Golf and lightning: How real is the threat? |

Golf and lightning: How real is the threat?

CMNM photoIts nice to play through in balmy conditions, but golfers need to be aware of quick changing weather patterns in the High Country.

In the late 1980s, a foursome of Summit County golfers, Pete Hanigan among them, enjoyed an afternoon round at the Breckenridge Golf Club. The day was overcast, but by no means outwardly threatening.After teeing off on the eighth hole, the foursome approached their balls to hit their second shots. Mother Nature never let them.We were just walking down the middle of the fairway, and the next thing you know, BOOM! We were all on the ground, Hanigan recalled.Lightning had struck. Though it didnt hit the men directly, the bolt which they say they never saw packed a powerful punch. After lying on the ground for a moment, scared to death (Hanigan said on a fear scale from 1-10, he was a 10), the group sprinted to the woods for cover. Minutes later, they grabbed their bags and scrambled back to the clubhouse, leaving their balls and carts on the course.As far as any of the dozen or so people interviewed for this story were aware, the incident was the last known lightning strike to affect a human being on a golf course in Summit County.Since then, millions of golfers have enjoyed the areas mountain courses in safety. The absence of known incidents is not a coincidence, either; according to the National Weather Service, the annual odds of getting struck by lightning are 576,000 to 1.Last year, however, a pair of attention-grabbing events involving golfers and lightning in Colorado brought the threat into the spotlight. In June, 19 people were injured four critically while playing golf on a makeshift course near Kremmling; and in May a 47-year-old man was killed on a driving range by a freak strike in Littleton. The mans 16-year-old son was injured by that same strike.The threat is real, said Scott Stephens, a meteorologist with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. Although the occurrence of thunderstorms is not as frequent (in Summit County) as areas to the east, the lightning threat from those that do develop is every bit as great.Not that Hanigan or anyone else with first-hand experience with lightning needs to be reminded. Hanigan said he takes a lot more precaution now and that he has a healthy respect for thunder and lightning. Its something to be aware of.Erroll Miller, head pro at the Breck Golf Club, not only was present the day of Hanigans knockdown, he saw lightnings vicious and gruesome effects up close when he was 18. Working at Indian Tree Golf Club in Arvada, Miller was one of the first on the scene when a golfer was struck on the chest by a powerful bolt.His chest was purple and red and yellow, pretty much every color you can imagine, said Miller. It was a burn, a direct strike. The ambulance came right down the fairway to get to him.

Many golf courses use a siren or horn to warn their patrons when lightning is in the area, but the tactic is far from 100 percent effective. The Meadows Golf Club, where the 47-year-old was killed in May, is one that uses a siren. On the day that the man was killed, however, the siren never had a chance to do its job; seemingly coming out of nowhere, the fatal bolt was the first of the day in the area.The weather was fine, actually, said Jared Prince, a Meadows pro shop employee who was there the day of the death. It wasnt even really overcast it was just out of the blue.Unpredictable scenarios like that are a prime reason lightning is so dangerous in golf. Because courses are wide-open areas with little in the way of cover a trait that makes anybody in the area, especially those holding metal clubs in their hands, extra vulnerable they invite strikes more than most golfers realize.Still, despite the prevalence of unpredictable High Country thunderstorms, none of Summits five courses uses a warning system like the Meadows. Instead, they rely on the odds staying in their favor.Folks probably have a higher chance of having a heart attack than getting hit by lightning on a golf course, said Philip Tobias, a pro at the Keystone Ranch Course.Spokespersons for all five local courses said they do what they can to warn their patrons of the risks before they go out for a round, and the Breck Golf Club posts signs at some of its tees advising golfers that inclement weather is not monitored. It is the patrons responsibility to seek shelter.Jim Banks, operations manager at the Raven at Three Peaks Golf Course in Silverthorne, said his course monitors for dicey weather, but that the site they check only shows precipitation, not lightning.Lenient rain check policies also are the norm at Summit courses, allowing the patrons to play it safe without the dread of losing their expensive round of golf.Colorado perennially ranks in the top three states for annual lightning strikes, and since 1959, according to the National Weather Service, more than 400 people have died in the state from getting struck.Still, the odds will always be long, even on a golf course in the mountains. Which leaves those in charge little choice but to trust their patrons instincts and hope for the best.Its basically just a personal responsibility issue, Banks said. Were not going to drive around in carts and say, Hey, theres lightning in the area. People should be aware that theyre in the mountain environment, just like they would if they were going hiking or biking or fishing.Devon ONeil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at

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