Sur­vival of the Fittest?

As play­ers bulk up and swing speeds in­crease, golf de­bates what’s caus­ing in­juries to top play­ers.

Golf Digest (Malaysia) - - Contents - BY JAIME DIAZ

The cour­ses, club­heads and pay­checks are big­ger, but the most ob­vi­ous change to pro golf in the 21st cen­tury? The way the play­ers look. Bil­lowy clothes and dumpy physiques have been all but shamed off the world’s tours, with even the for­merly portly pro­file of se­nior golf stream­lined by the age­lessly trim Bern­hard Langer. Where was the im­age of a generic tour pro re­made? The gym. It used to be that ge­netic gifts were al­most wholly re­spon­si­ble for why phys­i­cally mag­netic stars like Snead, Palmer and Nor­man stood out. But the cur­rent era is marked by a new army of clones who are clearly buffed un­der their stretchy shirts and skinny pants. All the lean mus­cle is ac­cepted as in­dis­pens­able for the power game now con­sid­ered vi­tal as the most ef­fi­cient path to tour suc­cess. To get that way, at least some fit­ness train­ing—but more com­monly, a lot of it—has be­come manda­tory. It would be hard to ar­gue that the re­sults haven’t been a net pos­i­tive for the game. On the modern pro tours, ball go VERY far, and the ath­letic and stylish im­age of the play­ers is more mar­ketable. Sub­stan­tively it seems ir­refutable that there are more golfers ca­pa­ble of winning tour­na­ments than ever.

But to apply a New­to­nian con­cept that is one of the foun­da­tions of the call for in­creased tour-pro fit­ness, for ev­ery ac­tion, there is an equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion. And what seems to be an emerg­ing pat­tern—or per­haps just an aber­ra­tion—has spurred some tra­di­tion­al­ists to voice their la­tent skep­ti­cism about the new or­der.

Why, the old-school­ers won­der, has it been that since 2000, the very play­ers iden­ti­fied as the best and most phys­i­cally de­vel­oped have been so of­ten in­jured? The names on that rhetor­i­cal mar­quee: David Du­val, Tiger Woods and, most re­cently, Rory McIl­roy and Jason Day.

The short­hand, which ig­nores some vi­tal de­tails, is this: All four were or are power play­ers who made it to No. 1, and all four trans­formed their bod­ies to a star­tling ex­tent—es­pe­cially their up­per bod­ies— through in­tense train­ing pro­grams. In the case of Du­val and Woods, the in­juries were part of a pre­cip­i­tous de­cline, and in the case of the latter two 20-some­things, some re­cent down­ward slide has taken place. Bot­tom line, the more tax­ing work­outs seemed to make all four more phys­i­cally frag­ile.

It’s a sim­ple nar­ra­tive, and video posts of the im­pres­sively ripped cur­rent No. 1 Dustin John­son and U.S. Open cham­pion Brooks Koepka en­gag­ing in heavy-lift­ing ses­sions can look like har­bin­gers.

Of course, all ar­eas of Woods’ epic and per­haps tragic story re­main a dom­i­nant and ir­re­sistible ref­er­ence point in the game. Golf’s com­men­ta­tors know con­tro­versy will be sparked by any com­par­isons to Woods’ his­tory of fit­ness ob­ses­sion and in­jury. Early last year, a few months af­ter McIl­roy had been sup­planted at No. 1 by Jor­dan Spi­eth and Day, Golf Chan­nel’s Bran­del Cham­blee went there when he cited Woods in re­spect­fully ex­press­ing doubt about McIl­roy’s di­rec­tion.

“When I see the things he’s do­ing in the gym, I think of what hap­pened to Tiger Woods,” Cham­blee said. “And I think more than any­thing of what Tiger Woods did early in his ca­reer with his game was just an ex­am­ple of how good a hu­man be­ing can be; what he did to­ward the middle and end of his ca­reer is an ex­am­ple to be wary of. That’s just my opin­ion. And it does give me a lit­tle

con­cern when I see the ex­ten­sive weight lift­ing that Rory is do­ing in the gym.”

