A pair of lightning strikes at East Lake left six people injured from flying debris, darkening the mood for Sunday’s Tour Championship and FedExCup conclusion.
Dan Kilbridge with the details from Golfweek and this quote from U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland summing up the reaction of many:
“It’s frustrating that they didn’t move tee times up,” Gary Woodland said. “You saw the weather, you saw it was 80 percent (chance) at 4 o’clock. I’m sure with 30 players they thought they could get it in. But obviously now wish they would have moved them up. Now you just hope people are OK.”
The PGA Tour’s official statement:
At 4:17 p.m., the third round of the TOUR Championship was suspended due to inclement weather in the area. At 4:45 p.m., there were two lightning strikes at East Lake Golf Club; a tree near the range/15 green/16 tee was hit, and debris from that strike injured four people.
EMT tended to those fans and two others immediately and transported them from the property via ambulance for further medical attention. Our latest report is that their injuries do not appear to be life-threatening.
Due to these circumstances, the third round has been suspended for the day and play will resume on Sunday at 8 a.m. ET.
The safety of our fans, players and partners is of the utmost importance. We will provide further updates as they become available.
As we have seen since a spectator was killed at the 1991 U.S. Open, golf has largely taken an abundance of caution by moving up tee times, or moving people off of courses well in advance of possible storms.
Unfortunately in this case, poor weather was forecast all week for Saturday afternoon. Yet, the 1 pm start of round did not budge even after play was delayed 80 minutes on Friday.
Hhere was the Monday long range forecast from Dark Sky putting the possibility of Saturday precipitation—and therefore in the south in August, electricity—at 90%.
Next is Saturday’s forecast at 8:19 pm ET/5:19 pm PT Friday, the same as it had been for days. This displays the Saturday window where the chance for thunderstorms were in the 60 to 80% range. Leaders vying for a $15 million first prize and what has been billed as one of golf’s most important championships, were set to begin at 3:30 pm ET even as the forecast called for likely storms with electricity. (The Apple weather app allowing anyone to slide on over to see the next 24 hours (area circled).)
Had a revised tee time window accounted for the forecasts and moved up to 8 am—still a civilized hour in golf—the last group would have teed off at 10:30 am. On a four-hour pace, they would have been finished by 2:30 before the forecasted ugly stuff. While NBC’s third round telecast would have been on tape, it’s something that has occurred many times in recent years in the interest of fan and player safety, and getting a tournament played by Sunday.
In the case of this championship where a $15 million first place check is on the line, leaders would have played a continuous third round. Now they restart at 8 am after play was wisely called once the strikes occurred and fans were injured.
Even as the day progressed, it was apparent storms were coming. Here is a National Weather Service future cast captured at 12:20 ET showing what conditions would look like at 2:30 pm ET close to East Lake, with projections of the activity popping up all over the area and when moving, to the north.
Play was called at 4:17 pm ET and lightning struck East Lake less than 30 minutes later.
If anyone is ever to feel safe attending a PGA Tour event again, the organization will likely need to expedite and couple its slow play policy deliberations with an enhanced, more detailed weather warning system. While the current system in place has worked well since the awful events in 1991 at Hazeltine (a USGA event), something went terribly wrong Saturday when times were not even moved up some to allow for plenty of time to vacate the course.
Just a few questions that likely will need to be addressed by the PGA Tour:
—What will instigate the moving of tee times in the future? The Tour’s Tyler Dennis is quoted as saying in this ESPN.com story by Bob Harig, "And so we have a lot of scenarios throughout the year where we look at it, and there's a very high degree of certainty that there will be storms coming. And there's a lot of other days when we look at it and we see, as it was today -- I believe it was a 50 to 60% chance of storms from 3 to 6 this afternoon -- and we just have to evaluate it and make our best decision when we make the schedule. Obviously when it comes down to suspension of play, we don't leave any room for error there. Safety is a huge priority for us.''
An error was made and it would seem that as a data-driven organization these days, they may need to set a forecast number for tee time shifts. 50% and up seems like a no-brainer.
—Will more time be allowed to evacuate. A half hour ahead of when storms are projected, may not be enough.
—Can this event return to the south In August? The notion of electricity in the air came as a surprise to no one in the region or maybe the country. East Lake always envisioned itself as hosting fall events, but now moving to August, is this date sustainable given weather patters in Atlanta in August? As Mark Russell said Saturday, "I think if we did that every time we had a possibility of thunderstorms in the Southeast, we'd do that basically every time we played golf.''
—Were any outside forces part of the decision to not move tee times and expose the tournament to a situation like Saturday’s? Finally, the most sensitive of all questions.
Having seen how the names mentioned above work along with the talented rules staff and meteorologists, and knowing how much they consider safety, I’m struggling (as are many) with the idea that the traditional decision makers went the route they did. It seems entirely plausible that the circumstances around this event—first year under new format, big boost in prize money, determination to sell this as a significant championship—somehow might have influenced the decision to keep tee times in place to show live golf as late as possible.
A forceful statement from Commissioner Jay Monahan will be needed to assure fans, players and partners that this was simply a mistake, bad luck or a terribly unfortunate event, with strong pledges made to update or strengthen weather policies.