Some golfers need a jolt of reality

May 12, 2010

Several years before I discovered golf, two friends and I took an all-day woodworking class. The instructor devoted the first half-hour to an emotional lecture on safety. We must never even think about using our power tools, he told us, without first putting on eye and ear protection (which we had been required to bring to class). Then he turned on his router -- essentially, a hand-held lawn-mower engine with a drill bit attached -- and the entire class crowded around to watch him work. Despite the lecture we had just listened to, we left our safety goggles and earplugs lying on our desks. And so did the instructor.

Most golfers I know, including me, have a similar attitude toward lightning. We respect it in theory, but we do little to actually protect ourselves. When my friends and I see lightning or hear the pro's warning siren, we dutifully head back to the clubhouse. But then, as often as not, we hang around chatting in front of the golf shop -- on the highest point of the property, directly beneath the two tallest trees. We've sacrificed golf, so we feel virtuous and responsible, but we're likely in greater peril than we were on the course.

One of lightning's most frightening characteristics is its failure to consistently follow the safety rules that we have established for it. Several trees on my course have been hit, yet none of them is one you would have picked in the lightning pool at work. The most recent was the shortest tree in a row of white pines at the bottom of a valley -- exactly the sort of tree that, in an emergency, you might decide you'd be safe to hide under.

The only member of my club who invariably does the right thing in a thunderstorm is Nancy, a past club champion. When she hears thunder, that's it, she's done: She heads for her car, drives home and doesn't come back until long after the storm has passed. The reason for her caution is firsthand experience. When she was a little girl, two children she knew were killed by lightning. One was her bunkmate at summer camp; the other was playing in Nancy's front yard while Nancy watched from the window -- in bright sunshine, 30 minutes after the rain had stopped.