The year be­fore, when McIl­roy was No. 1, Du­val, who was tran­si­tion­ing to the tele­vi­sion booth, ref­er­enced Woods and him­self in seem­ing to is­sue a warn­ing to McIl­roy, telling re­porters, “It looks to me the ma­jor­ity of the guys that get hurt, in­clud­ing my­self, are guys that hit the gym hard and did stuff.”

McIl­roy, who ad­mits that sec­ond-guess­ing of his work­out pro­gram is a “pet peeve,” re­sponded to Cham­blee and other crit­ics by post­ing an in-your-face video of him­self do­ing a set of three full squats with 265 pounds, with the com­ment, “I’m a golfer, not a body­builder.”

McIl­roy later ex­plained that the mo­ti­va­tion for the ag­gres­sive work­outs that trans­formed him from un­der­de­vel­oped ado­les­cent to an Ado­nis was not about ego, but prag­ma­tism. McIl­roy’s unique com­bi­na­tion of small frame, flex­i­bil­ity and an abil­ity to gen­er­ate in­cred­i­ble club­head speed were all a recipe for fur­ther in­jur­ing a lower back that had be­gun giv­ing him trou­ble as a ju­nior. The an­ti­dote was a reg­i­men de­signed by his Bri­tish sport phys­i­ol­o­gist, Dr. Steve McGre­gor, which strength­ened the core and lower body and added up­per-body mus­cle mass to help McIl­roy’s swing be­come more sta­ble, com­pact and pow­er­ful. “Rory ab­so­lutely did the right thing for him,” says ven­er­ated golf-fit­ness in­struc­tor Randy My­ers.


But as we’ve learned in pol­i­tics, wonky specifics don’t al­ways pen­e­trate the zeit­geist. There are var­i­ous rea­sons weight train­ing and golf re­main a coun­ter­in­tu­itive fit to many. The sus­pi­cion by sports cyn­ics that the hard­est weight-train­ing work­outs might be fu­eled by per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs in­vites crit­i­cism. Also, five-time Su­per Bowl cham­pion Tom Brady, un­cut and rel­a­tively scrawny but bet­ter than ever as he hits 40, is strongly en­dors­ing mus­cle pli­a­bil­ity and sup­ple­ness over bulk.

Many gen­eral-in­ter­est sports fans con­tinue to re­sist con­sid­er­ing pro golfers real ath­letes. Even old tour pros can un­der­mine such cred, as stal­warts from pre­vi­ous eras who never did a plank have a hard time buy­ing into the power game when clichés like “the woods are full of long hit­ters” still res­onate in their heads. Weights are par­tic­u­larly anath­ema. Gary Player was so far ahead of his time with his lift­ing reg­i­men that he was still be­ing de­rided in 1978, af­ter he’d won his ninth ma­jor. In the next decade, work­out fa­natic Greg Nor­man also got some funny looks.

Af­ter winning the Open Cham­pi­onship at Royal Birk­dale in 1976, Johnny Miller bought a ranch and be­gan do­ing heavy man­ual work to re­fur­bish it. Over the next few months, Miller put on 20 well-pro­por­tioned pounds. When he re­joined the tour in 1977, he was sud­denly a much worse golfer.

“It was like I was built like a tight end— broad shoul­ders, small waist, big legs,” Miller says. “I looked great, but I didn’t do any stretch­ing, and I felt stiffer. When I went out and started prac­tic­ing again, my swing had lost a lot of flex­i­bil­ity. The worst thing was how far off I got with the dis­tance con­trol on my irons, which was the part of the game where I was bet­ter than any­one. I was hit­ting shots I had never hit be­fore, fly­ing it over greens, leav­ing wedge shots way short. Chang­ing my body, putting on all that mus­cle, get­ting stronger but los­ing flex­i­bil­ity, it was one of the things that killed my game and prob­a­bly caused a lot of my later in­juries.

“Mod­er­a­tion is the best guide,” Miller says. “Some­times guys who work out hard start look­ing in the mir­ror and fall in love with what they see. I think a golfer has to have enough strength and flex­i­bil­ity, but not go crazy with it.”

