Meteorologist Jake Swick plays a key role in the U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills
By Larry Hanson, Greater Milwaukee Daily News Staff

TOWN OF ERIN, WI (August 24, 2011) –The small, cramped room with the low ceilings on the third floor of the old clubhouse at Erin Hills Golf Course is off the beaten path for the average spectator and will likely be seen by fewer than two dozen individuals this week during the U.S. Amateur.

However, in some ways that small, hidden piece of the property is one of the most vital nerve centers for the entire tournament.

It is where USGA meteorologist Jake Swick and officials from the USGA disseminate weather information to administrators at the tournament site.

So even as rain and thunder rolled through the area Tuesday morning, causing a three-hour and 40-minute delay that will likely push play back over the next couple of days, all was calm in the room.

"If I spend a lot of time with Jake, that means we have a lot of weather," said Ben Kimball, a USGA staff member who is the director of the U.S. Amateur. "If I don't see him, it's a good week. You build a relationship with them and they get to know what you want to know and what you don't want to know. Jake has a good read on our personalities and knows when he needs to feed us information."

That's because over the pas two decades, the USGA and the PGA Tour have taken the safety of plays and spectators very seriously and now have trained meteorologists, one of a rotation of three from Thor Guard Weather, on site at all tournaments. Thor Guard provides lightning prediction systems that are becoming the industry standard for new course construction. When Swick arrived at Erin Hills, he didn't need to unpack the Thor Guard system he always travels with because the course has one on-site. When there isn't a meteorologist on the course, the system can be set up to automatically set off warning horns.

The push for more advanced weather tracking and detection systems began in earnest two decades ago when a spectator was killed by lightning at the 1991 U.S. Open and another was killed two months later at the 1991 PGA Championship.

"Everyone decided to start hiring a meteorologist for their events," Swick said.

"Obviously the safety of the players and spectators is extremely important to us," Kimball said. "We have to protect the players and fans."

Since then, the methods have gotten more and more refined as technology has advanced. The improvements have come so far that Swick is actually able to predict when lightning will be in an area and give people plenty of advance warning.

However, predicting lightning strikes and severe weather aren't the only reason Swick is on the course this week.

"What is funny is that (Monday), a beautiful day, that might be kind of a day that you would question why you have a meteorologist here; what if it's like this for seven straight days?" Swick said. "The thing is, (Monday) was a busy day because I was making preparations for today and for (Wednesday). The biggest complication in a situation like this is we have two different golf courses that have 156 guys on each course and we're trying to get them through stroke play as soon as we can so we can get ready for the match play portion.

As soon as stroke play has a suspension, it affects the rest of the week," Swick continued. "On a day where there is no weather (problem), what I was focused on was how much wind do we have or how much humidity do we have?"

Those measurements are important because they help the grounds crew with setting up the course and mowing the grass to the correct lengths. The wind measurements also help with pin placements and knowing how fast he greens will dry out after the rains hit.

Swick said the two most difficult weather phenomena to deal with are fog and wind, while he said Tuesday morning's thunderstorm was a lot easier to predict and know how to deal with.

"It's not always a thunderstorms and that's the conventional wisdom," Swick said.

"I trust Jake with my own life," Kimball said. "They say I shouldn't be somewhere, I don't go out there. The information they provide is vital. We couldn't do this without their help."

The one tip he had for spectators was that if they are under a porch or in a shelter where the wind can blow, they are not in a safe location.

"When we blow the horns for a situation that's dangerous outside ... they need to get a safe location," Swick said, noting that the skies may be dangerous even if there is no apparent threat.

With the weather pushing play back, the players will have to be tested as they will have to play several rounds over a few days.

"It's definitely going to test players mentally the next two days," Kimball said.

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