IT IS Scotland's other national game and a healthy way to enjoy the great outdoors while demonstrating sporting prowess.
But a hidden hazard of golf has now been uncovered – it could make you deaf.
Those at risk are the players who use a new generation of thin-faced titanium drivers to propel the ball further and make the game easier.
The booming noise the metal club head makes when it strikes the ball was found to have reduced the hearing of a 55-year-old golfer, according to ear specialists who studied the case.
The doctors now suggest that regular users of the titanium clubs should consider earplugs to protect them from the noise, especially on enclosed driving ranges.
The case has been reported in the latest edition of the British Medical Journal. Tests of six titanium clubs against six thicker-faced stainless steel models found that the former all produced greater sound levels.
The authors, who include Dr Malcolm Buchanan, an Edinburgh-trained ear, nose and throat specialist, say: "Our results show that thin-faced titanium drivers may produce sufficient sound to induce temporary or even permanent cochlear damage in susceptible individuals."
Buchanan, a keen golfer himself, added: "Players should be careful when playing with these thin-faced clubs rather than the thicker-faced versions, as they make a lot more noise. Wearing earplugs is a possibility, although it might be a bit too radical for some."
But golfing experts warned this approach could cause even greater problems. Andrew Coltart, one of Scotland's leading professional golfers, said: "If you are wearing earplugs you might not hear the shouts of 'fore', be hit by a ball on the head and get brain damage."
The doctors, based at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, decided to conduct the tests after a 55-year-old golfer attended their clinic with unexplained tinnitus and reduced hearing in his right ear.
He told them he had been playing golf with a King Cobra LD titanium driver three times a week for 18 months and the noise of the club hitting the ball was "like a gun going off". It had become so unpleasant that he had discarded the club.
An internet search revealed other concerns about the club. "Drives my mates crazy with that distinctive loud BANG sound," reported one player. "This is not so much a ting but a sonic boom which resonates across the course," said another.
The doctors found no other physical explanation for the golfer's hearing loss. He had "no history of prolonged occupational or recreational exposure to loud noises (such as shooting) or exposure to substances that could have had a toxic effect on the nerve structures in his ear".
Suggesting that the player's deafness was related to his golfing habit and his use of a particular club, they decided to recruit a professional golfer to hit balls with six of the new types of clubs and six older steel drivers.
The new breed of clubs were designed with a thinner metal face to produce a "trampoline" effect which theoretically hits the ball further but also results in a louder noise. The tests found each of the six titanium clubs – from leading manufacturers such as King Cobra, Callaway, Nike and Mizuno – produced more sound than stainless steel versions. The worst offender was the Ping G10, one of the first thin-faced clubs on the market.
The doctors concluded: "Caution should be exercised by golfers who play regularly with thin-faced titanium drivers to avoid damage to their hearing."
Golfing experts agreed the new clubs were louder than previous models but doubted they could cause hearing loss. Coltart, a European Tour player with two tournament wins to his credit, said: "There is definitely a difference in sound levels between the two types of clubs, but I would be amazed if they put your hearing in jeopardy."
Martin Dempster, editor of Bunkered, the Scottish golf magazine, said: "There are some drivers around that do make a louder noise when you play with them than clubs did in the past. You stand on the tee sometimes and get a bit of a fright, but I would be gobsmacked if the noise was making you deaf."
Golf author and consultant Malcolm Campbell said: "I have been playing golf for 60 years and there's nothing wrong with my hearing.
"But it is true that some of the modern drivers do make a much louder noise than previous models. Some of them sound like a six pack of coke being dropped onto a concrete floor, and I wouldn't play with them for that reason."
Scott Gourlay, the head professional at Craigmillar Golf Club in Edinburgh, agreed earplugs might be an asset if using titanium clubs on the range.
"If you are on a range, which is an enclosed space, and you are hitting lots of balls then there is an echo and that's where you might get an effect from these big-headed, thin-faced drivers. But it's not as bad out on the course because the noise dissipates in the open air and you are only hitting a drive every 15 minutes or so."
King Cobra could not be reached for comment.
Buchanan now plans to carry out further tests among professional golfers to find out if any have suffered hearing loss.
"When I went to the range and used one of these clubs I got tinnitus. I noticed that the professional who did the tests, though, was not affected at all. This suggests he may already be suffering some hearing loss."
Pain of getting into the swing
GOLF, the consensus goes, is one of the great non-contact sports. Yet its long history is littered with tales of unpleasant injuries.
Tory MP Terry Dicks fell on a golf course and ended up requiring a hip replacement.
Then in the 1991 Open, the crack of Richard Boxall's drive on the ninth was swiftly followed by another, as his left leg fractured.
Mostly, though, players suffer from the wear and tear of countless attempts to replicate the golf swing. Noted back pain sufferers include major winners Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Greg Norman.
Tiger Woods, left, is currently out of the game with a stress fracture of the knee. Although Woods won his last tournament in June, while in pain from the injury, his doctors told him a break was necessary to achieve a long-term recovery. He plans to return in April.