Many tra­di­tion­al­ists have a soft spot for all the doughy play­ers who had funky low-speed swings but could per­form un­der pres­sure and, by the way, never seemed to get hurt. The qual­ity most prized was not power but feel, as ev­i­denced by the two-fin­ger hand­shake fa­vored by Billy Casper, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Ray­mond Floyd and Lee Trevino so that pre­cious dig­its wouldn’t get un­duly squeezed. As a gen­eral rule, tour pros avoided stren­u­ous ex­er­cise, know­ing that in golf, com­pen­sa­tions forced on the body can af­fect a swing groove, mak­ing even lit­tle in­juries ef­fec­tively big in­juries.

Nick Faldo, who won his sixth and fi­nal ma­jor in 1996, is per­haps the last truly great pre­ci­sion and touch player. Though he al­ways kept him­self fit—as a young man through cy­cling and to­day, at 60, re­tain­ing a gym habit— he has stayed away from bar­bells.

“I re­al­ize there is science and more knowl­edge to­day,” Faldo says, “but to me, mess­ing around with weights of 200, 300 pounds, it doesn’t make sense when you’re play­ing a game of feel with a club that weighs only ounces. And when play­ers change their bod­ies dra­mat­i­cally, whether get­ting big­ger or smaller, a lot of times it hasn’t turned out well. We golfers can be del­i­cate be­ings.

“I know the young play­ers have a new style where they snap their body up­ward to hit it stupid long,” Faldo says, “but I still have doubts that method holds up on Sun­days when they’re ner­vous. It still comes down to be­ing able to land an iron shot on the yardage num­ber and get­ting ap­proaches within a 15-foot cir­cle. Es­pe­cially in the ma­jors, it’s still about nerve and touch. You know, I doubt Shake­speare mucked out stalls right be­fore pick­ing up his quill. I’m pre­pared to be proven wrong, but it just seems there’s an­other chap­ter to be writ­ten in this ar­gu­ment.”


All right, golf’s weight-lift­ing skep­tics have had their say. To the train­ers who ac­tu­ally work with tour pros—frus­trated that their meth­ods are still so of­ten ques­tioned—there re­ally isn’t much of a de­bate. Dr. Ara Sup­piah, an ex­pert in func­tional sports medicine and the 2016 U.S. Ry­der Cup team’s physi­cian, un­loads when given the floor. “What crit­ics are say­ing is not science, just anec­do­tal ob­ser­va­tion from a very small sam­ple size with many vari­ables,” he says. “For ev­ery golfer who has been hurt or sim­ply ac­cused of be­ing hurt in the gym, I can name many top play­ers— Hen­rik Sten­son, Adam Scott, Ser­gio Gar­cia, Jor­dan Spi­eth—who work out reg­u­larly but have never been in­jured. The crit­ics of pro golfers have it back­ward. They say the gym work causes golfers in­jury, but to­day’s play­ers and their train­ers know first­hand it’s the sport itself that causes in­jury, and that they train to keep from be­ing in­jured.

“Ath­letes in other sports get hurt, yet we never say they shouldn’t be in the gym,” Sup­piah says. “But we say it about golfers. You would never say Rafa Nadal’s arms are too big. But we con­stantly say these things about golfers.”

Sup­piah’s ar­gu­ment is that pro golf has evolved into a more ath­let­i­cally de­mand­ing sport. Much like ma­jor-league pitch­ers throw­ing 95 miles per hour or faster who seem­ingly get in­jured more of­ten, or tennis play­ers with more pow­er­ful rack­ets get­ting in­jured from swing­ing harder, golf’s now-com­mon 120-mile-per-hour club­head speeds put a sig­nif­i­cantly heav­ier load on the body. “The


equip­ment ad­vances have al­lowed the body to go so much faster,” Sup­piah says. “Be­cause the driver can be set up for a one-way miss, and be­cause it’s lighter and more for­giv­ing, swings can be a lot harder with­out that much lost ac­cu­racy. Those con­di­tions cause speeds and dis­tances we’ve never seen be­fore, but it takes a greater phys­i­cal toll.”

