I’ve been struck by golf balls — several times in fact.
Today I was at Toronto Golf Club with a close friend who has been a member there since for a couple of decade. I enjoy playing with the member because he is — like me — a very quick golfer. A round usually takes about three hours — or not much longer.
In this instance we came to the first tee at 9:45 to find it full — and TGC doesn’t allow for tee times. So instead of waiting, the starter offered us the chance to head of the 10th tee, which we proceeded to do, playing our first two holes rapidly. We finished the 11th as a twosome teed off and we proceeded down the hill on the 12th, which is much better with the restored short grass on the left. I hit my tee shot near the tree line and struggled to find it (though I must have walked right over it in my search). In the meantime my friend proceeded to the green and finished the hole. I quickly struck my approach and walked to the green, finishing the hole and moving to the 13th tee.
The 13th tee is back and to the left of the 12th green. Like most areas of TGC, the tee to green on the 12th and 13th are relatively close, but I wouldn’t characterize them as dangerous. The 12th green is about 30 yards to the left, and the tradition at the club is to leave your bag at the back of the 12th, grab the big stick and walk back to the next tee. Then, after hitting your tee shot, you grab your bag and walk up the fairway, which is what we did on this day.
The back of the 12th tee is wide open and as we grabbed our bags, with me standing on the right, suddenly I heard a thud and my friend’s hat went flying. It was like looking for a sniper — I spotted the golfer on the left, in the 11th fairway shooting at the 12th green. With my friend holding his head it didn’t take long to recognize what happened — a bladed approach that never got more than 10 feet in the air and struck my playing partner on the fly.
I think it took a few second for my friend to register what had happened. By then he had a nice size bump on his head and the golfer who hit the shot came running towards us.
“You didn’t yell fore,” I said bluntly to the individual who struck the shot. It was true, he admitted, he didn’t notify us, thinking the ball had hung up in a tree. Whether that was the case or not, I have no idea. It didn’t look like the shot was near trees, but I can’t discount it either. The offending party was duly concerned and apologized. My friend took it in stride, and continued up the fairway, finishing the rest of the round without complaining. No one meant to hurt anyone — but I would still have felt better with a warning.
I asked my friend whether he’d ever been hit. Indeed he had, he said, but never in the head. I, on the other hand, had been hit in the head, and told him my story.
Here is the column in which I wrote about being struck in the head with a golf ball — by someone I still consider a good friend (it first appeared in Ontario Golf magazine in 2006):
By Robert Thompson
It wasn’t obvious to me when it first happened. On a glorious summer day I was playing a round of golf at a course in Niagara Falls with two friends. On the final hole of the front nine, I leaked my ball near the right greenside bunker, while my companions proceeded to head to retrieve their shots from a steep hill to the left of the putting surface. I deftly flipped a little sand wedge across the green and leaned down to pick up my putter.
That’s when it happened. Maybe it was the sound that struck me before the pain. The noise was similar to that scene in Rocky when Sly beats on the beef carcasses—slightly hollow and really solid. I fell to my knees and reached up to remove my hat.
I’d been struck in the head with the skulled shot of one of my companions. It wasn’t his fault—having been faced with an awkward stance, he had bladed a wedge. He yelled “Fore,” but since I was standing only 40 yards away, the ball had struck me before the sound passed into my ears.
As I lay sprawled out on the grass next to the green with blood running down on my head, two thoughts immediately hit me. The first was, “So this is what it feels like to be hit in the head with a golf ball.” The second thought was: “Who do I sue for this?”
Now this was never a serious query. I had quickly assessed that indeed I was going to survive and maybe even avoid stitches, and only threatened to haul my companion into court in jest. But the truth is that while I may not have reached for my cell phone and called my lawyer, many others who have unfortunate incidents involving golf courses are doing exactly that. And the ramifications for the sport could be dramatic.
There are several examples of overzealous individuals suing courses for a variety of reasons in the past few years. The most notable example is the case of Charles and Pauline Sammut, who built a house near the third fairway of Islington Golf and Country Club in Toronto. Apparently when you build a home off a fairway, you never expect to actually encounter any golf balls. When the Sammut’s home got hit by a few wayward shots, they sued Islington, eventually winning some damages and covering their court costs.
The case appears to have set a dangerous precedent, with other home owners near neighbouring golf courses beginning to consider their own lawsuits. In one case that is being quietly spoken of in the industry, a homeowner of a property a football field away from a fairway that is at the receiving end of a handful of balls per year is threatening to sue the club after witnessing the Islington payout.
But it isn’t just neighbours suing clubs these days. In fact, the entire Canadian golf industry seems concerned about where the next legal action will come from. Several cases are already in the works, including one involving a Peterborough man who is suing his home course after he was struck by an errant shot. He claims the course layout is dangerous, but I guess that didn’t stop him from becoming a member. I bet he has a tough time filling his foursome these days.
Beyond this, I’ve spoken with courses that have been advised to take strong precautions before they end up on the receiving end of a court notice. One high-end Toronto facility was told it should obtain a signature from each golfer indemnifying it against legal action should a player be injured while using its driving range. The worry was that someone might walk too closely behind a practising golfer, get smacked with a club and sue the course. The issue was carefully considered before being tossed out as unworkable.
Of course, in some instances legal decisions involving golf have been sensible. For example, the Hawaiian Supreme Court recently dismissed a seven year old case of a golfer who was struck by a shot while playing, noting that, “it is common knowledge that not every shot played by a golfer goes exactly where he intends it to go.” The decision should be common sense for anyone who has ever swung a club on a course, but for every smart court ruling, there seems to be three that make little sense.
In my case, I walked from the ninth green into the pro shop where I washed off my bloody forehead, grabbed a couple of band-aids, a bag of ice, drove my cart to the 10th green and continued playing like nothing had happened. In fact, my game actually got better.
I guess I got off lightly. But given the litigious nature of people surrounding the game these days, I’m not sure golf in Canada is going to be so lucky.