How to Stay Safe From Lightning on the Golf Course

Lightning strike during Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa
Lightning strike near a golf course - what every golfer fears. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Lightning is one of the scariest and most dangerous things golfers will ever encounter on the golf course. The short answer to what you should do when you see lightning on the golf course? Run! But seriously, get off the course as quickly as possible into a safe shelter.

Lightning can be a killer. And, yes, lightning does kill golfers. The number of lightning deaths per year on the golf course is small, but the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says that five-percent of all lightning deaths and injuries in the United States happen on golf courses.

Lightning has struck during professional golf tournaments many times, most infamously at the 1975 Western Open. It was there that Lee Trevino, Jerry Heard and Bobby Nichols were struck by lightning, knocked unconscious. All suffered burns and the strikes caused Trevino and Heard back injuries that required surgery.

At the 1991 U.S. Open, one spectator was killed and five others injured by a lightning strike.

Do not take lightning lightly, on a golf course or anywhere else. Always be aware of changing weather conditions and sky conditions on the golf course; be alert for thunder and for lightning. If you hear thunder, it means that lightning is within striking distance.

First Step In Golf Course Lightning Safety: Awareness

The first step in staying safe from lightning on the golf course is awareness of weather conditions and expected weather conditions during your round. If you know that thunderstorms are possible, then you know to watch out (and listen out) for trouble.

If bad weather is a possibility for arrival after your tee time, it also behooves you to ask in the pro shop about rain check policies, and also about lightning warning systems. Golf courses in areas of frequent thunderstorms may have policies and procedures (such as sirens) in place to warn golfers of approaching bad weather.

Remember: Thunder Means Lightning Is Nearby

Sports medicine journalist Elizabeth Quinn of says all outdoors enthusiasts, including golfers, need to know the "30/30 Lightning Rule":

"If thunderstorms develop, count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the bang of the thunder to estimate the distance between you and the lightning strike. Because sound travels at approximately one mile in five seconds, you can determine how far away the lightning is by using this 'flash-to-bang' method. It is recommended that you seek shelter if the time between the lightning flash and the rumble of thunder is 30 seconds or less (6 miles). Once inside shelter, you should not resume activities until 30 minutes after the last audible thunder."

See Lightning? Get Off Golf Course, Seek Shelter

No round of golf is worth risking your safety or the safety of your friends. If lightning is flashing, get off the golf course and get into a safe structure.

What is a safe structure? A large, enclosed building is the ideal. A fully enclosed metal vehicle can provide shelter, if you can't reach a substantial building, and so long as you are not touching any of that metal. Small, on-course structures are not safe; golf carts not only provide no protection, but increase the danger.

The National Weather Service offers this advice:

"If a substantial building is not available, enclosed motor vehicles can provide shelter as long as patrons do not touch the metal framework during the thunderstorm (golf carts are not safe vehicles). No place outside is safe if lightning is in the vicinity. Partially enclosed shelters are not safe. If no safe shelter is available ... stay away from the tallest objects (trees, light poles, flag poles), metal objects (fences or golf clubs), standing pools of water, and fields."

And the National Lightning Safety Institute says:

" 'Where is a safe place? How quickly can we get there?' golfers should ask themselves. Go to large permanent buildings or get into a fully enclosed metal vehicle (car, van or pickup truck). Avoid trees since they attract lightning. Avoid small, on-course shelters: They are intended only for sun and rain safety. Don’t wait around for the next strike, please."

Do's and Don'ts If Caught On the Golf Course During Lightning Storm

  • If lightning strikes are flashing, high-tail it to the clubhouse or pro shop or your vehicle. Or, if there are designated lightning shelters on the golf course, try to get there. (Note: Open-sided buildings do not provide protection from lightning even if they have a lightning rod).
  • If caught on the course and unable to get off, do not stand under tall trees or sit in a golf cart. Do not stand under a lone tree, even a small one.
  • Do get away from the cart and away from your golf clubs.
  • Stay away from water.
  • If you have metal spikes, take them off.
  • If stranded in the open, go to a low place such as a ravine or valley, or the lowest spot you can find.

Worst-Case Scenario: You Feel a Tingling Sensation ...

This is a scary and incredibly dangerous situation: A tingling sensation, or the hair on your arms standing up, during a lightning storm is a warning of an imminent, nearby strike.

If a storm is quickly upon you, you can't get to an enclosed shelter, you are stuck out on the course and you get that tingling sensation, this is what's recommended:

  • Squat in a baseball catcher's position.
  • Balance on the balls of your feet, feet together, arms in front of your knees.
  • If in a group, members of the group should keep at least 15 feet apart.

Always remember two things we said earlier: Be alert to expected weather conditions and changing weather conditions during your round of golf; and no round of golf is worth risking your safety.