Record Golf Play Tees Off Weather Safety Concerns

What was seen as an escape from quarantine during the early days of the pandemic, golf has emerged as the sport of choice for more and more people. The National Golf Foundation reported June play was up nearly 14% nationally from a year ago, equating to as much as 8 million additional rounds.

Experienced golfers flocked to the courses, but so did a new group of players, in search of an outdoor activity during stay-at-home and social distancing orders. The NGF estimates that participation by beginners and junior golfers is up 20%.

Many would say that golf is one of the most weather-dependent sports, with the constant sun exposure, potential heat stress, and wind and rain that can wreak havoc on a golfer’s performance. There is also the danger of lightning and myths surrounding the electric charge that put players at risk. Experienced golfers know the weather risks – and may choose to ignore them—but with the uptick in younger and first-time golfers, weather-related safety education and action from golf course operators becomes more urgent.

While a recent study found that golfing only accounted for 4% of lightning strike fatalities (as compared to 13% under trees and 8% around water), lightning is still the third-leading cause of storm-related deaths in the United States, after floods and tornadoes.

When determining how and when to sound the alarm for lightning, golf course operators need to think through an evacuation plan and be certain just how much time is needed for all players and employees to get to safety. On average, most storms move at 30 mph, so making evacuation decisions when lightning is eight miles out is a good standard. But ongoing monitoring needs to be considered, for example, what if storms that day are expected to be moving at 50 mph? How might that impact the lead time needed to get golfers to safety? Often, larger golf operations and events like the PGA Tour, employ a meteorologist to provide better guidance on a potential storm’s speed and impact. 

Even with weather safety protocols and warning systems, it is ultimately a player’s own responsibility to discontinue play and seek shelter. It is not always possible to monitor conditions on the entire course and not safe to put to golf course staff at risk. Golfers and golf course operators should ensure that players know the club’s weather policy, especially if the player is new to the game. Golfers can also monitor the weather from smart phones using weather apps

Besides the universal lightning safety tips, there are some specific to golf, such as don’t get into your golf cart or stand under a tree to wait out the storm. Remember the lightning statistic about trees mentioned earlier? Avoid contact with metal, including your golf clubs and umbrellas, and don’t wait until the last minute to stop play. It may take longer than you expect to safely get back to the clubhouse. 

With golf courses implementing COVID-19 safety measures, golf may be one of the few activities that is relatively low risk and offers its own health benefits. Weather safety should also be part of the play. As Marshall Shepherd, another Forbes contributing meteorologist, aptly stated, going inside during lightning is the “mask wearing of storms.” Let’s embrace the opportunity to get outside to play a few rounds of golf by playing it smart when it comes to health and weather safety.

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