2006: Two approaches aim for similar results

The David Leadbetter Golf Academy and the PGA Learning Center at PGA Village have unabashedly jumped aboard golf’s fitness train.

The facilities – two of the game’s most respected teaching centers located 120 miles apart – have added laboratories that test golfers’ physical abilities, enabling instructors to put students on comprehensive fitness programs to improve their bodies as they relate to the golf swing.

During full days at both the PGA Kinematics Lab in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Leadbetter’s Golf Academy in ChampionsGate, Fla., near Orlando, this reporter was pulled and pushed, stretched and strained, extended and expanded. But my body – and my swing – were the better for it.

The PGA KMX lab opened in November and is run by SoloThree in conjunction with the PGA.

The lab, which is open to the public, uses a program developed by Paul Juris, who has a doctorate of education in motor learning from Columbia University and 25 years experience in studying human motor skills. He worked with fitness training and equipment companies and with athletes in other sports – including three NBA teams, the NHL’s New York Rangers and the U.S. Tennis Association – before turning his attention to golf.

The PGA KMX lab offers a comprehensive evaluation, which includes an assessment of posture, flexibility, motor skills, balance and stability. During the opening hour-long session, several exercises and stretches are performed at Juris’ request. A golf club is never swung, although students do simulate a golf swing with a weighted bar several times while standing on force plates that measure stability and weight shifts.

Juris enters the data into his computer model, from which he prescribes an exercise program designed to address physical limitations as they relate to the golf swing. The program has four simple goals – to measure and improve the golfer’s posture, balance, stability and rotation. Exercises are customized to each individual.

“Golf is dynamic motion over a stable base,” Juris said. “But many golfers aren’t able to stabilize their base.

“Our exercises are designed to improve the movement efficiency in relation to the golf swing. The idea is to help automate the movements so you don’t have to think about them.”

After running through my data, Juris presented a set of eight stretches and exercises, then patiently coached me through each on the center’s collection of Cybex equipment.

(The KMX lab offers up to 12 coaching sessions with its comprehensive evaluation, and high-quality printouts demonstrate and describe the exercises.) Many exercises simulate swing movements – all can be done at home with light weights and elastic tubing or on equipment available at most fitness clubs.

The entire evaluation and coaching session took less than two hours. No golf instruction is given by the PGA KMX staff, although Juris said the staff likes to talk with each participant’s instructor, explaining how the recommended program can help that student to improve in his or her swing.

Rick Martino, the PGA’s director of instruction, has been a big supporter of the center and has his instructors at the Learning Center incorporate the lab’s findings into their work with those students who have been through the KMX program.

Jim Vincent, 61, is convinced. A longtime executive with several golf equipment companies, including Etonic and Cobra, Vincent, now retired in Pinehurst, N.C., visited the KMX lab in January.

Vincent, whose dad, Jimmy, played in the 1934 Masters, once was a competitive player on the state amateur level but has suffered from problems with discs in his lower back for several years. He was able to play only once per week, always followed by pain the next day.

“I had tried everything but golf voodoo and acupuncture,” Vincent said.

After beginning the program of nine exercises and stretches given to him by the KMX lab, where it was determined that his posture over the ball needed to be improved, Vincent played golf a few days later. Then he played the next day, too.

“It made a world of difference for me,” he said. “I played far more comfortably. I’ve been really impressed by what they were able to do for me.”

David Leadbetter, meanwhile, isn’t exactly leaping onto the fitness bandwagon.

The renowned instructor has long advocated a holistic approach to the game and for years has preached the benefits of fitness. But it wasn’t until March 1, with the unveiling of the academy’s Elite Performance Program, that Leadbetter completed the holistic circle.

“It makes us a one-stop shop for golf,” Leadbetter said. “That’s something I’ve always wanted, and I think this addition finally allows us to do it.”

Compared to the KMX program, golf instruction is a much bigger part of the package at the Leadbetter facility.

Leadbetter senior instructor Sean Hogan put me through the academy’s one-day Elite Performance Program, which consists of a physical evaluation and fitness program design, a 3D biomechanics analysis, digital video analysis, launch monitor testing, club fitting evaluation and mental toughness training with Dr. Robert Winters. A second day also is available that focuses on the short game and includes putting analysis as well as putter and wedge fitting.

The performance and fitness session also is offered as a three-hour stand-alone program, which includes the launch monitor and club-fitting analysis (but no swing instruction), or the fitness component can be combined into a four-hour program with the biomechanics analysis.

My day began by being videotaped as I warmed up on the range, followed by launch monitor analysis, which gave Hogan and master clubfitter Santiago Mari data such as club speed, ball speed, spin rate and launch characteristics.

Then came a visit to the academy’s new biomechanics lab, where technician Craig Sullivan put me in a vest and headband and placed more than 30 small reflective balls at key body points; these provide readings to the eight infrared cameras positioned above.

The biomechanic evaluation complements the fitness session because it provides the performance coaches with an analysis of such items as weight shift, spine angle, head tilt, neck position and swing plane.

Following a quick, humbling visit to the video room, where Hogan put my swing side-by-side with those of Michelle Wie and Ernie Els, it was off to the adjacent performance and fitness center, where Diego Gorostiaga, the academy’s soft tissue and rehabilitation specialist, was waiting.

Gorostiaga administered a series of quick, simple eye tests by moving a ballpoint pen in front of my eyes and watching my reaction. From this, as well as from watching my swing earlier on the range, Gorostiaga said he could tell crucial things about my posture and balance, as well as the way I viewed the golf ball.

He then performed a series of stretches and loosening of my muscles and spine to prepare me for what Hogan wanted to do with my swing. Gorostiaga also recommended a simple eye exercise to do with a pen several times per day. After going through a similar evaluation last year, Leadbetter student Michael Campbell was given eye exercises just weeks before winning the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where he ducked into portable toilets several times during each round to perform the eye drills. Leadbetter cites Campbell as an example of a student who has benefited immensely from the academy’s emphasis on fitness.

Following lunch and an hour of swing instruction from Hogan, it was back to the fitness center and a session with health and performance coach Doug Parra. Based on briefings from Gorostiaga and Hogan, as well the data from my video and 3D biomechanical model, Parra gave me a series of eight myofascial stretches and exercises designed to reduce stress and stretch muscle tissue and fibers. Most of them concentrated on the abdominal areas as well as the vertebra in my middle and lower back.

Finally it was back to the video lab for a look at how much my swing and posture had improved in a few hours. No, I will never hit the ball like Michelle or Ernie, but my swing – at least for the moment – looked much closer to theirs.

And if I’m diligent about implementing the stretching and exercise programs provided by the PGA KMX lab and the Leadbetter Academy – which were not dissimilar – chances are I can keep it that way.

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