Truths and myths about summer lightning and golf in South Florida

Todd Basso was on the ground, the left side of his body smeared with grass and dirt. He couldn’t move.

Above him, blue skies shone like a beacon welcoming golfers to the final round of the South Florida Open at the Naples Beach Club.

Yet, the former Jupiter resident had just been struck by a lightning bolt that left him conscious, but paralyzed.

“It all happened within a second,” said Basso, who was a professional and operations manager at Jonathan’s Landing in Jupiter. “It was just boom, boom.”

There are many myths about lightning and golf — it’s attracted to metal, it never strikes the same place twice, rubber-soled shoes offer protection — but two persistent fallacies are that clear skies are lightning-free and golfers are the biggest victims.

Basso, who fully recovered from the lightning that targeted him on the fifth tee that day in 1993, was an exception to statistics that show golfers are low on the scale of lightning casualties.

According to an analysis last year by the National Weather Service, “the common belief that golfers are responsible for the greatest number of lightning deaths was shown to be a myth.”

Between 2006 and 2014, fishermen accounted for more than three times as many fatal lighting blows as gofers, while camping and boating each accounted for almost twice as many deaths.

Even yard work accounted for more lightning deaths nationwide during the nine-year period — 13 as compared to golf’s eight.

“People get the idea that jewelry, headphones, golf clubs attracts lightning but that’s not the case at all,” said Matt Bragaw, a meteorologist and lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service in Melbourne. “Metal conducts electricity very efficiently, but it does not draw electricity to it like a magnet.”

If anything, Bragaw said, it’s the act of swinging a club that might draw lightning’s attention because it makes the gofer the tallest object in what is usually the mostly wide open terrain of a tee or fairway.

“Anytime you increase your height, you increase your chances of getting hit,” Bragaw said.

Summer afternoons danger time in South Florida

But just because golf lightning deaths are fewer than with other activities, doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

Since 1995, at least two people were killed by lightning on Palm Beach County golf courses.

Jong Bae Suh was following through on a swing at Ibis Golf and Country Club in July 1995 when he was struck and killed. The National Weather Service’s report on the death said the lightning struck his 7-iron.

Four years later, 14-year-old Melvin Febres II died after being struck by lightning when he was standing under a tree at the Boca West golf course.

Famous retired golfer Lee Trevino was struck by lightning in 1975 at the Western Open near Chicago. He survived, and is oft-quoted as saying if he were caught on the course again during a rainstorm, he would hold up his 1 iron “because not even God can hit a 1 iron.”

“If I see a storm coming today, I’m one of the first ones to say ‘I’m out of here,’” Basso said about playing golf. “Before you get hit by something like that you think you’re invincible.”

Florida, which led the nation in lightning deaths between 2005 and 2014 with 47 people killed, gets 90 percent of its strikes between June and September. Most strikes occur between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.

That’s also the time of year when South Florida golf courses are the most empty and cheapest. Bethany King, acting golf operations supervisor for Palm Beach County, said business drops by 50 to 60 percent in summer months.

Last year, the state received 1.47 million lightning strikes, the most of any state except Texas, which was hit by cloud-to-ground flashes 2.6 million times, according to the National Weather Service.

This year, 22 people nationwide have died from lightning strikes, including three in Florida. None of them were on a traditional golf course. One person in Spearfish, South Dakota, was killed while playing disc golf.

Courses now equipped with warning devices

Still, nationwide, lightning deaths are at historic lows. In 2014, 26 people were killed by lightning, compared to 69 deaths two decades earlier in 1994. The worst year for lightning deaths was 1943 when 432 people were killed, according to National Weather Service records.

Meteorologists give much of the credit to the reduction in deaths to public awareness campaigns launched by the NWS.

But some of the recognition should also go to lightning detection devices that golf course especially have installed to warn players when lightning is near.

When Basso was struck, he said courses were just beginning to install permanent devices. Now many courses have the alerts, which sound an alarm when lightning is detected

“Being in the lightning capital, it’s important to have those safety measures in place to protect our members,” said Ben Bauer, director of golf for Ibis Golf and Country Club in West Palm Beach.

Bauer said it’s mandatory for golfers to quit their games when the alarm sounds.

“We never have anyone fight it,” he said. “It’s a game of golf. Your life isn’t worth finishing a round of golf.”

The Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens installed Thor-Guard lightning detectors in 2013.

At the public Park Ridge Golf Course, a WeatherBug detector is set to alert if lightning is within 10 miles. In July 2013, the alarm cleared the course when it detected lightning six miles away. About 25 minutes later lightning struck the 13th green.

“Not all golfers are happy to get off the course,” King said.

Braga said the best detection device may still be the simplest — your own ears.

“When thunder roars, go indoors,” is the familiar refrain used by the NWs.

“If you go indoors, you decrease your chances of being struck by lightning by 99 percent,” Braga said.

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