Sup­piah is a de­fender of Day’s ag­gres­sive fit­ness pro­gram, which the Aus­tralian said he stepped up in 2014 to pre­vent in­juries that had plagued his early ca­reer. But much like McIl­roy, Day is small-boned, gen­er­ates great speed, is highly flex­i­ble and has a trou­ble­some lower back. The no­tice­able devel­op­ment of his up­per body is in­tended to sta­bi­lize and shorten his turn away from the ball, which when it was longer caused a se­ri­ous in­jury to his left thumb.

Sup­piah says that golfers get wear and tear the same way most ath­letes do—from ground forces—and cites New­to­nian law as the fun­da­men­tal ra­tio­nal for train­ing.

“Golfers are gen­er­at­ing al­most three times their body weight at im­pact in down­ward force,” he says. “The ground is go­ing to im­part that same amount of force in re­turn, and the ma­jor­ity has to be ab­sorbed by the hu­man body. Be­ing able to han­dle those ground forces in­volves weights and is an im­por­tant part of ath­letic train­ing.

“But that train­ing is mis­un­der­stood,” Sup­piah says. “When a golfer gets thicker in the arms or up­per body, it’s not be­cause he’s nec­es­sar­ily fo­cused on that part. The work­outs golfers do are mostly core-, back- and leg-dom­i­nant. But do­ing squats, the arms as well as the legs will get big­ger be­cause growth hor­mone and testos­terone is be­ing re­leased. The goal of a proper pro­gram is bal­ance. And the only time the arms or legs get too mus­cu­lar is if there is an ac­com­pa­ny­ing loss of func­tional range of mo­tion. I don’t be­lieve Jason or Rory suf­fered that at all be­cause of their work­outs.”

My­ers, the di­rec­tor of fit­ness at Sea Is­land Re­sort in Ge­or­gia, where he coaches Davis Love III, Zach John­son, Brian Har­man and Billy Horschel, is the au­thor of the just-re­leased book Fit for Golf, Fit for Life. He rarely makes heav­ier weight train­ing the focus of pro­grams he gives his play­ers. “There has never been a study that says that by do­ing these pow­er­lift­ing moves, I’m go­ing to im­prove my golf per­for­mance,” My­ers says, “but there have been stud­ies that say if I get in bet­ter shape and I re­main sup­ple, I’ll be able to extend the length of my ca­reer.”

My­ers pri­or­i­tizes his player’s longevity—“tak­ing full ad­van­tage of golf ’s ex­tended life­span and money-mak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties”—over per­for­mance. “I think it’s sig­nif­i­cant that Tom Brady has adapted a lot of golf prin­ci­ples in the way he trains,” he says. “Our golfers ac­tu­ally train a lot like quar­ter­backs. We want their mus­cles to be pli­able. The swing­ing mo­tion is very sim­i­lar to the throw­ing mo­tion. You need strong legs, a very strong core and sup­ple­ness in your shoul­der joints and mid-back. The guys who have been able to stay out on tour longer aren’t the most mus­cu­lar and, in most cases, not the strong­est. But they’re the most sup­ple, with a high range of mo­tion, flex­i­bil­ity and sym­me­try.”

My­ers be­lieves that a player fol­low­ing his prin­ci­ples will ac­tu­ally im­prove his touch: “By im­prov­ing pos­ture and bal­ance through core strength, it’ll be eas­ier to keep the body still dur­ing chip­ping and putting.”


At the same time, My­ers says golf is be­hind other sports in fit­ness coach­ing be­cause it lacks full ac­cep­tance by play­ers, and there’s a rel­a­tive lack of doc­u­men­ta­tion about cause and ef­fect. My­ers re­mem­bers meet­ing Player, then in his 60s, in the 1990s and hear­ing the Hall of Famer con­fess that he wasn’t sure what part of the life­long reg­i­men he had so dili­gently fol­lowed had ac­tu­ally been ad­van­ta­geous for golf. Nor­man, an early ad­her­ent of in­tense ex­er­cise who tried to im­prove on Player’s ex­am­ple, now ad­mits that if he had done things dif­fer­ently, he might have avoided some of the surg­eries he faced late in his ca­reer and af­ter his re­tire­ment from com­pe­ti­tion. “Golf fit­ness is re­ally still in its in­fancy,” My­ers says.

