Michael S. Johnstone, AIA, was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live following the Ryder Cup accident where a spectator was struck by an errant golf ball and lost the vision in her right eye. The incident raised international attention in the golf community and regarding spectator safety at sporting events in general. Here is an excerpt from Up All Night with Lisa McCormick that aired October 5, 2018.

Host Lisa McCormick: The recent success in Europe’s Ryder Cup also served to highlight an issue that’s been affecting the game of golf. A female spectator was struck by an errant shot during this year’s event that resulted in her losing her sight in her right eye. Then yesterday, another woman was hit on the forehead while watching the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the Kingsbarns Golf Course in St. Andrews. Fortunately, she escaped serious injury.

Incidents like these have resulted in some soul searching: How to make the game safer? Let’s talk in greater detail with Michael Johnstone who is a forensic golf course architect in North Carolina… Michael, what do you make of this?

Michael Johnstone: The effect it has on this woman’s life, of course, effects us all…. In the U.S., there are approximately 40,000 players a year who are injured by errant golf shots or by someone swinging their club and striking them in the head. So, this is not an unusual circumstance on the golf course. 

Host: In what way can a golf course design make a difference, Michael?

Michael Johnstone: Well, I can talk about design for the normal play on a golf course, but in this particular case, the tournament makes the environment quite different because so many spectators are introduced to what I call “the playing field”, and there are people that don’t necessarily understand that a golf ball can move at a rate of 170 miles per hour. It’s a hard little object and if it strikes you in the temple or the eye or the jaw, it can actually be lethal.

Host: Is it just something that we have to accept as part and parcel of watching live sporting events like this? If you want to stand in a good position, there is a risk that something like this could happen?

Michael Johnstone: When I watch tournaments like this and I see this tiny little corridor that the professionals are supposed to hit through, and there are people on either side in this tiny little triangle, I think it is a mistake. People need to be pulled back further, but also there should be some education about the fact that it is possibly dangerous. When someone yells fore, F-O-R-E, people should turn away from the ball and put their hands up over the temples of their head to try to protect themselves.

Host: I’ve never been to a big golfing event, but are you given any sort of guidance or advice along those lines?

Michael Johnstone: Well, unfortunately in the U.S., we tend to respond to things after someone has been injured rather than to be preventative, which is a shame… We do that in healthcare, we do that with weather events, etc. …

Host: Sure… yeah, do you think then that with these recent events highlighting it as an issue, it can change the way we watch things like this in the future, the way spectator sports are done?

Michael Johnstone: I certainly hope so… We’re putting in this case thousands of people in harms way… of course they want to lean in to see a little more. We need to give them a little broader triangle. Even the professional golfers are just human beings. They are not going to hit it perfectly each time. I think education is a big thing and prevention would be really important to try to reduce the number of people who are injured this way.

Host: Michael, it’s good to hear from you and to share your expertise with us. Thanks for joining us on Up All Night… Michael Johnstone who is a forensic golf course architect in North Carolina. I like that… You go to a dinner party and someone asks what do you do? “I’m a forensic golf course architect.” That’s naturally going to be one of those titles you’re going to say, “What is that?”

Errant golf ball accident parallel opposing holes

A 43-year-old man and his girlfriend were playing golf at a public golf course in Ohio. They were on the 2nd hole that runs parallel to the 1st hole but in the opposite direction. The plaintiff parked the golf cart near the green and was struck in the head by a golf ball hit from the 1st tee. The ball struck him above the temple causing serious injury. His girlfriend tried to give him aid as she screamed for help. The foursome at the 1st tee did not help or even stop. The girlfriend then drove the injured victim to the clubhouse where an ambulance was called and the injured man was taken to the hospital.

