Spectator's lightning death bolts golfers back to reality at U.S. Open

June 14, 1991|By Mal Florence | Mal Florence,Los Angeles Times

CHASKA, Minn. -- Davis Love III had, perhaps, the best perspective on yesterday's opening round of the U.S. Open at the Hazeltine National Golf Club.

"I wasn't quite as worried about my golf game after we came back from a delay," he said.

He was referring to a thunderstorm, laced with lightning, that resulted in the death of one spectator and seriously injured another. Four other spectators were listed in stable condition.

The tragedy occurred early in the afternoon as play was suspended for 2 hours and 41 minutes because of the hazardous weather conditions.

So, when players filed into the interview area, the thrust of the questions was not about their rounds, but of the tragedy.

Payne Stewart, among the next-to-last threesome to finish before play was halted by darkness at 9:05 p.m. CDT, shared the first-round lead with Nolan Henke. Each shot a 5-under-par 67.

"We have a tendency to take Mother Nature for granted," Stewart said. "That should be a lesson for everybody to take cover. I feel sorry for the man's family."

The six spectators were under cover of a tree that was hit by lightning near the 11th tee.

"The delay was tough on us," said Scott Hoch, who shot a 69, "but it's trivial compared to what happened today. Unfortunately, someone was killed and we were sitting in a van looking right at it from 120 yards away.

"We had a place to go and they [the injured spectators] were probably in the best place they could be, under a small tree in a low area as there were bigger trees out there."

Henke wasn't aware that someone had died when he came into the interview room.

"It makes you feel bad," he said. "We have all those cars [to take the players off the course], everything is set up for us. There are so many people out there with nowhere to go and it is nobody's fault."

The crowd was estimated at 40,000 as the Open returned to Hazeltine after an absence of 21 years.

"Players and [their] families are hustled in, but where do you hustle the others? I don't know," said defending champion Hale Irwin, who shot a 71.

Tom Byrum, who shot a 68, one stroke behind Stewart and Henke, said it was hard for him to believe he was playing in a U.S. Open when "something like that happened."

"Someone was killed today, so why get uptight about a bad score, or a bad hole?" Byrum said.

Indeed, it was a sobering day for the golf professionals, who are ever aware that the threat of lightning is always present at courses in the Midwest at this time of the year. The players either went into the clubhouse during the delay, or took shelter in vans, or a maintenance shed.

The spectators were at the mercy of the elements.

Because of the delay, 33 players, or 11 groups, failed to finish when darkness finally halted the round. They were to have finished their rounds this morning.

Henke said he was in the same van with Hoch. "You could see where the bark of a tree had been pulled off [by lightning]," he said. "I don't want to think about it too much."

Henke had played only one hole before play was temporarily suspended. And what a hole it was.

The 26-year-old pro from Fort Myers, Fla., playing in only his second U.S. Open, got an eagle on the par-4, 440-yard first hole.

He hit a 6-iron 177 yards and saw it take one bounce and then go into the hole.

"When we came back, it was like starting a new round and I was already 2-under," Henke said.

Henke, who won the Phoenix Open in January, doesn't seem to have great expectations.

"I hope someone passes me, so I won't have to worry about it [winning the tournament]," he said, half joking.

"There are a lot of guys with a lot more experience. It's only my third year. I'm going to try to enjoy myself, have fun and take what happens."

*

Jack Nicklaus was in a group of seven players at 70. Greg Norman had a 43-35--78.

John Inman had a hole-in-one on the 193-yard fourth hole. He used a 4-iron. He shot a par-72.

Phil Mickelson of San Diego, the defending U.S. Amateur champion, had a 1-over 73.

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