The dangerous combination of golf and lightning played out vividly Saturday afternoon, as the third round of the Tour Championship at East Lake was abruptly halted following a strike that left six spectators injured.
According to tournament officials, none of the injuries were considered life-threatening, most resulting from falling debris from a tree that was struck near the fan pavilion and hospitality buildings behind and beyond the 15th green.
The third round is scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. Sunday, with Justin Thomas in the lead at 12 under through five holes. Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka are a stroke back. The fourth round would begin shortly after the third is completed and the field is re-paired according to their place on the leaderboard.
Saturday play was suspended at 4:17 p.m. as the storm approached, and the players were all shuttled back to the East Lake clubhouse. Spectators were advised to seek shelter or leave the course. Then 28 minutes later, a loud boom sounded throughout the property, signifying a pair of lightning strikes, one near a maintenance area beyond the seventh hole, another hitting a large pine tree near the hospitality complex behind the 15th green.
Thomas told the Associated Press that 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 told the AP. “He said, ‘Dude, I think someone got struck by lightning right next to us.’ And then word started spreading.”
Asked about the PGA Tour’s protocol when storms arise at a tournament, Mark Russell, the vice president of rules and competition said, “We suspend play and we put on the scoreboards that weather is approaching and we want the people to take shelter and leave. But a lot of times they don’t.”
Russell and the PGA Tour’s Senior Vice President and Chief of Operations Tyler Dennis faced questions about Saturday’s later tee times in the face of forecasted afternoon storms. And further questions about the window between the halting of play and the lightning strike.
Asked if a half-hour was sufficient time to get fans to safety, Russell said, “I wish I could say yes or no. We wanted to get the spectators, the players, the volunteers, everybody off here as soon as we possibly could.
“The moment we saw we had danger, we suspended play. We had on the scoreboards that there was coming weather. We got the players off. We got the volunteers off. We did everything we could.”
“We have a lot of scenarios throughout the year where there’s a very high degree of certainty that there will be storms coming,” Dennis said. “And there’s a lot of other days when we look at it and we see, as it was today, I believe, where it was a 50 to 60 percent 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.”
The PGA Tour employs a meteorologist at every tournament site. “Forecasting the weather – and the safety that goes along with it – is critical to us,” Dennis said.
Russell was asked why, with the chance of afternoon storms, the PGA Tour didn’t move up the tee times to earlier Saturday in order to complete play before the possible arrival of bad weather.
“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,” he said.
The Weather Channel’s forecast for Atlanta on Sunday is for a 40 percent chance of morning showers, decreasing to 20 percent in the afternoon.
Gates are scheduled to open at 7 a.m. Hospitality areas will open at 10 a.m.
Saturday grounds tickets will be honored Sunday, tournament officials said. Saturday hospitality tickets would be honored as Sunday general grounds tickets. Saturday parking passes will not be good for Sunday.
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