Picture this: On a golf vacation in Southern California, you slice a ball into the rough. You track it down in some dry brush, and use your lightweight, titanium alloy club to chip it toward the green. While you’re only thinking about making par, new research shows that striking the ball in that type of situation could ignite a wildfire.

“When the club strikes a ball, nearby rocks can tear particles of titanium from the sole of the head,” said chemical engineering and materials science professor James Earthman, lead author on the paper published in Fire and Materials. “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.”

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Most golf clubs have stainless steel heads, which do not create the same type of reaction. But alloys make clubs lighter and easier to swing, making them a significant part of the market.

After blazes at Shady Canyon Golf Course in Irvine and Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo a few years ago, Orange County fire investigators asked University of California, Irvine, researchers for help in determining whether the fires could have been caused by golf clubs. When the researchers replicated the conditions in a lab, they found that clubs coated with the lightweight metal can create sparks of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit when hit against a rock. The sparks stayed alive long enough to ignite dry foliage.

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“A very real danger exists, particularly in the Southwest, as long as certain golf clubs remain in use,” Earthman said.

Photo: Paul Lawrie at the PGA European Tour Scottish Hydro Challenge. Credit: Wikimedia/Creative commons/Aaron Sneddon