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Original Issue

An awesome light touch

Ever since Lee Trevino got zapped, the highly charged atmosphere on the links has turned Into a physical, as well as a figurative, concern

For those who prefer their summertime leisure activities spiced with a tingle or two of dread, it couldn't be a more electrifying year. First comes Jaws to scare the trunks off normally complacent beachgoers and send them scampering to the safety of...the golf course? No refuge there from fear and trembling. The widely publicized incident during June's Western Open in Oak Brook, near Chicago, where Lee Trevino and two other touring pros were zizzed painfully but nonfatally by lightning, has opened up a whole new world of outdoor Angst.

The consequence all over the country has been to send duffers scurrying for what they consider safety at the first sighting of gray clouds. Even the pros are paying more attention to the TV weathermen and their meteorological patter. As well they might. Nine times in the last seven tournaments, lightning has delayed or disrupted play. The opening round of the Canadian Open was halted for three hours last Thursday when a particularly violent electrical storm roared over the Royal Montreal Golf Club at Ile Bizard, catching about half of the 153 players out on the course. Most of them braved the bolts to return to the clubhouse, but Jack Nicklaus and five others were taking no such chances. They found shelter in the sumptuous summer home of Doug J. Baillie, a Montreal businessman and golf buff whose part-time residence abuts the fourth hole.

"Nicklaus seemed to be looking for lightning," Baillie says. "He sniffed it out. They all took cover in a hut under a tree but I didn't think it looked that safe, so I invited them in." While Nicklaus spent most of the time dozing on the sofa, the others sipped lemonade and discussed lightning. "Jerry Heard was particularly anxious," Baillie recalls—understandably so, since Heard was one of the players jolted with Trevino in Chicago. "He told me, 'Once you've been hit, you'll always be terribly nervous when there's lightning.' "

Nicklaus, who was six under par through 12 holes when the storm hit, went back out on a sodden course, still ripped by high winds, and managed to duplicate Tom Weiskopf's course-record 65, completed before play was interrupted. They tied again with six-under-par 274s at the end of regulation play on Sunday. Weiskopf went on to birdie the first hole of sudden death for the win. Other golfers were not so responsive. Trevino, the shoulder burns incurred in Chicago healed, shot a 71 on the first round, and 280 for the tournament to finish tied for seventh. "If I shoot a 77, I don't give a damn anymore. At least it doesn't upset me as much as it used to," he said, implying a new sense of values resulting from the Chicago sizzle. "Something like that is an experience you never forget. Emotionally, it shook me up."

Many other lightning victims have lived to recall the fearsome experience. The National Safety Council estimates that 120 Americans die annually upon being hit by lightning, but that about two out of three victims will survive. The world record-holder for lightning strikes (according to Guinness) is a 63-year-old Virginia park ranger, Roy C. (Dooms) Sullivan, who has been hit five times since 1942, the latest and most severe blast coming in 1973 after he had stepped out of a truck. "It set my hat and hair on fire," he recalls. "Then it went down my left arm and leg, knocked off my shoe, and crossed over to my right leg. It also set my underwear on fire."

Since 14% of lightning deaths occur on athletic fields and other places of recreation, many golfers have been hit. In the past 10 years Jim Davey, the pro at the Bobby Jones municipal course in Atlanta, was struck once and had another frightening close call on the 7th hole at the nearby Piedmont Park course. "While I was waiting for the green up ahead to clear, the fellow playing behind me hit, and his ball rolled between my legs," Davey relates. "I went ahead, but that man was struck and killed right where I'd been standing just seconds be fore." The second time, in the same area of the 7th fairway, he saw sparks fly out of his wedge. "It burned the bottoms of my feet and my insides shook for three days," he says. Mac Sams Jr., also of Atlanta, is another double victim, but in his case both strikes occurred this year. The first, in early May, merely shivered his umbrella as he ran for the clubhouse; the second, which killed two of his playing partners, sought him out under "some damned persimmon trees," knocked him cold and left him forgetful of even his own name.

"I never knew what hit us," says Sams. "I was standing there one minute commenting about how wet my pants were and the next thing I knew, I was flat on the ground and couldn't even move."

