Golf? Golf, you say? Speak up!

I will admit to a prejudice that may disqualify me from civilized company. I don't like the game of golf. When I was a youngster the first paying job I had (if I don't count delivering newspapers) was as a golf caddy at a ritzy country club (the kind that didn't admit people like me as members, even if we could afford it. However people were generally nice to me, so I can't complain.). No one had golf carts in those days (early 1950s) so the caddy carried the bags, often leather, usually with 16 clubs in each, and sometimes two bags at a time (one on each shoulder). Maybe it doesn't sound so bad but when you're 11 years old and not the huskiest kid, it was a tough job. And hot. And 18 holes was a long trudge with that kind of baggage. This might have made some boys into lifelong golfers. Or not. For me, it was "not." So it was with little or no dismay that I read in the British Medical Journal that playing with certain kinds of golf clubs could damage your hearing:

A 55 year old right handed man presented to the ear, nose, and throat outpatient clinic with tinnitus [ringing in the ears] and reduced hearing in his right ear. Clinical examination was unremarkable. His pure tone audiogram showed an asymmetrical sensorineural hearing loss, worse on the right, with a decrease on that side at 4-6 kHz typical of a noise induced hearing loss.1 He had been playing golf with a King Cobra LD titanium club three times a week for 18 months and commented that the noise of the club hitting the ball was "like a gun going off." It had become so unpleasant that he had been forced to discard the club. (cites omitted; Buchanan, Wildinson, Prinsley, BMJ 2008;337:a2835)

So here we have a golfer with a acoustic nerve related hearing loss, worse on side than the other. He had no other history that would account for it and imaging of his hearing apparatus appeared normal. The patient satisfied clinical criteria for noise induced hearing loss from impact (non continuous) noise but had no previous history of excessive noise exposure. A puzzle for the doctors. Could it be the golf club? What next? The internet of course. Reviews of the King Cobra club turned up these comments:

"Drives my mates crazy with that distinctive loud 'BANG' sound. Have never heard another club that makes so distinctive a sound. It can be heard all over the course, it is mad!!"

"A very forgiving club . . . albeit the 'unusual' clanking sound."

"I don't mind the loud BANG as it sounds like the ball goes a really long way. It sounds like an aluminium baseball bat, so some may not like it."

"This is not so much a ting but a sonic boom which resonates across the course!"

Apparently there are some standards for the physical elasticity or efficiency of energy transfer between a golf club and a golf ball (who knew?). It is measured as a coefficient of restitution (COR:

The United States Golf Association, in conjunction with the Royal and Ancient, St Andrews, Scotland, stipulates that the upper limit of COR for a golf club in competition use is 0.83.3 This means that a club head striking a ball at 100 miles per hour (mph) will cause the ball to travel at 83 mph. Thinner faced titanium clubs, such as the King Cobra LD, have a greater COR and deform on impact more easily, the so called trampoline effect, not only propelling the ball further, but resulting in a louder noise. The King Cobra LD and Nike SQ both have CORs above 0.83, making them non-conforming for competitions.

It turns out that when sound levels for different golf drivers were measured, the thin faced titanium clubs were all noisier, individually and as a group, than any of the conventional clubs (titanium clubs on the right; height of the tee is the sound level as measured at the right ear of a golfer):


I'm an epidemiologist and this qualifies as only anecdotal evidence. I still believe it. Call me prejudiced.


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I don't think you're prejudiced, but I don't believe it. In a typical 18-hole round of golf, one hits the driver less than 18 times over a four-hour period. According to your graph, the sound was measured at the right ear of the golfer (presumably hitting the one hitting the ball, and not his or her partners who would be further away). I find it hard to believe that this alone is enough to induce hearing loss over an 18-month period.
If you want another reason to hate golf, consider this: some equipment companies have marketed "atomic" drivers, which are guaranteed to give extra distance on every drive. Turns out they are made with depleted uranium. I haven't seen any data on radiation-induced cancer in users of these clubs, or in those who manufacture them, but what a ridiculous concept. Takes "boys will be boys" to a new level.

By Sam Dawes (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

Sam: Yeah. Exactly what my son said. But prejudice doesn't care about facts.

Depleted Uranium? Wow.

Sam D. is right that playing golf would probably not give you enough exposure to be a problem (and I would say that the average golfer on the average course only uses a driver 13 or 14 times a round) but if you were the type of person who liked to "show off your big driver" you could hit several hundred drives a month if you included the practice range.

How come I cannot get my patent for "real Viking testerone core" driver, ThorFore, approved?

By floormaster squeeze (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

The article says only that the gentleman played golf 3 times per week. Most avid golfers also spend significant time hitting balls on the driving range. Buckets at the range contain between 50 (small) and 150 (jumbo) balls. He could easily double his exposure (and exposure intensity) hitting only one bucket a week with his driver at the range.

You do all realise that it's the BMJ christmas edition, right?

It's supposed to be fairly light hearted.

Wouldn't this be the same for baseball players? Especially the ones who use those awful metal bats? Maybe both ears? How about the catcher who has to hear the smack of the ball against the bat who knows how many times?

When contemplating the list of reasons why golf can be bad for you, don't forget the famous Ping Beryllium-Copper and Beryllium-Nickel clubs.

No big deal, you say, because they're solid manufactured items? No particulate release unless you're silly enough to, say, sandblast one?

Well, seems like that's just what some of the folks with these things do with them.

Shudder . . . I'd rather have the DU driver, thanks.

By rodentrancher (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

depleted uranium wouldn't be any real radiation hazard in a golf club (half life in the thousands of millions of years, after all; alpha and beta particles emitted), but it does seem like a silly, pointlessly expensive gimmick. you'd gain mass over a steel or lead club, true, but i'd be flabbergasted if you gained enough to make it worthwhile.

...apparently, if wikipedia's to be trusted, you'd actually lose mass over a plain old tungsten club. dumb, dumb, dumb!

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink