Lightning. Now there’s a force of Nature you really don’t want to mess with, especially when you find yourself out on a golf course and it lights up the sky.
We’re lucky in Ireland that – at least so my mammy used to tell me – we “only” get “sheet lightning” and not “forked lightning” which is the stuff that really does damage to man, beast, and anything else that gets in its way.
Hmm. Maybe my Ma was just trying to console us, but these days with the climate changing and everything, nobody could feel too comfortable being caught out on the fairways when a peal of thunder is accompanied all too soon by a flash of Nature’s special brand of illumination.
Such was my experience a couple of weeks ago. Now, in all my born days, I have, touch wood, never actually been caught out in a serious storm when playing golf.
This day, playing a few holes alone on a cool but pleasant enough evening at The Links Portmarnock, the only issue was searching for a golf ball when one managed the rare feat of hitting a stray shot – at least, I would have you believe it’s a rarity!
Tipping along quite happily I was going down the fifth when I noticed the sky darkening. Drops of rain began to fall. And then, on the sixth hole it really got ominous when in the distance I heard a grumble that was not my stomach after a feed of curry.
Thunder? Surely not? What’s going on? My pace quickened and so did the swing. The rain began to fall harder and the thunder got louder and as I bustled along I was sure I saw a flicker of lightning.
Ok. Now here’s the daft thing about it. It’s raining heavily. There’s another roll of thunder. Was that another flash? This is getting too close for comfort and it’s a long way to the safety of the Hotel and clubhouse.
But, hey – muggins can’t resist teeing off the seventh. So I do that, but after the thunder rolled louder again, that was it. Pick the ball up and head for home. Bag on back, I shuttle along as fast as my little legs will carry me.
It’s lashing rain now. As I beetle down the seventh I’m thinking: “What to do? Drop the bag and leave those potentially lethal lightning-attractor clubs out there? Go find a bunker and lie down flat?” Trying to remember, what’s the best advice.
At least, there are no trees on the Links, apart from the one on the first fairway. That might help. I will never forget watching the television news in July 1964 and hearing that John White, one of the great Spurs players of the Double-winning team, had died when sheltering in trees from a storm on a golf course in Enfield, near London.
No good. The lightning got him. It seemed so sad, such a waste of a marvellous talent at the tender age of 27.
Back to the present. I start to think of what might happen if I did get toasted by lightning. Would my loved ones think: “Why the f…k didn’t he dump the clubs and take cover? “Why was he staying out there trying to make it back to the Hotel? What possessed him to stop and tee off on the seventh hole?…If only he had sheltered…”
Now, it wasn’t that bad. The storm seemed to be moving away, even as I hustled along the course.
But still…it would only take a real bit of bad luck to find that somehow, a freak surge of the hard stuff made landfall on my oul’ noggin.
It was comforting, somewhat, to meet up with Course Superintendent Fintan Brennan who was out walking his dog, and he didn’t seem concerned at all, bar the drenching we were all getting.
Americans, however, know all about the dangers of the lightning that causes so much damage in their country.
I got a taste of it at the US Open in Oakmont in 2016. That was the real deal, but though the Media Centre was getting a big lash of wind, and thunder rolled above us, I was fairly comfortable until…. CRASH. BAAANG.
A bomb? The noise truly was that bad. A total explosion. An American media colleague, who shall be nameless, just took off out of his seat and started running for the exit.
Halfway up the walkway he stopped. Some people laughed. He looked a tad embarrassed. I thought: “probably the right thing to do.” He wasn’t getting any criticism from me. Nobody knew what had occurred and whether there might be more to come.
Turned out that a lovely old tree about 100 yards from the Media Centre was split in two by lightning. What would have happened if it hit the Centre? I don’t know and I hope never to have to know.
At this stage, I’ve parted company with Fintan and am still power- walking hard as I can. Almost there, but not quite. And from my right come an American couple who have been out playing. Their caddie is about 100 yards behind them, carrying their bags. He’ll have to take his chances. If he survives, he might even get a tip!
The man and woman are jogging. He’s a bit slower than her, but it’s clear they’re getting out of Dodge as quick as they can. I’m at one with them in wanting to make it off the course a.s.a.p, but there’s a touch of gallows humour in the scenario for yours truly.
The guy is jogging towards the first tee. It will take him longer to get to the clubhouse that way. The woman has sussed that the shortest way home is up the pathway that leads from the short game practice area.
