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'Sonic boom' golf club may 'damage hearing'

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Golf isn't exactly known as a sport of deafening noises, but a provocative (albeit suspiciously anecdotal) study is making the rounds claiming golfers may risk losing their hearing by using newfangled thin-faced titanium drivers.

The latest generation of titanium drivers can apparently produce an ear-shattering "sonic boom" when the club strikes the ball. Impressive, yes, but also sufficient to induce temporary or even permanent cochlear damage, according to the study.

Doctors even go so far as to recommend avid golfers consider wearing ear plugs.

The research was carried out by a team of ear, nose, and throat specialists based in Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital after a 55-year-old patient developed unexplained tinnitus and hearing loss in his right ear. The docs determined it was likely exposure to loud noises — which they eventually linked to the man having played golf three days a week for 18 months with the extreme tintinnabulation of thin-faced titanium clubs. The man reported the noise was "like a gun going off."

The doctors recruited a professional golfer to hit shots with six different thin-faced titanium clubs and six thicker-faced stainless steel models and did in fact find the former produced a greater racket.

The loudest offender made a sound of more than 130 decibels — somewhere between the equivalent of a jet engine and a gunshot. Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders.

Of course — how "repeated" the exposure of a driver hitting a ball in a game of golf is certainly questionable.

NHS Choices has come to good grips on the findings and warning.

  • The application of these findings to the real-life golf-course situation may be limited. No detail is given about the environment in which the clubs were tested. If it was in a confined space, the direct exposure to the noise may have been greater than on an open golf course.
  • There was no statistical comparison between the noise generated when using steel drivers compared to titanium ones. The trend (shown in a graph) looked to be increasing for titanium clubs, but without statistical analysis we cannot be sure that this was not due to chance alone.
  • Given that all the drivers produced quite loud noises on contact with the ball, the bottom line of this study – that golfers who play regularly with thin-faced titanium drivers should be cautious about the noise exposure – sounds sensible. This is perhaps more relevant for people on a driving range who are hitting many balls in a short space of time in a confined space.

Using caution generally good advice — but the necessity for golfers to rush out to buy a pair of tartan earmuffs to go with the rest of the ensemble is certainly rather questionable. ®

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