How Marco Island resident helped golf courses (and even cities) install lightning-detection systems


Robert Dugan just wanted to help run a golf tournament. Little did he know what idea would strike.

The former aspiring tour professional was playing in the Northern Amateur at Sand Creek Country Club in suburban Chicago.

During the 1984 tournament, there was lightning striking, but play wasn’t stopped. Dugan and his group came off the course. He had an earlier discussion with the tournament director, and when he voiced his concerns about the failure to stop play, the tournament director told him: "You do it if you think you can do better.’’

So Dugan took over the event. And he did something about the lightning problem.

The Marco Island resident remembered fishing in Costa Rica with fishing rod expert Gary Loomis and his friend Bob Wood and using an underwater radar fish finder he raved about.

Loomis and Wood told Dugan that the inventor, Bob Humphreys, had another device that could detect lightning.

So at the 1987 tournament, Dugan brought in Humphreys with his lightning detection device.

"It was a sunny day, 2 o’clock in the afternoon and there’s nothing anywhere,’’ Dugan said. "Then he calls down and tells me you’ve got to get everybody out of there, there’s going to be a lightning strike.’’

Dugan and the tournament officials had to wonder, though, considering the skies were clear.

"Well, do it. He’s the expert,’’ Dugan said.

Eleven minutes later, a lightning bolt struck in the middle of the 18th fairway.

"Nobody got hurt, but it knocked some people on their butts,’’ he said.

A golfer had set the course record and, with the weather situation, Dugan decided to call the United States Golf Association (USGA) to ask what to do regarding completing the tournament. He mentioned they had used a lightning detection device.

"Wait a minute, you guys have a lightning detection system?’’ the USGA’s Tony Zirpoli said.

Yes, they did. It’s called Thor Guard. And Dugan is the president.

The Sunrise-based company’s system is used at golf courses across the country and internationally. The USGA and PGA’s Tournament Players Clubs were among their first major clients. In the past 10 years, the system’s use has expanded to include parks, schools, universities and Southwest Florida International Airport.

The company has gone from 30 clients early on to 4,500 today.

"From 1992 to 1996, golf courses were our market,’’ said Dugan, who moved to Marco Island in 2000. "Golf is now maybe 8 or 10 percent of our sales.’’

Dugan said between 20 and 25 golf courses in the area have the system. The Collier County School District also is using it, including during outdoor activities such as football games.

Florida routinely leads the country in lightning strikes and lightning-related deaths. From 1997 to 2006, there were 71 lightning-related deaths in Florida, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Colorado was second with 30.

In 2004, one of those occurred in Southwest Florida.

Robert Graper, 31, of Newburgh, Ind., was struck and killed on May 17 at Heritage Palms Golf & Country Club in Fort Myers.

And current Southwest Florida residents and former PGA Tour players Bobby Nichols and Jerry Heard were struck, along with Lee Trevino, on June 27, 1975, at the Western Open in Chicago. All survived, but Trevino and Heard have had chronic health problems since.

"A lot of good came out of that," Nichols said in a 2001 interview with the Daily News. "They began to realize that this is a big problem with golf courses."

And that’s where Thor Guard has entered the picture. Its expansion beyond golf courses started to grow in the mid-1990s.

In 1996, John Scott Wade, a 20-year-old soccer referee, was struck and killed by a lightning bolt in Park Ridge, Ill.

The next day, it just so happened, Dugan was being interviewed at Medinah Country Club. He had breakfast with the interviewer, and the issue came up. Dugan asked him not to bring it up during the interview.

But he did.

"It just goes to show you how much ignorance there is when it comes to lightning,’’ Dugan responded.

Soon enough, Dugan was contacted by representatives from Park Ridge, and they discussed whether it was possible to cover all 18 parks in the city.

"We had never done a city before,’’ he said. "We had to break the city into three zones.’’

A year to the day after Wade’s death, Thor Guard was up and running in Park Ridge. They had a dedication ceremony that included Wade’s parents.

Dugan and his wife left to go eat. Then they heard the horns from the detection system go off. And then they saw it. Lightning streaking across the sky, right toward Park Ridge.

"Lightning hit the scoreboard and knocked out six of the lights,’’ said Dugan, 55. "It happened within a minute of a year earlier when John Scott Wade was struck.’’

Now the company is debuting a tornado detection system. And down the line, Thor Guard has something in the works that goes back to its original clients: golf courses.

If a golf course has Thor Guard and its carts have a global positioning system through GPS Industries, the club has the ability to send live weather information directly to the cart.

"They can push a button and they send live radar,’’ Dugan said, "so the golfers can decide if they want to go in early or wait for the horns to go off.’’

And they can make a safe decision.


When lightning is near ...


 Solitary trees

 Small rain and sun shelters

 Large, open areas

 Wet areas

 Elevated areas

 All metal objects, including golf clubs, golf carts, fences, electrical and maintenance machinery and power lines


 Large, permanent building

 Fully enclosed metal vehicle (car, van or pickup truck)

 Lowest elevation area

 Dense area of trees or bushes

If sudden, close-in lightning doesn’t permit evacuation to a safer place, crouch in a baseball catcher’s position with feet together and hands on knees.

Sources: National Lightning Safety Institute, www.lightningsafety.com, United States Golf Association

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