Joey Dio­visalvi, who trains John­son and Koepka, be­lieves that al­though golf-fit­ness knowl­edge is ac­cel­er­at­ing be­cause of the in­creased needs on tour, more mis­takes are pos­si­ble be­cause play­ers are push­ing harder than ever to gain an edge. “In­jures are more com­mon than ever be­cause play­ers are more ag­gres­sive and they’re not afraid to do the things that they have to do to per­form,” says Dio­visalvi, known as Joey D. “It doesn’t mean they’re smart enough or dili­gent enough to do the proper prep work.” Dio­visalvi poses the ques­tion, “Did Tiger do things that were po­ten­tially rogue?” re­fer­ring to ac­counts of Woods’ Navy SEAL-style train­ing and per­form­ing ex­er­cises like tech­ni­cal Olympic-style lifts with ex­tra weight that went against the ad­vice of his then-long­time trainer, Keith Kleven. “He could have.”

Dio­visalvi sees a need for im­prove­ment in the field in pre­con­di­tion­ing golfers for chal­leng­ing work­outs, and in un­der­stand­ing the proper re­cov­ery pro­to­cols to lessen in­jury. “When play­ers come back from be­ing hurt or fa­tigued, some­times they’ve given them­selves their own green light, and they re­turn too soon,” says Dio­visalvi, whose first clients when he be­gan help­ing tour play­ers were Jes­per Parnevik and Vi­jay Singh. “I don’t know if we’ve done a great job in golf get­ting play­ers to un­der­stand that proper re­cov­ery sim­ply takes time. You start to re­al­ize that, left to their own judg­ment, re­cov­ery is not some­thing they do well.”

The ar­gu­ment runs counter to the crit­i­cism that cur­rent play­ers of­ten get for skip­ping too many tour­na­ments. The ba­sis is the rel­a­tive iron­man sched­ules that were com­mon, es­pe­cially among jour­ney­men, in pre­vi­ous eras. But Jack Nick­laus—and later Faldo and Woods—showed the ef­fec­tive­ness of a shorter sched­ule de­signed to peak for ma­jors.

More than ever, many of to­day’s play­ers have the eco­nomic lux­ury of wait­ing un­til they’re men­tally ea­ger and phys­i­cally primed be­fore em­bark­ing on a string of tour­na­ments. Given that those choices are now more com­pli­cated be­cause the more ex­ten­sive world­wide tour­na­ment sched­ule ef­fec­tively length­ens the play­ing sea­son, fit­ness train­ers, Dio­visalvi sug­gests, should strongly en­cour­age a pace mod­eled on the way horse train­ers hold out prize thor­ough­breds to run only when they are fully rested, and prefer­ably for the big­gest races.


Dio­visalvi also sounds a warn­ing that in­creased train­ing by golfers brings with it the pos­si­ble use of per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs. “We have to get a hold of that in golf,” he says. “I don’t be­lieve it’s as com­mon as in other sports, but I would never doubt that it’s go­ing on. Some guys will take the risk be­cause the fi­nan­cial temp­ta­tion pushes them be­yond their abil­ity to think ra­tio­nally.

“To say that PEDs don’t ex­ist in golf, I don’t be­lieve that. When they start blood test­ing [in the 2017-’18 PGA Tour sea­son], we’re go­ing to see a whole dif­fer­ent dy­namic.”

As Faldo says, there’s an­other chap­ter to be writ­ten on the role of fit­ness in golf. It will likely be one in which train­ers will have a more de­fin­i­tive han­dle on the proper pro­to­cols.

“We all rel­ish those mo­ments when a great ath­lete pushes the lim­its of what a hu­man be­ing can do, and it’s a thrill to be part of that,” Sup­piah says. “But more and more, for ev­ery one of those mo­ments, even in golf, the ath­lete will be on the edge of be­ing in­jured or break­ing down. Could be through a train­ing reg­i­men, or in­tense prac­tice ses­sions, or on the edge of men­tal ex­haus­tion. That’s what the great­est ath­letes do, and what the new de­mands of golf are mak­ing the great­est golfers do. The ath­letes will al­ways want to go there. It just means that in golf, the train­ers who can prop­erly guide them will be­come even more valu­able.”

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