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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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The late-afternoon sun slants low through the Osage orange trees off the 7th hole at Inniscrone Golf Club, burnishing the bunkers with a soft, warm, wintry glow. Here in the mushroom country of Pennsylvania, these mock orange trees--battered by wind and scarred by lightning--flank the fairway like wounded veterans in a memorial parade for some forgotten hero. � Ripening "monkey brain" fruit hung off the branches two summers ago when John Needham popcorned a tee shot past the trees. The 45-year-old contractor was competing in a charity scramble to benefit the Tick Tock Early Learning Center in Avondale. It had been raining, but now the skies seemed to be brightening as Needham, a passenger in a cart driven by his partner, John Skross, pulled up to a bunker. Needham stepped out and leaned down to pick up his ball. At that instant there was a flash of lightning and a deafening boom of thunder. The blast of electricity knocked Skross off his feet and hurled him through the air. Needham crumpled to the ground. "The bolt was two inches wide and about as white as could be," recalls Buford (Boots) Wilcox, another member of the foursome.

The lightning melted the gold chain around Needham's neck, fusing liquefied metal to the skin. His heart stopped. Skross and Matt Maloney, the group's fourth player, began CPR, but attempts to revive the fallen golfer failed. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was declared DOA. "It was a real freak of nature," says Wilcox. "On the news that night, Hurricane Schwartz, our local TV weatherman, said the bolt that hit John at Inniscrone was the only one in Chester County that day."

Of all sports, golf may be the most vulnerable to lightning. To a lightning bolt, a golf course is an open field. And a human being, particularly one holding a metal club, is a ready lightning rod. On top of that, the game is played among trees and water, both of which attract lightning.

Lightning kills an average of 100 people and injures 500 annually in the U.S. Five percent of the casualties occur on golf courses. Major championship winners Lee Trevino, Bobby Nichols and Retief Goosen are among those who survived strikes with relatively mild physical complications.

Trevino and Nichols were fried almost simultaneously during the 1975 Western Open in Illinois, prompting the Merry Mex's famous crack: "I should have held up a one-iron. Not even God can hit a one-iron." Eleven years later Goosen, then a 17-year-old amateur, was nearly killed by a strike in his native South Africa that left him with an irregular heartbeat, diminished hearing and a pile of scorched clothes he still keeps in a drawer. All three pros are thankful for getting a mulligan in life.

Needham was squatting on the berm of a hill when that fatal bolt struck him in 2005. "Around here, we have a saying: Everyone has a lifetime clock," says Wilcox. "It doesn't matter what you're doing or where you are, when your time comes up, death is going to get you. Even on the 7th fairway."

The million-volt bolt of energy that zapped Jerry Heard on June 27, 1975, at Butler National Golf Club in Oak Brook, Ill., not only shocked his central nervous system but also short-circuited his PGA Tour career. One of the most consistent players in the sport, he spiraled down like a Titleist circling a cup. Today, at 59, the golf he plays is mostly at night, in his dreams.

"I play a lot with Jack Nicklaus," says Heard, who had won four tournaments in the six seasons before the lightning struck. "Not beating him, just competing." Heard will be on the tee but unable to find a place to put his ball in the ground; there's always something in his way. Or the Golden Bear will be calling his name on the tee--it's always the 1st tee at Riviera Country Club, way up at the top of a big hill--and Heard can't get there. Or Heard has too many clubs in his bag and he's frantically pulling them out. "Weird stuff," he says. "Nothing like making a 40-footer to win the U.S. Open. I don't have that one."

Heard's nightmares began in '75, when he and Trevino were huddled under an umbrella on the edge of the 13th green at Butler National, by Teal Lake, waiting for a shower to pass. It was the second round of the Western Open, and the skies overhead were sunny and clear. Suddenly, lightning from a distant thunderstorm flashed sideways across the water and threw the two golfers into the air.

Golf's most infamous lightning bolt had surged through Trevino's bag and up his arm before exiting out his back. This was the second time Trevino had been lit up while playing golf. In case you were wondering, the odds of being struck are roughly one in 700,000 in a given year and one in 5,000 over the course of an 80-year lifetime. The chances of getting hit twice? One in nine million.

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