2006: Fitness Evolution

Golf has entered a new era of fitness. Call it a 21st-century obsession with the physical side of the game.

For the first time in the sport’s history, physical strength and flexibility have become widely recognized and highly sought by golfers of many skill levels.

An army of touring pros, led by Tiger Woods, are exercising on a daily basis. They are starting to achieve an image of rock ’em, sock ’em athletes. Everyday golfers are visiting health clubs and fitness facilities in record numbers. Trainers around the world are developing programs specifically for golfers.

Exercise disciplines such as yoga and Pilates are being tailored for golf. Some of the world’s most famous resorts are offering fitness schools specifically for golfers. Suddenly the sport is flexing its muscles and twisting its body in ways that were hard to imagine a few decades ago.

“I don’t think that 10 years ago anybody thought much about the link between the body and the golf swing,” said Desi Howe, director of golf at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif. “Instructors said, ‘Let me look at your golf swing,’ and then they told a student, ‘You need to do this.’ There wasn’t any consideration for whether the golfer’s body could actually do what the teacher wanted.”

Sure, there always seemed to be a few high-profile pros who were viewed as “fitness nuts.” Gary Player cultivated an image as a golfer whose body was hard as a rock. Before Player, Frank Stranahan was known to travel with weights in the trunk of his car.

Even as far back as the 1930s, a book called “Physical Training for Golfers” was published in St. Andrews, Scotland. The author was Lt. Alick Stark, a physical training instructor at St. Andrews University.

Praised by five-time British Open champion J.H. Taylor as a leader in “training for golf,” Stark prescribed a collection of stretching and breathing routines in addition to regular baths. He told his readers to avoid bunions and ingrown toenails.

Generally, though, golfers were warned throughout most of the 20th century to avoid gyms. A common belief was that weightlifting and strength training would tighten the body. Golfers were advised that walking five or six miles during a round of golf was enough to maintain physical fitness.

Indeed, there have been few overweight golfers at the highest level. The most famous and acclaimed golfers in the sport were slim and trim. After Billy Casper thinned down, he became one of the two best golfers in the world from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The other member of that elite twosome was Jack Nicklaus, who also lost a substantial amount of weight and transformed himself from “Fat Jack” into something of a matinee idol.

Thin to win. The world of golf nodded its head in approval.

Today, though, there is something revolutionary happening in golf’s fitness arena. It is a sea change of the highest magnitude, and it is touching golfers of every persuasion. Men and women feel its effects. Junior golfers are being counseled in physical training. Avid competitors and weekend warriors alike are touched by its repercussions.

Golfers no longer are satisfied with looking healthy. The new emphasis is on performance. How well does the body perform the movements that are essential for an effective golf swing?

In addition, injuries have come under the golf microscope. Trainers are as diligent about preventing new golf injuries as they are about treating old ones.

The World Golf Fitness Summit, to be held March 9-11 in Orlando, Fla., is just the tip of a growing iceberg. It is a tangible representation of what is happening in modern golf training, bringing together golf teachers, fitness instructors and various researchers in an environment that allows them to share information and plan for the future.

Ready, set, go. The new era of fitness seems ready to explode into something even bigger.

The future of the professional golf tours seems clear. The best players in upcoming years are likely to be physical specimens who have sculpted their bodies and their swings.

On the local level, the future already seems to have arrived. Golfers are scrutinizing their bodies as never before. They are accepting the premise that body conditioning is just as important as swing conditioning. They are understanding – many for the first time – that a tight, weak or unresponsive body can prevent a golfer from achieving certain swing positions and mastering the swing.

As might be expected, this atmosphere has given rise to health heroes. If Woods is the fitness poster boy for professional golf, Dave Phillips and Dr. Greg Rose are Goliaths of the fitness movement for ordinary golfers.

Phillips and Rose are co-founders of the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., and co-organizers of the World Golf Fitness Summit. They are regulars on The Golf Channel and have helped inspire many golfers to pay attention to their bodies.

The health and conditioning movement also has set the stage for individuals such as Katherine Roberts, the high priestess of yoga for golf. The statuesque Roberts, who has worked with numerous tour players, has heightened the awareness of physical training for golfers.

PGA golf instructor and fitness expert Roger Fredericks, with an endorsement from Arnold Palmer, has sold tens of thousands of golf exercise videos. Fredericks recently joined the La Costa staff and is coordinating the resort’s physical training with its swing instruction.

All things considered, golf has a new direction. It is based on a foundation of fitness, a platform of strength and flexibility.

Furthermore, there is no age limitation to this training. Physical instructors and golf teachers are combining their efforts to create sensible individual programs for golfers of all ages.

“Golf is the greatest sport,” said Tiger Woods. “Until recently, I never stopped to think about it, but golf motivates people to take care of themselves so they can play golf all their lives.”

Golf’s new era of fitness has arrived. Stretch those muscles, lift those weights, hit that ball, make that birdie.

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