How a foursome of tour pros learned (almost tragically) that lightning is nothing to fool around with
For the majority of golfers, lightning is just something we're reminded of during National Severe Weather Awareness Week, or when a suspension of play during a tour event gives a broadcaster the chance to remind us that lightning strikes the earth worldwide about 100 times a second. By and large we are blissfully unaware of lightning's potential severity.
But there are historical reminders of lightning's danger for golfers, such as the lightning-affected 1983 U.S. Open and 1989 PGA, and the spectator deaths at the 1991 U.S. Open and PGA.
And then there is the 40th anniversary of a frightening lightning event at the 1975 Western Open. It was during the second round June 27 at Butler National in Oak Brook, Ill., when dark skies, rumbling and lightning forced tour officials to suspend play. While still playing, however, Tony Jacklin was in his follow-through when a lightning bolt knocked his 8-iron 30 feet out of his hands. Remembering the day in 2002, he told Golf Digest's Guy Yocom, "I was immediately aware of a burning taste in my mouth."
When another bolt knocked his playing companion Bobby Nichols to the ground, he got up with "a look of terror on his face I've never forgotten," Jacklin said. A woozy Nichols told a club official he felt strange and didn't have his equilibrium. The official, Red Harbour, later explained, "I knew there was something wrong -- and then I smelled his breath. I'm in the construction business, and I know what burned wire smells like. That's just what I smelled. I called for an ambulance right away."
Two other players, Lee Trevino and Jerry Heard, were next to the 13th green under a tree with umbrellas open, following Trevino's thinking of waiting out the storm. They were stationed next to their golf bags full of metal clubs when a lightning bolt hit a nearby lake and the current spread to where they were sitting. Both players suffered burns to the body, Trevino to the back and Heard to his mid-section where the handle of his putter was resting.
Trevino, Heard and Nichols were sent to a hospital in nearby Hinsdale; only Heard was able to get out in time to continue playing. When the Western finished on Monday with a 36-hole wrap-up, Heard amazingly tied for fourth. In the ensuing years, all three would be affected by health issues. Trevino notably had chronic back problems and underwent several corrective surgeries.
Although they were affected by indirect hits, the three could have done things differently under the conditions and avoided the near-tragic outcome. Trevino and Heard, for instance, violated several lightning safety tips by sitting under a tree, near a body of water and adjacent to their steel golf clubs rather than going immediately to an enclosed building or car.
Lightning experts will say not to wait to get off the course until you see lightning but before, and that you should wait about a half hour after lightning has left the area to resume play. The USGA's safety tips include:
When you hear thunder, lightning is near. Immediately head indoors.
Seek to enter: A large, permanent building; fully enclosed metal vehicle (cars, vans or pickup trucks) and the lowest elevation area.
Avoid: Tall objects such as trees and poles; small rain and sun shelters; large, open areas; wet areas; elevated areas; all metal objects, including golf clubs, golf carts, fences, electrical and maintenance machinery and power lines.
If sudden, close-in lightning does not permit immediate evacuation to a safer place, spread out from your group, squat down, tuck your head and cover your ears. Head for the safest place as soon as immediate threat passes.
For other lightning safety tips and weather resources, you can check out lightningsafety.com (National Lightning Safety Institute), ametsoc.org (American Meteorological Society), and usga.org (United States Golf Association).