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Deadly Bolts
April 23, 2007
Howling winds like those at Hilton Head can play havoc with golfers and fans, but only lightning can cripple or kill them
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April 23, 2007

Deadly Bolts

Howling winds like those at Hilton Head can play havoc with golfers and fans, but only lightning can cripple or kill them

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Heard's point of entry was his groin, on which the tip of his umbrella rested. (On the other side of the lake, Nichols and Tony Jacklin were hit by a separate bolt.) Heard felt every muscle in his body roll up like a party favor. His hands clenched and he couldn't open them. Heard had been so confident of his talent that he once joked he could fall out of a car on the 1st tee at the start of every tournament and still make $100,000 a year. After being struck he told himself, "I'll never play golf again."

Trevino and Nichols spent two nights in the hospital. ( Jacklin suffered only ringing in his ears.) Because flooding on the course caused play to be suspended, Heard had all day Saturday to recover and by Sunday he felt well enough to continue. Amazingly, he shot 72--73 to finish fourth, five strokes behind winner Hale Irwin. Heard didn't realize the extent of his injuries until four weeks later, at the Canadian Open. There Trevino told him, "My back's really hurting."

"So's mine," Heard replied. �They saw the same specialist, but while Trevino opted for back surgery, Heard got a second opinion: Rest and hope for the best. He did.

Eventually, Heard was bedridden for three months and sat out most of the '76 season, during which his wife divorced him. He returned to the Tour in '77 and played in pain, trying to find a swing that didn't hurt. His back went out while he was playing in Japan. In the months that followed he grew fat and irritable. "I used to wake up and be in a good mood," he says of the days before he was injured. "Then I started waking up and my back hurt."

As it turned out, the lightning had damaged Heard's spinal cord and cauterized nerve endings in his tissues. Despite constant twinges, he won the '78 Atlanta Golf Classic. He still couldn't get through a full shot, so he hit slap-hooks around Atlanta Country Club, but he made a bunch of putts and finished 19 under. Figuring the victory was a fluke, Heard finally had the operation that had helped Trevino. "It relieved a lot of aches," Heard says.

Trevino won nine more tournaments on the PGA Tour, but Heard never regained his form. He couldn't hit a cut the way he used to, and he had never been good at tinkering with his swing, even in his prime. "Jerry was a guy who played very instinctively," says Nicklaus. The once preternaturally cocky Heard became afraid to swing. He quit the Tour in 1980. Three years later, broke and living in North Carolina, he heard about an opening as director of golf at South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island, Fla. Heard used a friend's credit card to call the club, then borrowed cash from his parents to pay his airfare to Florida. He was hired and stayed for almost two decades.

Few lightning storms have swept over a major championship tournament with such frightening intensity as the one that disrupted the 1991 U.S. Open. The sky, implacable, walked on stilts of rain, and forked lightning splayed theatrically on opening day at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn., near Minneapolis. More than 40,000 people were on the heavily wooded course when the rain started falling in swaying curtains, and many took cover under the trees.

A half-dozen spectators stood side by side under a 30-foot weeping willow near the 11th tee, one of the lowest spots at Hazeltine. "With its canopy, that willow looked like a great umbrella," says Ray Gavin, one of the six. "When I was running to the tree, I saw lots of people under a giant oak and hundreds more who refused to leave the metal bleachers. I thought, Those fools are going to get hit by lightning."

Two quick cracks of thunder later, Gavin and the others under the willow fell like duckpins. "Actually, we didn't fall," says Gavin's friend John Hannahan. "We melted." A bolt had deflected off the tree and jumped to the six bystanders. The lightning had penetrated Gavin's shoulder and exited through his hip. It came into Hannahan through one foot and came out through the other.

Gavin, now a 65-year-old retired sales manager, was knocked unconscious. When he came to, paramedics were putting him on a gurney. "It dawned on me that from the neck down, I couldn't move," he says. "Not my toes, not my feet, not my hands. I thought I was paralyzed. I thought, My God, I'm going to be a burden to my family forever." Happily, the feeling in his body returned within six hours.

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