It is one of golf 's most awful moments: You crush one off the tee and your ball, after starting straight up the fairway, begins to turn, then to veer crazily off-line, over the trees and into . . . Hey, someone's over there!
For the record, in some twenty-five years of playing the game, I haven't clocked anyone, but I have been hit four times by other golfers' balls. My good friend Greg, on the other hand, has struck four people, and he remembers every one of them in vivid, horrifying detail. His victims include a playing partner, a caddie and two strangers who, poor souls, had the misfortune of wandering into range.
I was there the day he hit the caddie, and the spectacle was marked by the awful combination of slapstick humor and serious pain that often seems to characterize such incidents—at least those in which no lasting damage is done. Seeing the ball slicing toward him from forty yards away, the unlucky man juked desperately left, then right, moves that unfortunately canceled one another out and left him a sitting duck. Stung hard on the butt, he limped badly for several holes.
Still, the worst of the four was the elderly chap Greg nailed in an adjacent fairway at Dunbar Golf Club in Scotland. Greg was some 230 yards away, and despite his yelling "Fore!" the guy never had a chance. The ball whacked him hard on the shin. He crumpled instantly, but by the time Greg got to him, he was up and limping around angrily. "We never heard anyone yell 'Fore!'" he hissed through clenched teeth before stumping off, using a club as a cane, throwing angry glances back over his shoulder at Greg, who was still struggling to find the right words to apologize. Greg's claim of having been absolutely mortified is undermined slightly by the fact that he birdied the hole and played well the rest of the way in. He did leave a ten-pound note with the barman to buy his victim a drink.
The aftermath of such moments is never simply guilt. Greg, who is by now an expert on the subject, identifies five distinct stages one passes through in hitting someone, a progression not unlike Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five psychological stages of dying. First there's anger: "Drat, I hit a bad shot." Then dread: "Oh, crap, it's going to go near another group!" Denial: "Oh, God, it's not going to hit that old geezer, is it?" Guilt: "Oh, man, I hope I didn't hurt the guy!" And finally, acceptance: "Okay, now: I've got 160 yards left. Is the wind helping here or not?"
Obviously, you can hurt someone badly with a golf ball launched at 150 miles per hour. The first time I got hit I was darn lucky. I was twelve and hacking around in the park with my father and my buddy Mark, who was no more a golfer than I. Mark hit one hard, off the toe of the club, right into the side of my forehead about fifteen yards away. I fell to the ground, more stunned than hurt. What I remember most was the panic on my dad's face when he realized the ball had almost hit my temple, missing by only an inch.
Despite that whacking, the possibility of getting hit is not something I think about much when I play. A golf course is a large area, and I am a relatively small target. But according to Robert D. Lang, a golfer and New York City attorney who's published articles on golf-related legal questions, disputes arising from one golfer hitting another can be found in common law as far back as the fifteenth century. (Heck, the ball was made of feathers back then. Were golfers worried about getting hurt or being tickled?)
No one seems to keep stats on the frequency of such incidents. Still, if the number is up—and Lang, for one, believes it is—it's got to be due to several factors, one being newly minted golfers unschooled in the culture. Evolving technology, which lets us hit it farther than ever, probably deserves some of the blame too, as does a general surge in boorishness. Finally, time pressures, not just on the course but throughout our lives, make everybody fume during five-hour rounds.
Recent litigation suggests that you've got more to fear from your playing partners than you do from the guys coming up the opposite fairway. This makes sense: Not only are your playing partners hitting forty or fifty shots in your presence, but because they are so close, even the quickest shout of "Fore!" leaves no time to duck.
It's worth noting, by the way, that yelling "Fore!" is no magic shield of indemnity. (That doesn't mean it's not both a courtesy and a damn good idea.) Specifics matter, but generally speaking, the law protects golfers who use reasonable care when hitting the ball. They are protected by the "assumption of the risk" doctrine, which means that you step onto a golf course knowing that it is a place where hard objects are flying around and that you could get hit. As one judge put it, "That shots go awry is a risk that all golfers, even the professionals, assume when they play."
Most successful lawsuits have targeted not golfers but clubs or event sponsors that are found to have failed to correct dangerous situations, such as a green situated next to a driving range or holes next to busy highways. Nor is it enough for events to print a disclaimer on tickets. A reasonably safe environment must be provided.
At the 1972 Western Open, for example, Dow Finsterwald hooked his tee shot on number eighteen and hit a woman standing near a concession stand between the first and eighteenth fairways. She sued him along with the tournament and its organizing body. Finsterwald was exonerated, but the organizer, the Western Golf Association, was found negligent for placing a concession stand—where one reasonably assumes one is safe—in harm's way.