ATLANTA – Six people were injured Saturday when lightning struck a 60-foot pine at the Tour Championship.
The third round of the season-ending PGA Tour event had been suspended for about 30 minutes because of storms in the area, and fans were instructed to seek shelter. Some chose to do that under the tree that was struck, police said. The strike hit the top of the tree just off the 16th tee and shattered the bark all the way to the bottom.
Atlanta Police spokesman James H. White III said five men and a girl were taken to hospitals for treatment, all of them alert, conscious and breathing.
A similar situation led to a death in 1991 at Hazeltine National in Chaska. Lightning struck a tree during the U.S. Open, killing a man and injuring five people. That was the last death from lightning at a PGA Tour-sanctioned event.
Brad Uhl of Atlanta was crammed under a hospitality tent to the right of the 16th hole when lightning hit Saturday.
"There was just a big explosion and then an aftershock so strong you could feel the wind from it," Uhl said after the last of the ambulances pulled out of the golf course. "It was just a flash out of the corner of the eye. It was raining and everyone was huddled near the tree."
Ambulances streamed into the private club, East Lake Golf Club, about 6 miles east of downtown Atlanta, where 30 players are competing for the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize. The players already had been moved into the clubhouse before lightning hit. Mark Russell, the PGA Tour's vice president of rules and competitions, said there were actually two lightning strikes, the other hitting a maintenance area.
Justin Thomas, who had a one-shot lead through five holes when play was halted, said players were eating in the clubhouse when "it felt like the entire clubhouse shook" from the thunder clap.
"The first I heard anything was from one of my friends who came out to watch," Thomas said. "He said, 'Dude, I think someone got struck by lightning right next to us.' And then word started spreading."
Thomas said he had left tickets for another friend who was on the opposite side of where the tree was hit.
The PGA Tour postponed the rest of the golf Saturday, with the round to resume at 7 a.m. Sunday, followed by the final round.
Russell said signs were posted on scoreboards of severe weather approaching.
"When we suspend play, we encourage everybody to leave and take shelter anywhere they can," Russell said. "We opened up hospitality areas that are grounded, a lot of other places like that. You've got a lot of people, and you have to do that quickly, and sometimes people don't take shelter."
The starting times for the third round had been rescheduled, but that was for the NBC broadcast, not because of forecast storms. Russell said PGA Tour officials were aware of a forecast for storms, but he described them as "pop-up thunderstorms."
"We have a meteorologist on site. We can monitor that," he said. "And a lot of times, we get lucky and we don't get hit with thunderstorms, especially when it's a situation when they're pop-ups like that."
Golf has a history with lightning, both recent and well past. Players are taught when they are young that the golf course is not a safe place during a storm involving lightning, and weather warnings are common for pros and recreational players alike.
Last week at the BMW Championship in the Chicago suburbs, Phil Mickelson was delayed getting to the golf course when lightning struck the top of his hotel, causing an evacuation.
Ten months after 1991 death at Hazeltine, a man was struck and killed by lightning walking to his car during a storm delay at the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Indiana.
Golfer Retief Goosen was struck by lightning as a teenager in South Africa. He survived and went on to win two U.S. Opens, and he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in June.