The bruise on my backside was spectacular, crimson red in the center with concentric circles of purple, blue and olive as perfect as the rings of Saturn. Getting hit by a golf ball usually leaves tangible evidence. When I emailed the photo to the perpetrator, a friend and fellow club member named Gary Mastronardi, he replied with a string of apologies and an abashed try at humor: “Good thing you turned around,” he wrote. “Or you’d be talking in a higher register.”
Gary had screamed “Fore!” when his drive sailed off line into our fairway. I not only heard him, but had time to spin, crouch, duck and cover my head. But of the four times I’ve been hit—once in the head, twice in the back and once on the butt—this was the only time a shout of “Fore!” reached me in time to react. In two of the instances I didn’t hear anything, even though the hitters all swore they’d screamed it. The most doubtful “Fore!” claim happened on a rock-hard muny when I caught a one-bouncer on the back of the head. My buddy said it made a sound like a coconut falling on Gilligan’s head. He heard the coconut sound but did not hear anyone yell “Fore!”
Shouts of “Fore!” just aren’t as unassailably effective as most golfers believe. The incident at the Ryder Cup in which Brooks Koepka struck a woman in the eye with a full-blooded driver on the fifth hole of the Friday morning four-ball matches, was, unfortunately, more typical. Although Koepka and others on the tee screamed “Fore!”, video of the incident shows that not one person in the gallery ducked. The injured woman, Corrine Remande, claims no one yelled a warning, and she reportedly filing a lawsuit against the organizers. Remande’s doctors have said she is never going to recover full vision in her right eye.
A real-world breakdown of what happens from the moment of club-ball impact to when the dimpled missile returns to earth is sobering to say the least. As we present a start-to-finish timeline of what transpires, you might begin to look at the usefulness of “Fore!” a bit more balefully, as one might when gazing at the crash-preparation illustrations on airline seat back cards. “Fore!” can work, as my episode with Mastronardi illustrates. But it tends to provide the illusion of safety more than actual protection.
To begin, the average hang time of a PGA Tour player’s tee shot for the 2017-’18 season was a shade over six seconds. For everyday players, the hang time naturally is less—more in the range of 5.5 seconds. We refer to hang time because in most cases it’s the balls that hit people on the fly that are most dangerous.
Spectators and golfers of course don’t have 5.5 seconds to duck and cover. The window is much shorter, beginning with the fact it takes a conscientious player about two seconds after impact to notice the shot has gone awry and to holler “Fore!” The 5.5 hang time and the fan/golfer collision has now been reduced to 3.5 seconds.
It gets shorter. Once the golfer screams the warning, the sound takes less than a second to reach the potential victim’s ears. The speed of sound is 375 yards per second. But the shout can travel slower than that if the air is cold. At the moment Koepka’s tee shot struck Remande, the temperature at the Paris airport was 51 degrees, hardly balmy. And if there’s a headwind (unknown in the Koepka example), the sound is diminished because the wind tends to refract the sound, or carry it upward. The shouts in effect become quieter. And let’s face it, some shouts are louder than others. A papery, non-assertive bleat might not carry 250 yards away.
Even more sound-diminishing forces are at work. Trees can muffle the sound. The wind can whistle in your ears. There’s conversation among spectators or fellow golfers, and less focus when the golfer hitting is hundreds of yards away. Even when your eyes are focused on the golfer, we often see little more than the blur of a swing and then have trouble picking up the ball against a pale sky as was present at Le Golf National during the Ryder Cup.
So at this point almost three seconds have elapsed since the ball was struck and “Fore!” was shouted and, presumably, heard. When it finally reaches the ear drums, things look up briefly. Humans respond physically to sound faster than they do visual stimulus. A startled, muscular response is almost instantaneous, as when someone sneaks up and shouts “Boo!” But the muscular reaction is rarely of the duck-and-cover variety, at least at first. I’ve seen countless golfers react initially by instinctively glancing in the direction of the shout, presumably to sort out where it’s coming from. Then they duck.
We’re now at 4.5 seconds, only a second away from the golf ball’s ETA. It might be more in the case of bombers like Koepka, but even in perfect circumstances, the window to react is ridiculously short. Koepka himself said afterward, “You can yell ‘Fore!’ but it doesn’t matter. With the wind blowing, and everybody’s got coats on because it’s cold, ‘Fore!’ doesn’t really matter. But we did say it.”
It’s a war zone out there. Poor Koepka has hit two other spectators that we know of, and most tour players agree that it’s an almost weekly occurrence. Tiger Woods hit three spectators in the same round at the 2010 Memorial. Most of the time, players, marshals or both howl warnings at the top of their lungs, to no avail.
Again—and we can’t stress it enough—every golfer should absolutely shout “Fore!” every time without fail. My pal Mastronardi boasts to this day how conscientious he was to yell his warning. I imagine he does it still, crossing his fingers and hoping that nothing worse comes of it than a bruise on someone’s backside.