Michael Ward, 70, was seeking shelter from the storm Wednesday afternoon at a New Jersey golf course when lightning struck the tree he was hiding under, killing him, police tell PEOPLE

By Morgan Smith
June 10, 2021 01:04 PM
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16th green as lightning strikes
Credit: Richard Heathcote/Getty

A New Jersey man died after he was struck by lightning while playing golf at a local country club, authorities said.

Lt. Brian Ferguson of the Westampton Township Police tells PEOPLE that Michael Ward, 70, of Florence, was seeking shelter from the storm Wednesday afternoon at Burlington Country Club in Westampton Township.

Ward was near the course's seventh hole when lightning struck the tree he was hiding under, killing him.

A staff member from the clubhouse was the first to find the victim, who appeared to be playing golf by himself, Ferguson says. There were other golfers on the course, but nobody else was hurt in the storm.

"In all these years I've worked here, I've never heard of similar incidents happening," Ferguson adds. 

Ward's death may likely be the first lightning-related fatality in the United States this year. According to data from the National Weather Service, as of Tuesday, there had been zero deaths by lightning this year in the United States, the Washington Post reported. Last year, 17 Americans were fatally struck by lightning. 

Wednesday's incident also set a new record for the United States for the latest time the country has seen its first lightning fatality.

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"Previously, the latest first fatality of the year occurred 10 years ago on May 23, 2011," John Jensenius, a lightning safety ambassador with the National Weather Service, told the Post.

Forty-one people on average die from lightning strikes each year in the United States, according to the National Weather Service, but safety campaigns and better access to weather forecasts (and warnings) have caused a decline in recent years, the Post reported.

Men are reportedly more likely to be struck by lightning than women; of the 40 lightning deaths in 2016, only nine were women. 

Lightning fatalities typically peak in July, with June and August closely following, the Post added.  

The Southern United States and mountainous regions tend to see the most lightning fatalities, as that's where lightning strikes and outdoor activities happen the most. Florida has long been known as the country's "lightning capital," but states like Oklahoma, New York and Michigan have reportedly seen their fair share of incidents as well.