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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Pain, injury become par for the course

Saturday, May 15, 2004
LORNE RUBENSTEIN

Too many golfers are hurting themselves. The evidence of an increasing number of injuries is anecdotal so far, but it's compelling. A sport that involves no bodily contact is generating a lot of bodily harm.

The list of injured tour pros over the years could go on and on: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Fuzzy Zoeller, Scott Hoch, Rocco Mediate and many others.

Jim Furyk won't defend his U.S. Open victory next month because of an injury to his left wrist. Canadians Richard Zokol, Mike Weir and, most recent, Ian Leggatt and Glen Hnatiuk, have had golf-related injuries.

Back, neck, shoulder, wrist, hand, hip, knee, foot: Name the injury, and golfers have had it. Weir strained a ligament in his lower back before the PGA Championship last August, and his posture suffered. Leggatt had surgery last month for carpal tunnel syndrome in his left wrist. Glen Hnatiuk will undergo surgery next week for lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow, in his left arm.

Leggatt will be off the PGA Tour for a couple of more months. Hnatiuk will need four months away. The Australian golfer Peter Lonard, who has shot 64-70 in this week's EDS Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, Tex., missed the first six weeks of the PGA Tour because of a cracked rib.

Lonard's injury happened in a seemingly innocuous manner. His trainer, who was stretching his hip, put his hand on a rib, and the rib snapped. One wonders why a fit 36-year-old professional golfer should injure himself this way.

Then there's Tiger Woods, who has been altering his swing and was at eight-under-par 132 at the Nelson. Woods, 28, had surgery on his left knee late in December of 2002. He works out, and he's young. Might golf be the source of his injuries?

"Tiger locked his left knee back in his swing, which creates a stable left side to hit against," Dan Goldstein, a physical therapist who works with golfers and whose background includes a focus on spinal dysfunction, said the other day from his clinic in West Palm Beach, Fla. Goldstein said that locking the left knee in this way can lead to physical problems.

Meanwhile, Marvin Tile, the former head of orthopedics at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, also wonders about Woods.

"You have to wonder why he's changing his swing," Tile, a recreational golfer, said this week. "I don't know why, but I'd bet it's backache. The twisting in the back that the golf swing produces isn't healthy. But all the athletic moves today are extreme, not only golf."

The modern swing could contribute to injuries. Asked once whether he could describe the swing in one sentence, Nick Faldo quickly answered, "Sure, it's the turning of the upper body against the resistance of the lower body back and through." This unnatural rotational force imposes severe stress on the spine. Meanwhile, players are swinging to the max these days to get the distance they need to compete.

"There are so many wonderful players at the tour level that any flaw in a player's swing will be exposed," Pete Draovitch, the co-author of Complete Conditioning for Golf, said yesterday from his office at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Anybody can win any week. So players are forcing their bodies to a new level because of the talent pool."

Draovitch, a physiotherapist, works with Greg Norman and is involved in a comprehensive study to understand the stresses that the swing imposes on the body. Along with Mark Phillipon, who has performed arthroscopic hip surgery on 25 PGA Tour pros, including Norman, Jesper Parnevik and Peter Jacobsen, he's developing a database with a view toward helping pros and recreational golfers.

Draovitch and Goldstein believe tour pros would be worse off if they didn't exercise regularly. Maybe it's all a chicken-or-egg situation. Most tour pros work out hard so that they can play hard. Yet playing hard can lead to injuries.

As for recreational golfers, most have yet to realize they should work out even at a minimal level.

"They don't take fitness that seriously," Goldstein said. "One thing they don't recognize is that golf is played in one direction. You need to do exercises that balance out both sides of your body, or else you're always creating stresses."

Stress, huh? You thought you were playing golf to relax. Then again, as the late Canadian golfer George Knudson said: "You don't play golf to relax. You relax to play golf."

But Knudson also had back problems. One would prefer not to say it, but it's possible that golf and injuries go together. And that's a pain.

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