A safety cone depicts the area where about 80% of tee shots will land. Michael S. Johnstone AIA

Expert witness and golf course architect Michael S. Johnstone, AIA, demonstrated the use of a “safety cone” to explain that a significant percentage of errant shots would land in that very location. Further investigation revealed the accident was foreseeable and preventable. Poor routing of the golf cart path put players at high risk from tee shots from the 1st hole when standing on or near the 2nd green. In addition, the two parallel holes were only 186 feet apart creating a danger of hitting into oncoming players. Furthermore, a tree line intended as a safety buffer obscured the view, exacerbating the danger and preventing verbal warning of errant shots.

Two parents and three teenage children went to a Tennessee mountain resort to claim free zip-line tickets. They were asked if they were interested in the vacation rentals and replied honestly that they only wanted the tickets. The salesman told them that was not a problem, he only needed to drive them to the top of the mountain to fulfill their promotional obligation. He asked if they would mind if his own son rode along since he would start working there soon. They all agreed.

The family visited a mountain resort in exchange for free recreation tickets. Little did they know they were in for the ride of their lives.

The family was led to a golf cart with three rows of seating for six occupants. The salesman weighed over 300 pounds and was the driver with his son seated beside him. The two teenage girls sat in the middle row. The father, mother and their son sat in back row, making a total of seven occupants. The drive was approximately 1.4 miles up a steep and winding mountain road. They climbed to an elevation of 1800 feet then parked to enjoy the scenic view.

Upon returning to the vehicle, the salesman advised his son to always choose a golf cart carefully because the brakes were prone to failure. Moments later while descending a steep curve, the salesman announced that the brakes had gone out. The family thought it was a bad joke, only to realize he was not joking. With several sharp turns and a long descent ahead, the golf cart began gaining excessive speed. The male occupants attempted to slow the vehicle by dragging their feet on the pavement like Fred Flintstone. Their efforts were futile and the father was thrown from the golf cart and suffered serious injuries. Yet, hearing his family screaming in the runaway vehicle, he picked himself up and chased the golf cart on foot with a rush of adrenalin.

Miraculously, the salesman controlled the vehicle all the way down the road until it slowed to a stop at a level area. The family was frantic, fearing the worst had happened to their father. After finding him, he was treated by EMTs and put on a stretcher with neck brace, then taken by ambulance to the hospital. He was treated for serious injuries to his shoulder, arm, leg and eye. His physical recovery took one year and the whole family had reportedly been traumatized.

Architect Michael S. Johnstone was retained as expert witness based on his expertise in golf cart safety and accident analysis. His review of the accident report and witness statements revealed discrepancies in the golf cart model, labeled as a four-seater but having six seats. The year and model did not match the lease agreement. The golf cart also did not appear suited for use on steep mountain roads, lacking basic safety features required on cars.

Moreover, the seven occupants exceeded the vehicle capacity and their combined weight was over its maximum load. Employee records revealed staff were required to drive guests on the property, but the resort offered no details about training for mountain roads and emergency procedures. Drivers were given a safety checklist, but had no way to check brakes or steering other than driving. The checklist also required occupants to wear seat belts, but there were none in the vehicle. Service records for the fleet showed anomalies prior to the accident. Poor communication was found between the resort staff and maintenance company. After the accident, the repair shop was not informed the vehicle suffered brake failure or was involved in severe injury of a guest. The vehicle only received routine maintenance and was placed back into service.

Frequency of golf cart accidents are increasing as more private communities allow golf carts or Low Speed Vehicles (LSV) on open roads. Automobile laws and safety inspections may not apply. Often they simply are not enforced on private property. However, golf courses have specific industry standards regarding vehicles, including vehicle specifications, cart paths, maintenance and accident reporting. This is largely due to the International Light Terrain Vehicle Association (ILTVA), formerly the Golf Cart Manufacturers Association.

Every year, our firm investigates serious golf cart accidents and finds that safety guidelines are typically overlooked. Golf course employees can only follow industry guidelines when demanded by their employer. Accident reports are often specified by insurance companies, but employees receive little to no training how to document them or when to sequester a vehicle for further inspection by an expert.