Tour Players May Be Working Out Too Much, Leading to Injuries

Maybe this is just a midsummer rough patch, but injuries among pro golfers have never been so much in the news, or of so much concern for the players themselves. “It’s not a football game. We are not taking hits out there,” Jim Furyk said last week. “But we’re doing a very awkward motion at a high speed and it’s repetitive, that same motion, over and over and over again.”


Tom Watson, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, characterized the golf swing as a “violent” move. “They’re falling like flies,” he lamented, after watching Matt Kuchar and Jason Dufner, two potential members of his squad, drop out of the PGA Championship last week. Four other players also withdrew because of injuries. “The question you have to ask,” he told me Monday, “is whether the workout ethic of players today is causing these injuries.”

The answer is almost certainly yes, although other, interrelated factors are also involved. The Tour these days attracts bigger, stronger players than it used to, and their athleticism brings more torque to bear on their joints. Many of today’s players started focusing on golf exclusively at a younger age than formerly and thus accumulate more lifetime stress on their bodies. Seasons run longer, and players feel compelled by the increasingly competitive nature of the game to push ever harder for any advantage, particularly distance.?Gym work itself may be part of the problem. “In the past, there were very few injuries because there were fewer professional golfers exercising,” said nine-time major champion Gary Player, a pioneer in golf fitness who said he never had to withdraw from a tournament because of injury. “While this might not make sense to an average golf fan, what you have to understand is that many of these professionals today are becoming injured because they are exercising incorrectly,” he emailed from South Africa.

Proper training seeks to reduce muscular imbalance to combat the one-sidedness of golf, increase mobility in the joints that need to be flexible such as the hips, shoulders and upper back, and strengthen muscular control in the core, glutes and legs. What’s incorrect training? Striving to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.?Greg Rose, a co-founder of the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., acknowledges that Tour players’ intensely competitive nature sometimes works against them in the gym. “If you want to train like the Green Berets or the Navy SEALs, where a lot of the purpose is mental, to see how much you can handle, of course it’s high risk,” said Rose.

Most top golfers train directly with well-educated physical therapists and avoid this trap. “Working out properly has kept many, many more golfers on the golf course than it’s kept off,” said Rose, who works frequently with pro golfers.?But over time, even the best training regimens wear down the body. “If you’re training harder, working out harder, it’s going to make you stronger and maybe help prevent some traumatic injuries,” said Joshua Dines, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City who counts numerous professional golfers among his patients. “But every time you do a push-up or a lat pulldown or a biceps curl, you are risking an overuse situation. So it’s a constant balancing act between letting the body recuperate and making it stronger.”

Early specialization in golf adds to the toll. Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin and many other stars from previous generations played multiple sports through high school. Far fewer of today’s Tour pros did. “This is a problem across the board in sports,” said Dines, who is a team doctor for the New York Mets and has also worked with Davis Cup tennis. “We’re seeing a whole different spectrum of overuse injuries now, and in a lot younger population.” In baseball, for example, one study found that oblique muscle injuries rose dramatically between 2005 and 2012, even as players became more diligent about training.?In golf, Tiger Woods, a physical mess at age 38, might be considered Exhibit A for the dangers of early specialization and intense training. Rory McIlroy has a golf timeline quite similar to Woods’s and is a recent gym-rat convert. Although McIlroy is still sound at 25, he could easily have problems down the line.

The new wraparound schedules that top international pros follow don’t help, either. Even if they don’t play in many more tournaments than they used to, many pros now have essentially no off-season and continue to train year-round.?Then there’s the issue of the so-called modern golf swing, characterized by keeping the lower body planted and comparatively stable while generating power for the swing through the torque created against that platform by the rotating upper body. It can be murder on the vulnerable lower back.

Rose at TPI has worked extensively with professional long drivers like Jason Zuback. Their swings, designed for maximum distance, more closely resemble old-fashioned swings. They lift their left heels off the ground, rotate their hips more, and “jump” at the ball, relying far less on the lower back for power.?”The modern swing, with fewer moving parts, is designed primarily for accuracy,” Rose said. “When you take that technique, and add power to it, as the modern pros have to do, you put extremely high stress on the body.”

So what’s a modern Tour pro to do? First, they have to accept that, increasingly, injuries are part of the business. Second, treat the injuries they do get appropriately and give them time to heal.?Many seem to be getting the message, which may also contribute to why we’re hearing so much more about injuries. “Seven years ago, I would have tried to play through this injury,” Michelle Wie said last week after announcing she would be missing three to five weeks because of a wounded finger. In 2007, Wie suffered a serious wrist injury but unwisely played on. “It is important to me not to make that mistake again,” she said.

Furyk has had injuries to both wrists over the years, but in general has enjoyed a healthy career. At 44, he is ranked No. 6 in the world. “Any nicks and bumps and bruises I’ve had, I’ve done a good job of getting out ahead of them instead of waiting until I was hurt or had a hard time playing. I’ve tried to be preventative,” he said.But that’s not his only secret. “A lot of it is good luck,” he said.

-John Paul Newport for the Wall Street Journal

Click here for full podcast playlist.