Determining whether play is safe
June 23, 2004
Chris Williams
Staff Writer

Dan Gross/The Gazette

This year's Booz Allen Classic marks a homecoming for Jake Swick, Weather Channel meteorologist on the PGA Tour. The 1997 Walt Whitman High School graduate grew up in Bethesda and now lives on the road, telling tournament officials whether to evacuate the course in case of lightning.

Bethesda man

forecasts weather

for PGA Tour

While thousands of golf fans are watching the pros at the Booz Allen Classic in Potomac, Jake Swick is watching a little black box.

Swick, 24, who grew up in Bethesda and graduated from Walt Whitman High School, is now one of the top decision-makers at some of the biggest golf tournaments in the country. As the Weather Channel meteorologist for the PGA Tour, tournament officials and course superintendents look to Swick's forecasts to guide quick decisions.

"The most humbling portion of this job is, you're right or you're wrong," Swick said. "It's very black and white. For us, it's, 'Guys, are we going to get hit or are we not going to get hit?'"

In a dusty gravel parking lot lined with security trailers just a short distance from the lush greens of the TPC at Avenel, Swick monitors a laptop computer and a device called Thor Guard, a small black box that predicts how likely it is that lightning will strike.

In one sense, Swick is fortunate to be the first line of defense against lightning. Standing over 6 feet tall, he is probably the last person who should be anywhere near a golf course during a thunderstorm.

"The number one reason I'm out here is to keep everybody safe from lightning," Swick said.

The black box is connected to a small rod on the roof of the trailer, capped with a kind of upside down metallic bowl to measure the static electricity in the air. Thor Guard then predicts the percentage chance of a lightning strike within 12 miles and within 3 miles of the golf course.

"As soon as it reaches 30 percent within three miles, it's go time," Swick said.

Tournament officials rarely take chances when it comes to evacuating in the event of lightning, Swick said. Last week at the Nationwide Tour's Northeast Pennsylvania Classic in Scranton, Pa., Swick's forecast suspended play as a thunderstorm hovered about five miles away from the golf course.

Unlike other jobs in meteorology, a weatherman for the PGA Tour receives instant feedback.

"The one thing I've always loved about this job the most is that you put your forecast out and the results of your forecast are immediate," Swick said. "Either you're right or you're wrong."

Scranton was the site of Swick's worst tournament last year, he said. In the morning he predicted a slight chance of a shower or thunderstorm during the day, but said the front was getting ready to move through and Swick told officials they would probably be in good shape.

"Of course, around 2 o'clock we had three thunderstorms develop," Swick said.

Each storm passed directly over the golf course one after the other and officials cleared the course.

"Those are one of those days where everybody kind of gives you the evil eye," Swick said.

Swick first became interested in weather while growing up in Bethesda. Like many public school children, Swick paid close attention to the winter weather reports to see if snow would cancel school. He was fascinated by what caused precipitation to be all ice and freezing rain or all snow.

After graduating from Walt Whitman in 1997, Swick went on to study meteorology at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. The toughest part was the math.

"It was all calculus and ordinary differential equations, which are not ordinary at all," Swick said.

Before graduating in 2001, Swick interned with local weatherman Bob Ryan of NBC Channel 4. He also met his wife Jamie, 24, at Millersville, who now travels with Swick. Jamie graduated with a degree in meteorology in 2003 and the two married last year. Jamie Swick is doing some behind-the-scenes work for ABC Sports this week during the Booz Allen Classic.

Most of Jake and Jamie Swick's personal belongings are in storage while they live on the road with no fixed address, but life on the road is not so bad for the young couple. They spent the whole month of January in Hawaii, for instance. Unlike sports like basketball or baseball, where the teams only stick around for a day or two, golf tournaments are usually in town for a whole week, giving the Swicks time to explore new places or, in the case of this week's tournament, visit with family and friends they have not seen since December.

"To have everything I need in two suitcases is not that strange to me anymore," Swick said.

Swick has worked 15 tournaments this year and the couple expects to be on the road through October. This will be his first time working his hometown tournament. Swick said he attended the event many times growing up in Bethesda. Working the tournament has given Swick a whole new perspective on the behind-the-scenes activities.

"When I was a kid, I had no idea there was a guy watching out for the weather, or all the planning that takes place for the tournament," Swick said.

During play this week, Swick stays glued to the weather radar on his laptop while keeping his ears open for the high-pitched "red alert" of Thor Guard. While most people who watch the Weather Channel see a green blob fluctuating over a vaguely recognizable map, Swick sees how high or low the clouds are by how fast they are moving on the screen. If the clouds are moving slowly, that could mean they are closer to the ground. If they are moving fast, chances are good the clouds are higher in the atmosphere.

While he is not likely to see much of the tournament cooped up in his trailer, Swick enjoys getting to see some of the most beautiful courses in the country.

"I grew up playing golf," Swick said. "I don't get to play much anymore, but I still love the sport. To be able to do weather in association with golf is pretty cool for me. It's a really satisfying job."