Friday, September 11, 2009

Thunderstruck! - The Lee Trevino Story

In 1975, Lee Trevino was at the height of his stellar professional golfing career. Born in 1939 into a poor family of Mexican origins, he had taught himself to play golf and after a 4 year term in the United States Marines, turned professional.

His self-taught golf swing was not in the classical style, but it had one big thing going for it - it worked! What seemed to be a series of unorthodox motions all self corrected by the point of impact, and 90% of the time he cracked the ball long and straight.

He hit the big time in 1968, when to everyone's amazement he defeated Jack Nicklaus to win the US Open. He never looked back after that and by 1975 he had won two US opens, two Open Championships and a PGA Championship, in addition to a host of smaller titles. He was recognised as one of the all time golfing greats, made all the more remarkable by the journey he made to get there.

Trevino was also likeable and friendly and was a particular favourite with the press gallery because of his humour and witty remarks. He once said

"I played the tour in 1967 and told jokes and nobody laughed. Then I won the Open the next year, told the same jokes, and everybody laughed like hell."

In 1975 he was playing in the Western Open, held that year at the Butler National Golf Club in Chicago, when he was struck by lightning. Miraculously he survived but his back was permanently injured and as he gradually worked his way back into the game, his swing was reduced and he was unable to practice as much as before.

Nevertheless he came back and won the Canadian Open in 1977 and 1979, and then amazingly the PGA Championship in 1984.

Largely as a result of the Western Open incident, a thunderstorm protocol was developed by the PGA, and today when storms are about during a tournament, meteorologists tracking them on radar advise the Tournament Director who can then postpone play and ask players to return to the clubhouse.

It is estimated that around 5% of people killed by lightning each year in the USA are struck on the golf course, and as a result safety in thunderstorms is actively promoted by the United States Golf Association (USGA).

So what is lightning?

A cumulonimbus, or thunderstorm cloud. Photograph from Wikipedia Commons. (Click on image to enlarge)

It is a massive electrical discharge that is generated by giant cumulonimbus clouds, which can also produce other types of severe weather such as hail, destructive wind gusts, heavy rain and even tornados. These clouds usually have an “anvil” shape and can tower up to 15 km in height - that is nearly twice as high as Mount Everest.

Lightning can discharge between cloud and ground, cloud and cloud as well as within two different areas within a single cloud. A lightning discharge can generate up to 1 billion volts of electricity and explosively heat up the surrounding air to nearly 10,000C or twice the temperature of the Sun’s surface.

The almost instantaneous heating of the air produces a shock wave in the air that travels outwards at the speed of sound and this is called thunder. The sound of thunder can travel considerable distances, depending on the existing atmospheric conditions but can often be heard out to 25 km from the lightning discharge.

A cloud to ground lightning strike
Photograph from Wikipedia Commons. (Click on image to enlarge)

The distance away that a lightning bolt occurs can be calculated approximately by counting in seconds from the moment the lightning is seen. The counting is then stopped after the thunder is heard and the resulting number of seconds then divided by 3. This will tell you approximately how far away the lightning discharged.

For example, suppose that 15 seconds elapse between the flash of the lightning and sound of the thunder. We divide 15 by 3 and obtain 5 and conclude therefore that the lightning bolt was about 5 km away. To convert to miles, we simply divide by 5 instead of 3 and in this case the lightning strike would have been around 3 miles away.

Lightning will often strike the tallest object in the area and on an open fairway this can, of course, be a human being. Trees are also struck often and can literally explode as the charge hits them. For this reason it is important to avoid sheltering under trees during a thunderstorm.

A tree torn apart by lightning
Photograph from Wikipedia Commons. (Click on image to enlarge)

The following tips are helpful for lightning safety on the golf course:

1. If there is an active thunderstorm about, return to the clubhouse or seek shelter in the nearest substantial building. The interior of a car, with the windows up, is also a safe shelter.

2. Stay clear of trees, metal structures and water, such as lakes and creeks that may be part of the course layout.

3. If caught in the open, crouch down in a squatting position and stay low. Avoid becoming the tallest object in the area.

4. Stay away from wire fences – these can conduct electric charge a considerable distance.

5. Before the game check the weather forecast so that you will be ready to act early.

Lee Trevino never lost his humour despite the ordeal. He was asked later about what he would do if he was caught on the golf course in a thunderstorm. He answered " I'd take out my one iron and point it to the sky because even God can't hit a one iron".

Lee Trevino was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1981 and voted the 14th greatest golfer of all time by Golf Digest Magazine.

The world champion lightning strike survivor was not a golfer but a US Park Ranger named Roy Sullivan (1912 to 1983). He survived being struck by lightning on seven different occasions but later killed himself after a failed romance.

Reference: " All About the Weather", Richard Whitaker, New Holland Publishing, 2007

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