She goes for it. It’s clear that in this situation, it’s every woman for herself.
The bloke has to make his own way as best he can.
Happily, sodden but relieved, I get to the car. Got away with it, never in any real danger, but it was not a nice feeling to be so exposed to the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Two major champions, Lee Trevino and Retief Goosen, amazingly suffered severe lightning strikes and lived to tell the tale.
Trevino was hit in June 1975 at the Western Open. Super Mex was holding an umbrella when the bolt hit him. He fell to the ground. Fellow players Bobby Nicholls and Jerry Heard also got a blast, as did a scoreboard carrier and Tony Jacklin.
Trevino suffered burns to his back. Nichols had head injuries, and Heard incurred burns on his leg. Jacklin’s club was knocked out of his hand and he felt a taste of burning in his mouth.
How serious was it? Well, Trevino was told by doctors that only his strong heart saved him from death. It was, he said, a life-changing experience.
Up to then he had been enjoying the fruits of his success on Tour without much heed to anyone else. Afterwards, Trevino’s perspective changed. He appreciated life more and became involved in charity work and eased off on the party scene.
Later, he came out with the immortal line that if you’re ever caught out in a storm, hold up a 1-iron “because even God can’t hit a 1-iron.”
That old joke was quoted recently by the great Gary Player at the induction of fellow South African Retief Goosen into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Goosen, 50, a two-time US Open winner – both times with our own Colin Byrne on the bag – smiled along with everyone else, but his description of the day he was hit by lightning was chilling.
The date was January 30, 1985, a few days before Goosen’s 16th birthday. He and his cousin Henry Potgieter cycled to the local club in his home town, Pietersburg, now known as Polokwane, for a quick nine holes.
“We got there, and there was a little bit of weather around, and it started raining,” said Goosen.
“About on the fifth hole we stopped and we hung around in the rain shelter a little bit. And then it cleared up and off we went. And we got on number seven, a long par-4, and we both hit bad drives down the right.
“And we just started wandering off in that direction. He (Henry) was luckily walking sort of 20 yards in front of me, and the next moment I get knocked over.”
“Knocked over” is putting it mildly. What Henry saw when he turned around was young Retief on the ground, smoke coming off him, clothes gone, blood coming out everywhere on his body. Burned black, head to tail.
Goosen takes up the tale: “Not knowing what to do, he just ran off to the hole next door, and there was a group of four guys playing, and to my luck one of them was a doctor.
“The guy was literally there in a few minutes and brought me back to life. I was basically dead there. When I woke up, I was in the hospital covered with bandages from head to tail, looking like a mummy.
“But it was really a lucky escape, should I say. You don’t know where you’re going to wake up when something like that happened.
“I didn’t see any lights. I didn’t see anything else. Lucky for me when I woke up I was in the hospital, and literally three weeks later, when I could get my shoes back on, I was back on the golf course, and here we are today. Still going, luckily.”
Indeed he is. The 2019 Hall of Fame inductee is now a Champions Tour player. His regular career yielded 35 victories worldwide, including his US Open dual success and the 2004 Smurfit European Open at The K Club.
Happily, the chances of being hit by lightning while playing golf are relatively small. Golf Monthly reported two years ago that a 60 year old golfer, Philip Shard, had died after being struck on the course at Fynn Valley GC in Witnesham, near Ipswich and died in hospital four days later after a cardiac arrest.
Like John White, Mr Shard had been sheltering under a tree. He was the fifth golfer to die in this way in the UK since 1999.
So what to do? Well, first, heed the advice of a US National Weather Service lightning safety specialist John Jensenius Jr who says:
“Our victims are at the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place is anywhere outside. The wrong time is anywhere that you can hear thunder.”
Richard Kithill, President and CEO of the US National Lightning Safety Institute has a clear and simple set of instructions:
“A good rule for everyone is: “If you can see it (lightning), flee it; if you can hear it (thunder), clear it.
“Where is a safe place? How quickly can we get there?” golfers should ask themselves.
“Go to large permanent buildings or get into a fully enclosed metal vehicle (car, van or pickup truck).
“Avoid trees since they “attract” lightning. Avoid small on-course shelters: they are intended only for sun and rain safety. Don’t wait around for the next strike, please.”
Sounds like a good plan. Let’s just hope none of us have to use it.