Two years ago this week, professional golfers Bobby Nichols, Lee Travino and Jerry Heard were struck by lightning during the second round of the Western Open in Chicago. Travino since has had back surgery; Heard is on his way to the hospital, and Nichols can't win enough money to pay his caddy.Before the lightning, the three men had won 34 tournaments. After, one.
in blind, dogged pursuit of unreachable perfection, hackers have no fear. Obsession is their armor against the ridicule that threatens anyone who, say, declnes to drink beer the night before a round on grounds it swells his hands and hurts his putting touch. Stern stuff these hackers, who, like mailmen, will complete their rounds in rain and snow and dark of night.
Wait a minute.
Not the dark of night.
Lightning waits in blackness.
"I get very petrified now if is starts getting dark on the cours," Nichols said the other day. "I can't play at all if it's overcast. Or even if it's cloudy, like there might be a little storm."
As foolish as any hacker may be - to reduce the drag against the ball, he may tilt the tee forward, content in the vague hope the free-flying ball will go a silly millimeter farther - only those with gutta-percha brains stand out in a thunderstorm and wave a wedge at the sky. For if we are to be punished for skipping Sunday School in favor of a $2 Nassau, surely a lightning bolt will do it.
On June 27, 1975, Nichols was playing the fourth hole at Butler National Golf Club. Trevino and Heard were together on the 13th hole, across a lake from Nichols. An awful storm - "It looked like the end of the world," Nichols said - brought night to day, and suddenly lightning flashed.
"They said it must have hit the lake," Nichols said, "and then bounced off and across the wet grass to get us. We had a boy carrying a scoreboard with us. It knocked the board out of his hand. It knocked me down."
Trevino and Heard also went down. Even as they were swingin, the lightning knocked the clubs out of the hands of Arnold Palmer, ToneyJacklin and Jim Ahearn. Nichols said, "I got hysterical and started running. I was very, very scared."
Nichols. Trevino and Heard were admitted to a hospital. Only Heard finished the tournament doing well enough to place fourth. Though all three players have fallen on hard times. It is Nichols's case that is the most dramatic.
In 1974 he was at the top of his game, winning two tournaments and a career-high $124,747, the 14th best figure on tour. Through June, 1975, he'd won $49,333 and finished in the top 10 three times. Secure with a high-paying job as club pro at Firestone Country Club in Akron, the proud owner of a classic swing that would (everyone agreed) hold up forever, Nichols seemed ready at 40, to enter a decade of carefree work.
Then, wearing steel-cleated shoes, he stood in the middle of a wet fairway during a thunderstorm. A human lightnign rod.
Unlike Trevino and Heard. Nichols has no physical problems today. No one says the lightning sent Trevino to surgery. His doctor said Trevino's back was damaged long before the Western Open; that the lightning might have aggravated the injury, but certainly didn't cause it. Heard says he hurt his back playing basketball.
"The only differences I can tell is that my wife says I'm electrifying now," Nichols said.
Then: "Really, I don't think it has had any effect."
"But I do get very nervous. I get jittery at times when I didn't used to."
After hit by lightning, Nichols won only $502 the rest of 1975. In 1976, the man who turned pro in 1960 and won the PGA four years later earned only $9,820 - 143d on tour. This year Nichols has won $3,680 - 155th.
THe numbers on Heard and Trevino are similarly fascinating. Heard won more than $145,000 in 1974 then $82,000 in the lightning year, followed by $28,000 last year - and $640 this year. After four straight years over $200,000, Trevino dropped to $134,000 in 1975 (winning only $27,000 the last half). A victory at Fort Worth helped him to $137,000 last year, but Trevino this year has only $22,765 - 73d on tour.
In 1974, then, these three soon-to-be-electrified golfers won a total of $493,957. This year they've won about 1/20th of that - $27,085.
Can lightning disturb the central nervous system? Can it cause Nichols to be "jittery" and "more nervous" in stress situations? "It certainly can," said Dr. John Blazina of Neurology Associates of Washington and Maryland. "The problem is trying to prove it. Maybe it's something too sophisticated for us to prove right now. But we've had very solid patients who, after whiplash, say they are more jittery than ever. And you get the uneasy feeling that maybe there's more to it. It is strange."