As Jerry Heard began the second round of the 1975 Western Open at Butler National GC outside Chicago, all was right with his world. He was 28 years old, in the prime of a career brimming with potential. Since joining the PGA Tour in 1969, Heard had won four PGA Tour events and finished eighth or better on the money list three times. A sturdy 6-footer, he possessed strength and touch and was enough of a shotmaker that he liked to hit a driver off the deck. Heard whistled while he worked.
"He could play," says Lee Trevino, "and he knew it."
In an instant on a Friday afternoon, everything changed. Trevino, Heard and Mike Fetchick were paired when an electrical storm moved near Butler National. Officials suspended play, but with early-warning systems not yet available, the dangerous weather was already close enough to harm.
"I was in my hotel room with [wife] Sally, looking out toward the golf course," says Hale Irwin. "I saw the lightning bolt, turned to her and said, 'If that doesn't get them off the course, nothing will.' That was the bolt that got them."
Fetchick had sought shelter in the clubhouse, but Trevino and Heard decided to wait out the delay by Teal Lake near the 13th green. "Mike walked in, and I was going to go, but Lee said, 'Let's go sit down over here,' " Heard recalls. "We did everything we weren't supposed to do. We were down by the water with umbrellas and everything."
The same lightning bolt struck Trevino and Heard, while another strike got Bobby Nichols across the lake. Heard was burned in his groin, and his muscles went into spasm. "We were lucky we didn't get killed," Heard says. "The doctor said if it had hit us at the wrong time, it could have stopped our hearts."
Trevino and Nichols withdrew from the tournament after being injured. Heard returned to action when the event resumed Sunday--eventually finishing T-4, five strokes behind Irwin--but soon realized, like Trevino, that the lightning had damaged his back. "We both ended up with ruptured discs," Heard says. "Lee had his operated on right away. I waited. My doctor wanted to see if I could get better without surgery. That was the devastating thing to my career. Not so much the injury but waiting and spending two or three years nursing it and playing some poor golf."
Heard's injury kept him from playing the power fade that made him a rising star. "The last tournament I won, all I could do was hook it," he says of his 1978 Atlanta Classic triumph. "I couldn't get through the ball like I used to."
A handful of poor seasons convinced Heard to leave competition, and in the early '80s he became director of golf at South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island, Fla. "I was there 19 years and had a wonderful life," Heard says. "All I did really was tell stories and play a little golf and do a lot of fishing. I didn't miss the tour much. I made a good living."
Heard, 60, has owned and operated Silverthorn CC in Spring Hill, Fla., since 2001. "I bought it right before 9/11, and it's a tough business, but I'm doing fine," he says. Heard, whom Trevino says "would have been in the Hall of Fame if he hadn't gotten hurt," is a twice-a-week golfer now and philosophical about his fate.
"My back hurts every day," he says, "but I don't dwell on what happened. It was career-changing, but not necessarily life-changing. Stuff happens. Some people have operations. Some people get cancer and survive. We survived lightning. You go on. There are a few hiccups in life."