as the poster boy for errant amateurs (old Bob Hope gag: "President Ford doesn't really have to keep score. He can just look back and count the walking wounded"), getting hit at a pro tournament is no joke. According to St. Paul Fire and Marine, which insures more than 100 professional tournaments a year, nearly 10 percent of all liability claims are the result of golf-ball strikes.
Veteran tour photographer Gary New-kirk tells of watching baseball slugger Mark McGwire pull a tee shot into a Pebble Beach National Pro-Am gallery several years ago: "The ball passed head-high through a crowd lined up 10-people thick. It was a miracle nobody got killed." The force applied to the ball at impact by a big hitter is about 2,000 pounds -- another way of saying that a player like McGwire hits the ball a ton.
Not that you need to make solid contact to do bodily harm. For another ball-impact scenario, we configured the robot to mis-hit a fairway wood off the toe. We then set the dummy 10 paces slightly ahead and an equal distance off to the side -- just the spot where an impatient golfer is likely to be while waiting for a playing partner to hit.
Paul Parente zeroed in on the dummy's shin so quickly that he had the onlookers ducking ricochets. Several direct hits had force sufficient to statistically break a leg. A severe hematoma, or bleeding around the bone, is pretty much a sure thing. You'd be off the course for weeks as the bruise turned from black and blue to a tender shade of yellow-orange.
Accidents often occur when golfers are fooling around. Most at risk are newcomers to the game, particularly children. In 1997, nearly 25 percent of all golf-related injuries occurred to children age 5 to 14. Even more striking, a recent study from Scotland reported that 40 percent of all sport-related head injuries among children were related to golf. Many of these injuries are caused not by golf balls, but by golf clubs, often as a result of kids playing with their parents' clubs at home.
The test results confirmed the expected: Getting clocked by a swinging clubhead is hazardous to your health. "The chance of life-threatening injury is small," Janda says after reviewing the test results, which registered impact forces somewhat less than the readings from the 30-yard duck hook. But given the clubhead's sharp edges, a contusion and skin laceration are likely. After all, from the top of the backswing, a clubhead can reach speeds in excess of 100 m.p.h. in as little as one-fifth of a second. "Though the risk of death from this type of accident is considerably less than 1 percent, that doesn't mean somebody can't die," Janda says. "What does a victim care if they're 1 in 100? For the dead person, the risk was 100 percent."
Our final test was designed to simulate getting hit by a ball from 200 yards out. At that point in its flight, a golf ball is traveling at about 30 feet per second, says John Calabria, vice-president of research and development at Maxfli. That's substantially slower than its speed leaving the clubface, but still a ball you'd want to avoid. Golfers would face a similar situation getting struck by a wild slice from the next hole over or a blast from an impatient golfer playing in the group behind.
For Gene Parente, this scenario brought back painful memories. While conducting a ball test months ago, he caught a 250-yard drive in the back of his thigh. "I felt like I'd been shot," he says. "I don't bruise very easily, but it left a welt the size of a softball." However, as we were setting up, an afternoon breeze coming off the ocean turned Parente's Terminator into a spray-hitting Sunday hacker.
"All it takes is one lucky shot," became our mantra as ball after ball was sent out, only to narrowly miss its target. After 100 or so misses and with twilight approaching, we called it a day. In the end, battered if not bruised, the dummy had survived golf. It would crash-test another day.
It's only fitting, we told each other as we unplugged the computer and dismembered our guest. After you add up all the crazy shots and all the crazy swings made by all us golfers each year, the biggest surprise is not how many people get hit and hurt, but how few.
All it takes is one "lucky" shot. It's the kind of luck no golfer wants.
If any of the following signs appears within 48 hours of a head injury, seek medical attention:
Headache. Expect a headache. If it lasts more than one or two days or increases in severity, however, seek medical advice.
Nausea, vomiting. If nausea lasts more than two hours, seek medical advice. Vomiting once or twice, especially in children, may be expected after a head injury. Vomiting does not reveal anything about the severity of the injury. However, if vomiting begins again hours after one or two episodes have ceased, consult a doctor.
Drowsiness. Allow a victim to sleep, but wake the victim at least every two hours to check the state of consciousness and sense of orientation by asking his or her name and an information-processing question (e.g., recite months of the year backward). If the victim cannot answer correctly or appears confused or disoriented, phone a physician.
Vision problems. If the victim "sees double," if the eyes fail to move together, or if one pupil appears to be larger than the other, seek medical advice.
Mobility. If the victim cannot use his or her arms or legs as well as previously or is unsteady in walking, seek medical assistance.
Speech. If the victim has slurred speech or is unable to talk, consult a doctor.
Seizures or convulsions. If the victim has a violent involuntary contraction (spasm) or series of contractions of the skeletal muscles, seek medical care.