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Tips for golfers, especially in Florida, who have confrontations with alligators

Alligators rarely attack people in Florida, but with so many golf courses built near ponds and on wetlands, human-gator confrontations are a fairly common and somewhat dangerous occurrence.

Times (2006)

Alligators rarely attack people in Florida, but with so many golf courses built near ponds and on wetlands, human-gator confrontations are a fairly common and somewhat dangerous occurrence.

Let's face it, there are certain risks to playing golf. A shot could ricochet off a cart path and hit you square in the eye (it happened to Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey in 2007). Lightning could strike you (it hit Lee Trevino in 1975, like it does hundreds of golfers each year). You could fall off the top of a cart and break your wrist (it happened to Sprint Cup driver Jimmie Johnson at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto in 2006).

Or an alligator could lunge out of the water, grab your arm and twist it off, as it did to 77-year-old James Wiencek in South Carolina last week. He was on the 11th hole at Ocean Creek Golf Course on Fripp Island when a 10-foot alligator grabbed him while he reached for his ball. He lost his right arm from below the elbow.

While alligator attacks are rare, we nevertheless live in a gator-infested state. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are about 1.25 million wild alligators in Florida.

Since most courses in our state were carved out of swampland or placed near lakes and ponds, golfers and alligators must co-exist. Here are some ways to do it.

First, the facts

There has not been a fatal unprovoked bite since 2007. And better news is there have been no documented deaths from an alligator bite to a golfer in Florida.

But there have been injuries. According to an FWC study, 10 percent of all violent gator confrontations come from golfers trying to retrieve balls. A man was attacked by a nearly 11-foot gator at the Lake Venice Golf Club in 2007. Although a sign placed nearby the sixth hole read "Beware of Alligator," he nevertheless reached into the pond to rescue his ball. A one-eyed alligator latched onto his forearm and dragged him into the water. Luckily, another man was nearby and able to assist in beating off the gator.

What to do

Much has been written about how to avoid alligator attacks, but what do you do when a 10-footer grabs your leg?

Most attacks occur in residential areas — canals, lakes, golf course ponds. Attacks in wilderness areas are rare. If you are attacked, fight back. They are looking for easy prey, so if you struggle, you are more likely to get away. Go for the most vulnerable part on the alligator's body: the snout. Kick, punch, scratch, yell, scream and gouge its eyes. Try to stay above or out of the water, because once the gator gets you below the surface, it's all over.

Also, alligators are generally more active at dusk and dawn. But during the winter months they tend to slow their feeding habits.

Keep your distance

Alligators have brains the size of walnuts, but they do know one thing. If they see an animal (or human) at the same place day after day, they know where to go when they are hungry. On courses, golfers are hanging around the edges of lakes and ponds every day.

Use your judgment. Sure, an alligator probably isn't going to attack, but just know there could be one lurking in the weeds.

"When animals attack, they don't give away their location,'' Gary Morse, a spokesperson for the FWC, said. "And if an animal is growling at you, it's telling you to get away. It doesn't want to attack. The problem for golfers is that the alligators are probably hiding in the weeds or just under the surface. There should be a rule that if your ball is on the shoreline, you get two club lengths and a free drop because, after all, it's just a Maxfli or a Titleist. Bottom line is golfers should be careful around golf course lakes and ponds.''

Flirting with disaster

Then there are those who choose to dive in lakes to retrieve balls and sell them back to the club. They swim with gators every day, so their chances of an attack skyrocket.

In April 2008, Ike Monreal was attacked while diving in a lake off the 13th hole at Tampa Palms Golf and Country Club. He was bitten from behind by an 8-footer that broke his left arm and dislocated his shoulder.

In February 2007, Vernon Messier was attacked while diving in a pond off the fifth hole at Timber Greens Country Club in New Port Richey. A 7-footer latched onto his foot, but he was able to free himself by gouging the gator's eyes.

"It's something you might expect to happen with a job like retrieving golf balls from a pond in alligator country," Morse said. "It's a hazardous vocation."

fast facts

By the numbers

1.25 million Estimated alligators in Florida.

315 Documented "unprovoked'' bites to people in Florida since the FWC began tracking them in 1948.

22 Bites that have resulted in death.

7 Attacks averaged annually in Florida.

6 Bites through

June.

Tell us your story

Have you had a close encounter with an alligator while golfing? We'd love to hear your story. E-mail us at rpage@sptimes.com

Tips for golfers, especially in Florida, who have confrontations with alligators 10/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 8:59pm]

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