Deadly Bolts

Deadly Bolts

In the U.S., 5% of the 100 deaths and 500 injuries caused annually by lightning occur on golf courses.
Jacqueline Duvoisin/SI

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.

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.

Hannahan, a 59-year-old real estate appraiser, remembers looking out on the 16th fairway. Then came a bright light. And a hollow expression on the face of the young man lying nearest the willow’s trunk. That man was Billy Fadell, a computer technician whose father had worked as a course marshal the day before. Fadell, 28, was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, the first-ever lightning fatality at a PGA Tour-sanctioned event.

Meanwhile, Hannahan’s heart had stopped, but he was revived by a volunteer fireman at the scene. Hannahan wasn’t totally conscious until he woke up in an emergency room 45 minutes later. “I looked at the end of the bed and saw my priest, my doctor and my wife,” he says. “I thought, This is not good.”

Heard, too, has developed a dark sense of humor. For the last six years he has been part owner of Silverthorn Country Club, the hub of a retirement community in southwest Florida. Most days after work, he fishes for bass in the water hazard on the 9th hole with his schnauzer, Miles. “Jerry could’ve been a superstar,” Trevino once said, but Heard says he could happily spend the rest of his days mixing it up with his members, fishing with Miles and dreaming of Nicklaus. There’s just one thing, he says. “We get a lot of lightning here.”

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