Clearly the old saw about lightning never striking twice in the same place is about as hollow as a thunderclap. The very nature of the phenomenon virtually guarantees that it will strike not just twice but almost inevitably in the same place. The highest ground usually gets it first. Lightning is the result of a build-up of static electricity in rapidly moving, churning clouds. It can be likened to some huge, vaporous man scuffing the soles of his shoes on the deep-piled carpet of the sky, and then touching a finger to the ground—zap! It's the same type of spark we all get when we walk across the living-room carpet on a dry, cold day and touch the light switch. Only bigger—up to 20 million volts.

The power of lightning, and the intense heat it generates, can split a mature oak into flinders and cinders. The heat causes the sap to boil in an instant, the resultant internal pressure being enough to pop the tree apart. Then the dry wood, damp just a moment before, can literally burst into flames. Since a lightning charge always is seeking to neutralize itself as quickly as possible, anything standing on an open surface becomes a prime target: a tree, a housetop, a telephone pole, a man on a tractor, a golfer—particularly with a club or an umbrella raised—hiking across an open course.

Rives McBee, a former touring pro who now serves as head pro at Las Colinas Country Club near Dallas, expresses the deep awe in which golfers who value their lives hold the phenomenon. "I was one of the cowards who ran from lightning in this year's Open, like Ben Crenshaw," he says. "Some people laughed at Crenshaw when they saw him on TV running to the nearest shelter. They weren't laughing after Trevino got hit the next week." McBee's blitzophobia dates from the death of a friend, Jackie Hawkins, who was killed by a bolt about eight years ago on an Arkansas course. "Some people just don't realize that's a lightning rod above your head when you swing a club. And the spikes on your shoes ground you pretty well."

The shoes probably play less important a role than the mere height of the club—or the golfer's head. Lightning, which can strike up, down or sideways and which sometimes even rolls itself into "great balls of fire" cascading toward the nearest prominent object—animal, vegetable or mineral—is looking only for an oppositely charged body to join in its fiery embrace. If there's no metal around, wood or flesh will do just as well. Some golf course experts recommend running or riding a golf cart as swiftly as possible to shelter when lightning approaches. A cart, they suggest, is not "grounded," thanks to its rubber wheels—at least not in theory. But, in most instances, it is an open vehicle, and 42% of all lightning deaths in America occur on farms, a preponderance of the victims being farmers riding their rubber-tired tractors. The problem seems to be that the rubber-tire theory does not take into account the fact that the passengers are riding on top of, not in the vehicle. A fully enclosed automobile is relatively safe, as the static charge dissipates its energy around the metallic shell of the car.

What, then, is the best way for a golfer to avoid the heavenly hellfire?

First, stay off the course if thunderstorms are reported in the vicinity.

Second, if they show up suddenly and from a dry sky, listen closely for the siren blast that most golf courses use to signal lightning danger. Then leave your clubs and head for the clubhouse or the lowest dry ground in the vicinity.

Third, if lightning is actively working in the immediate area, get rid of your club and your umbrella quickly (it's too late to worry about shoes by now), lie down flat in the nearest depression and pray that the hollow does not fill with water—a splendid electrical conductor. A judicious decision must be made at this juncture between returning to the safety of an enclosed shelter—which will not only keep you dry but spread the shock if lightning should hit—or weathering it out. The best advice, though, is to take the low ground and hold it until the electrical cannonade ceases.

Make no mistake, lightning is a real and omnipresent threat and a far more realistic danger than the Great White Shark which populates our nightmares care of Peter Benchley. And where the shark is relatively random in its choice of victim, lightning is quite selective. It only takes the tall ones—the bits of matter protruding highest above the surface.

Thus it can be avoided.

The best way, though expensive, might be to take a lead from IBM, which has built a number of nearly lightning-safe golf courses. The IBM Country Clubs in Johnson City and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. have rain shelters dotted along the course—open-sided, half-wall log cabins.

Ironically, Lee Trevino—the most celebrated golfer to be struck by lightning—may also be getting weary of the honor. Last week in Montreal he said, "It's like digging up the dead to ask them, 'What did it feel like when you died?' Actually, it gets sickening, a little, this talk about lightning. I got hit. I didn't want to get hit. When golfers ask me about it, I tell them not to talk about it. I don't want to talk about lightning. I'm not interested in it."

Ah, though, lightning is interested in you, Señor Trevino. And Dooms Sullivan can tell you what that is like, with five variations at last count.