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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Shaping up your golf game

Tuesday, November 21, 2000

One of the brighter lights I know once said, "Golf isn't a sport. It's a skill -- sort of like woodworking." But no matter how you define it -- sport, game or skill -- you can start getting ready for next year's golf season right now by putting down your clubs and heading to the gym.

Lori Burns spends her days fine-tuning the bodies and minds of professional golfers. Burns is a sports physiologist and psychologist. For years, she worked with the National Hockey League. Golf or hockey, it doesn't matter. If you want to play your best, she says, you have to be fit.

Burns works with all aspects of the game, but during the long winter months, she tries to break down the mental habits that are stalling the golfer. Anyone who has watched Lori Kane hit her winning stride on the LPGA Tour this year knows that winning is as much a mental test as a physical one. But much of the mental preparation starts with the body.

"The more fit you are, the less physical stress you experience and that means the less mental stress," Burns said. "You haven't got nagging pain distracting you. As soon as that happens, then you will start to compensate and you will compromise your game.

"Most people overlook the physical side of the game and think that they are mentally ready. You have to step back and ask yourself if you get tired on the 14th hole. If the answer is yes, that means you have low physical stamina. And when the physical levels drop, the mental stress rises.

"For every thought that happens in your mind, you will have some kind of physical reaction."

So, what Burns teaches her students to do is to control both the mind and body.

"Take a look at Tiger [Woods]," she says to prove her point. "He is very fit. The physical is never a factor with him, so he gets to concentrate on the game alone."

Burns says you just have to examine what happens to your body when you're tense. Most people, she says, are not even aware when they are stressed. To teach her students how to recognize and release tension, Burns has them do a relaxation drill.

"This is the best thing for golfers that I know," Burns said. "Sit in a chair and close your eyes. Starting with your toes tense and release the muscles. Breath, relax and feel each muscle relax. Then move up your body, the calves, the thigh muscles, the hips and all the way up to your face.

"This teaches you when you are on the golf course what a tight muscle feels like. Many golfers don't even realize how much tension they are holding. It also teaches you how to breathe and release that tension. Deep breathing will let the muscles go."

Burns has been working from her Georgetown, Ont., office with some of Canada's top junior players as well as Canadian LPGA Tour veteran Gail Graham and David Moreland IV of the Professional Golf Association. Graham is 81st on the LPGA money-earners list. But Burns predicts that she will climb through the rankings this year.

Since getting on Burns's program, Graham has shed 20 pounds and increased her strength and concentration. If a golfer is willing to make a commitment to fitness, then they are showing that they are ready to improve their game. Too many of the pro golfers, particularly the women, are, shall we say . . too hefty.

"That's putting it politely," Burns said.

"In order to change your game, you have to look like an athlete. You have to look like you are committed to what you are doing. It takes 28 days to change a habit. If you can commit to that, then I know you are serious.

"The first thing I do is look at what they are eating. I eliminate caffeine, alcohol and refined white flour. Most people will have slight headaches the first two or three days on this, but after that, they start to feel very good.

"Then I do a fitness program. For Gail, I have her do a type of power yoga, which she can do on the road. And then, once they are getting fit, I start to work on the mental aspect of the game."

To improve your game, Burns says, you have to play just one stroke at a time. After you've had a bad shot, forget about it. That's the secret. You only ever play one stroke.

"How many times do you hear a golfer say that they knew they'd have a bad game because they had a terrible first shot?" Burns said. "If that's true, why play the remaining 18 holes after that first bad shot? After you hit the ball, you have to let it go. Each shot is new."

Start your winter golf program by hopping on a treadmill or bike or rowing machine for 45 minutes, three to five times a week. If you're not sweating, you're not working hard enough. This will not only increase your cardiovascular fitness, but will improve and lengthen your swing by reducing your potbelly.

Why not try one of Burns's favourite drills? Use a weighted golf club and hold the address position for one minute. Then move to the top of the backswing and hold that for one minute. With a full turn, you will work all the core muscles in your torso, your balance, upper back and arms. "You'll start shaking, but this will help create muscle memory and teach you the right position," Burns says.

The third position is a minute at the follow-through. "The key to this is to follow-through to the end. It will help counterbalance your muscles. This is just a great drill."

If the drill is too hard, start with a shorter club and work up. It's amazing how quickly you will improve. And the last piece of advice Burns has for golfers, duffers to pros, is to "go and have fun" when spring finally returns.
Patricia Young is The Globe and Mail's associate sports editor and can be reached via e-mail at:

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