By Dan Hellman
Did Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead have conditioning and strength programs at the height of their professional golf careers? I doubt it. But the game has changed dramatically, and today, a professional golfer wouldn’t last long on the grueling PGA Tour without training and conditioning his or her body like any athlete.
People used to argue a lot about whether golf is an athletic sport or a technique sport. Most sports require both a mastery of technique and certain athletic abilities, like strength, agility, quickness and speed. Some, like bowling, require mostly technique. Others, like football, require mostly athleticism. Without the need for athleticism, a sport becomes a game. Think billiards.
We Swing Much Faster Today
So what has happened to golf since Jones, Hogan and Snead were playing, and what does this mean for the average golfer, the man or woman who can manage to play a game once a week—twice if they’re lucky?
Let’s get one thing settled first: Golf requires both technique and athleticism. On the green, it’s more about technique, but on the tee and to a somewhat lesser extent the fairway, athleticism rules. Look at today’s golfers—from Tiger Woods to the young pros like Brooks Koepka, and you see men who take strength and conditioning seriously.
They have to be serious about conditioning, and here is one reason why: The biggest change in golf today is the equipment, which allows a golfer to swing a club much faster—well in excess of 100 MPH—than was possible in Snead’s day. I often wonder how the great players of previous generations would fare on the Tour with today’s equipment and the advantage of today’s conditioning. My gut feeling: They’d do pretty well.
The Biggest Risk—Back Pain
I play golf and I work on conditioning and injury-recovery with top golfers. Golfers need a special kind of conditioning not just to play well, but to avoid the biggest risk golfers face today—back pain. Consider that golf is the only sport where you stand over a ball, come completely still, and then burst into violent but controlled motion. So to avoid injury, golfers must learn proper posture and control of the upper body.
In my practice, I use a combination of techniques and methodologies that address the special movements and risks of golf. I explain this in a short video, and I have recorded an online course for TPI on ELDOA for Golfers. ELDOA is a series of very important posture exercises, and I have selected several of them specifically for golfers.
Posture Is Critical in Golf
Posture is critical because it’s the position from which movement begins and ends. Control of the upper body is important because the lumbar spine is not designed to rotate, and most of us want to rotate from the lumbar spine when we swing a club. Rotation occurs more naturally from the upper body, and the golfer needs to learn how to rotate consistently from the thoracic cage rather than the lumbar spine. That is why I try to help golfers improve movement in the thoracic cage and hips. If they do this consistently, they can decrease their risk of back injuries, which is especially important as we age. This is one way we can meet the challenge of playing golf and staying healthy.
As for golfers: Yes, they’re athletes. Of course they need to master technique, but they also need to master posture, flexibility, strength and rotation, because all of that goes into the swing.
Photo of professional golfer Chez Reavie by Keith Allison