Golfers who land shots into the rough may be igniting more than foul tempers, a string of expletives, and poor scores. According to scientists from UC Irvine, titanium golf clubs that come in contact with rocks can produce sparks reaching temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and last long enough to set dry brush on fire. With California experiencing its worst drought in recorded history, the parched plants need very little provocation to burst into flame.
Fire investigators from Orange County, California asked researchers from UC Irvine to see if titanium-alloy golf clubs could have been behind two blazes in Mission Viejo and Irvine several years ago. The fires started at the Shady Canyon Golf Course and Arroyo Trabujo Golf Club, and spread dangerously close to nearby homes. Lead author James Earthman believes that the alloy heads, preferred for swinging in unmanicured natural areas due to their light weight, could ignite fires when coming into contact with rocks.
To recreate the situation in the lab, Earthman and his colleagues used high-speed video cameras and scanning electron microscopes. Slowing down the swings, the researchers found that conventional stainless steel heads had no effect, while the titanium alloy clubs created enough heat to send sparks flying.
“Rocks are often embedded in the ground in these rough areas of dry foliage,” Earthman said. “When the club strikes a ball, nearby rocks can tear particles of titanium from the sole of the head. Bits of the particle surfaces will react violently with oxygen or nitrogen in the air, and a tremendous amount of heat is produced. The foliage ignites in flames.”
Many plant communities sitting alongside golf courses in the West and Southwest are already adapted for fire, and even without the historic drought would be prone to frequent burning cycles. With California struggling to find water for residents, agriculture, and industry, UC Irvine’s investigation gives environmentalists one more reason to look askance at the moisture-hungry, chemically-laiden lawns of many courses across the state.