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Playing it safe
By John Moody

The fear of lightning is one of the most distressing infirmities a human being can be afflicted with. It is mostly confined to women, but now and then you find it in a little dog, and sometimes a man."- Mark Twain

Lightning doesn't care if you're rich or you're poor. It's an equal-opportunity killer. On a golf course, lightning isn't your friend. All golfers know this. Fatalities are statistically rare, but there's no need to tempt fate.

You may recall that in 1991, at two of the summer's major championships, two spectators were killed by lightning. According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, about 5 percent of the lightning-related deaths and injuries in the United States each year occur on golf courses. So, as we enter the Midwestern golf season, it's good to remember that it's also the season for electrical activity in the skies above.

With today's technology, we usually have some warning that danger is lurking in the gray-green clouds before they roll in, but pop-up storms are another matter. The National Golf Foundation reminds us that lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from where the actual rain is falling. Be on guard, and know what to do. (See box.)

At Panther Creek Country Club, head golf professional Matt Ruehling knows the importance of keeping his golfers safe. 

"We have a system of sirens for lightning. It is a manual system that is operated by the staff," Ruehling said, adding that the club errs on the safe side when it comes to lightning.

Typically, Ruehling pulls players off the course 15 to 20 minutes before a storm arrives, and once the sirens have sounded, no one is allowed on the golf course until the storm has cleared 

Ruehling favors a system, which is also preferred by the LPGA Tour, called Thor Guard. According to the company's website, "Thor Guard evaluates the dynamics of electrical energy within the atmosphere to warn of potential strikes, and it delivers broadcast-quality local, regional and national radar images via the Internet in five-minute increments."

David Impastato at Piper Glen Golf Club feels responsible for his golfers, both young and old. 

"Adults don't always come in when they should," he said. "We use a Sky Scan system, and when a storm is eight to 10 miles out, we clear the golf course. With our Nike Tour kids, we'll go cart them if the storm is 20 miles out, even if we don't see lightning."

It's been more than 35 years since golf legend Lee Trevino was struck by lightning at the Western Open at Butler National in Oak Brook in 1975. Trevino, while fully aware of how close death came, famously quipped that the best way to avoid being struck by lightning is to "hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron."

Lightning had a role in the greatest golf movie of all time, "Caddyshack." One character, the bishop, playing the round of his life, is confronted by a sudden, nasty storm. He misses his last putt, raises his putter skyward and is struck by lightning as he curses the heavens with the memorable: "rat farts." That's funny, but I like it even better a bit later in the movie when all remnants of this man of the cloth are gone as he sits at the clubhouse bar drunk and cursing. "My name's Fred. I'm a man same as you ... there is no God."

The fellas around the 19th hole bar have been known to joke in a sort of romantic way about the possibility of life coming to an end on the golf course. If you've reached a ripe old age, heck, maybe that's not such an unhealthy thought to have. 

It probably conjures memories of Der Bingle. Bing Crosby, the great crooner, died on the golf course in Spain in 1977. He'd just finished a nice round, complimented his mates ... and checked out. Snap. Gone forever. But that wasn't lightning, and Bing had lived a pretty charmed life. 

Dying on the green grass in Madrid, 74 years old, fabulously wealthy and presumably happy, ought to make for a decent last round for a golfer. Bing's wife, Kathryn, reportedly took comfort in the fact that he'd spent his last hours pursuing the beloved game. Had he been struck down by a lightning bolt, she likely wouldn't have been as philosophical. 

You don't want to meet your maker via golf-course lightning any more than you'd like the local alligator to catch you for his supper or a mugger to take you out on the back nine somewhere. It's all so unnecessary.

Listen to your golf professional and shop staff. They are the pros, and they are monitoring changing weather conditions because they care about your safety. Mother Nature is a formidable foe, but if we respect her and use good sense, safety should follow as sure as sunshine follows a storm.

Lightning safety tips


  • Solitary trees
  • Small rain and sun shelters
  • Large, open areas
  • Wet areas
  • Elevated areas
  • All metal objects including: golf clubs, golf cars, fences, electrical and maintenance machinery and power lines.


  • Large, permanent buildings
  • Fully-enclosed metal vehicle (car, van or pickup truck)
  • Lowest elevation area
  • Dense area of trees or bushes

- SOURCE: United States Golf Association


Story published Friday, March 4, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 2 )

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