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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Fitness a top priority for golfer

Tuesday, April 12, 1994
Special to The Globe and Mail

MANY people have long felt that there is no need to exercise for golf. But attitudes are changing; golfers suffering from bad backs, rotator cuff injuries, wrist and neck problems have focused attention on the demands that the swing places on the body. The result is that golf-specific exercise programs are appearing with increasing frequency.

The pro tours are bellwethers for the change. Touring pros are stretching their golf-specific muscles, jogging and stairclimbing, strengthening themselves through careful weight-training. Nick Faldo is getting up 30 minutes earlier to stretch. Greg Norman is working out a couple of hours daily. Deborah McHaffie and others on the LPGA Tour are doing yoga.

The demands on the body that the golf swing makes are particularly obvious when it comes to Senior PGA Tour players. Bob Panasik of Windsor, Ont., won his PGA Tour card for this season, then promptly overdosed on hitting golf balls, injured himself, and had to take an extended leave from competition. His colleagues told him to remember that he's 52, not 25, and that the most important factor on the Senior PGA Tour is rest: rest to recover from both mental and physical fatigue.

The golf swing stresses the legs, hips, abdominal muscles, back, shoulders, neck, arms and hands. The rotary, twisting motion occurring over a four-hour period means that strength, flexibility and endurance are required. And, of course, the system must be in balance from start to finish.

The requirement of both static and dynamic balance was made apparent to me when I worked on the book The Natural Golf Swing with the late George Knudson. Knudson was a gorgeous swinger of the club who emphasized that the swing was motion within stillness. He consulted in the late 1960s with the late Lloyd Percival at Toronto's Fitness Institute on a golf-specific fitness program. Knudson became both stronger and more flexible, and never relinquished the impeccable balance with which he swung.

Balance is critical. More than any modern golfer, Faldo exemplifies this principle. He also knows that balance comes only with fitness. This fact was underscored to me when I asked him not long ago to describe the swing in one sentence.

"It's a matter of turning the upper body back and through against the resistance of the lower body," Faldo answered. That is, one had to be strong in the legs and flexible in the upper body. Knudson's and Faldo's words finally sunk in for me so that I began a search for a golf fitness program that continues today.

The strength element in particular is confusing, and the jury is not yet in on how golfers should exercise in order to bear the weight that swinging the golf club creates. One thing is certain, as golf legend Bobby Jones said: The golf club seems to gain weight as the player turns to the top of his backswing. Strength is required to control the club.

But Johnny Miller, for one, overdid things some years ago when he bulked up the muscles in his upper chest. Faldo did the same recently while working out with weights. He took on the appearance in his upper body more of a footballer than a golfer. Both Miller and Faldo pulled back from developing too much upper-body strength.

Yet we have the example of Gary Player, golf's most vigorous exponent of fitness. Player worked with a world weight-lifting titleholder named Roy Hiligen, despite being warned that he would hurt his golf by making him too muscle-bound.

"That simply was not true," Player wrote in his recent book To Be the Best, "because by doing exercise I was also improving my blood circulation and in any case my golf swing and other exercises kept me supple." Player, who weighed about 75 kilograms at the time, lifted twice that weight the night before the final round of the 1965 U.S. Open. His power-squat exercises helped lift him to victory the next morning.

Player continues to advocate golf fitness, and is coming out with a book called Fit for Golf this spring. His ideas must be taken into consideration. As it happens, instructors in the area, and golfers themselves, are learning that strength-training is important; but the exercises should be golf-specific.

Only now is information as to what is useful - that is, golf-specific - filtering down to the amateur golfer. It is all very well for Faldo to work with Chris Verna, the trainer that his swing teacher David Leadbetter uses in programs at Lake Nona Golf Club in Orlando. Faldo calls Verna "Mr. Stretch." But what about Mr. or Ms. Average Golfer? Where is he or she to turn?

The key is to think "golf-specific." Question any fitness instructor who is not familiar with the swing. And be cautious when reading popular magazines that in their trendy ways are publishing articles on golf fitness. They may be too general for your purposes.

Yet there are useful sources. Dr. Frank Jobe is an orthopedic surgeon who conducted research in the Biomechanics Laboratory of Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, Calif. His research led to the design of sport- specific injury prevention and rehabilitation programs for golfers, and ultimately to the fitness van that PGA Tour players use today.

Jobe and his colleagues wrote a book called 30 Exercises for Better Golf. It is particularly helpful in the areas of flexibility and also strength where equipment is not used. The section that requires weight- training equipment is less useful for obvious reasons. But any golfer could benefit by incorporating exercises that improve trunk rotation. The golfer who cannot turn his trunk back and through will lift the club and use his hands and arms too much. That is inefficient and potentially injurious.

It is far more intelligent to work out on a program that strengthens and stretches the legs, arms and trunk - the three-link chain used in striking a golf ball. Dr. Fran Pirozzolo is the head of the department of neuropsychology at Baylor University in Houston, and has worked with Norman, Steve Elkington and others. He advocates a program that includes exercises that work the abdominal muscles.

One new and useful fitness program is that developed by Dr. Gary Wiren, a PGA Master professional in North Palm Beach, and John Davis, an exercise physiologist who works with the PGA of America. They have introduced a portable fitness program that is golf-specific.

The Wiren/Davis program incorporates strength, flexibility and endurance, or cardiovascular, components. Participants take a simple test that classifies them in each area; a computer program then calculates a series of exercises suitable for whatever fitness level a person tested at.

One important component of this fitness program is taken care of as golfers use tubing of various resistances. The golfer anchors the tubing in a door jamb, then follows the prescribed exercises. The program also includes exercises that can be done on the floor or against a wall. The endurance component is fast-walking, which is useful for golfers.

Any golfer who is serious about fitness will have to do some personal investigation. You may not go so far as Norman, who said recently that "I am going to see the champion kick-boxers in America because the way they relax their big muscles until the point of impact is very much what should happen when you are playing golf."

Do begin a fitness program. But ensure that it is golf-specific. Stretch, strengthen and walk. Swing a broom to and fro for flexibility and strength. Or stretch with your leading arm holding a club to the top of your swing, and hold that position. Squeeze a tennis ball for hand strength.

As Pirozzolo says, "I believe you can add distance, gain confidence and facilitate a better swing through your training." Just do it, then, and do it now.

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