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Weather Library > Can lightning strike a golf ball?

By DAN ROBINSON
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In 2021, a video went viral claiming to show lightning striking a golf ball during a thunderstorm at a Top Golf in San Antonio. But is this really what happened? Let's take a closer look.

VIDEO: Can lightning strike a golf ball?

Like many driving ranges, each Top Golf has a tall perimeter fence that ensures every ball stays inside the range. In the viral video, the heavy rain falling at the time makes the fence hard to see, but, it's clear the lightning in the video struck the top of the fence, NOT the golf ball.

A cloud-to-ground lightning strike happens between the cloud and the ground or a grounded object. Lightning can strike objects suspended in midair, but it won't just terminate on that object - it will simply pass through it and continue down to the ground.

This is what happens when airplanes are struck while flying - there are always lightning channels coming from two spots on the plane, one going up into the clouds, the other going down to the ground.

The plane just becomes part of the long path the lightning is using to reach the ground.

But can this happen to a golf ball? Technically yes, but it would be an almost impossible feat. Lightning is a massive electrical discharge many miles in length, generated by storms many miles high. Objects like golf balls or even clubs and umbrellas are just too small to influence a lightning bolt's chosen path to the ground. Here's a shot of a bolt I witnessed striking the ground next to a tall metal light pole in a parking lot!


(Click for full photo)

That means the only way a golf ball could be struck is if one were launched right into the exact path a lightning channel was already going to occur, at the exact moment the bolt happened - a bit like the Delorean in Back to the Future. Is this what happened in the viral video? There is no evidence to suggest that it did. Again, we know the lightning bolt struck the perimeter fence because the channel terminates at a higher elevation than ground level. If the bolt hit the ball inside the perimeter fence, the channel would have continued down to the ground, and it would have looked something like this:

For the golf ball to have been struck in this example, it would have had to have been launched over the top of the fence at the exact moment and location of the lightning bolt. If that extremely improbable scenario had actually happened, the ball - or what was left of it - would have ended up outside of the perimeter fence, not inside.

What about the "ball" of light at the base of the lightning channel in the viral video? This is a common feature seen at the point lightning strikes the ground or a tall object. Here is an example I caught on video:

It's worth mentioning one more relevant note about lightning safety. Even though golf clubs can't influence a lightning strike at a distance of more than a few feet away, it's always risky to be outside during a thunderstorm, period. The danger is simply being outside where lightning can strike, so just head inside or for your car whenever lightning threatens. Remember, when thunder roars, go indoors!

Watch the video: Can lightning strike a golf ball?

More lightning facts and myths >

See Also:

How Lightning Works
A detailed, step-by-step description of a cloud-to-ground lightning discharge.
Lightning Discharges to TV Towers, Skyscrapers and other Tall Structures
An in-depth look at ground-to-cloud or 'upward moving' lightning discharges to tall structures, including dramatic up-close imagery.

30 Years of Storm Observing
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