Each ten years of a man’s life has its own fortunes, its own hopes, its own desires.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
For many years I have known my golf swing has been besmirched by a slight lateral move with the upper body off the ball, a tendency to lift just a hair as my backswing unfolds and mediocre extension of my hands at the top of the backswing. My grip, posture and tempo are sound; but all the extra moving parts early in the swing have robbed my ability to hit powerful and consistent shots. I’ve always believed my handicap hovering in the six to eight neighborhood could have easily been whittled a few strokes if I could slay these demons.
It’s only been recently, as I stand on the precipice of my seventh decade on the planet and face a busy 2018 of walking some of the wonderful golf courses around the Carolinas, that I’ve gotten a clear view of how my physical limitations have hindered my golf game.
Though I’m in excellent overall health, have completed a Tar Heel 10-Miler in recent years and regularly join an early morning boot camp style workout under the F3 banner, I still have noticeable physical hitches.
To wit: I have limited lumbar spine mobility and weakness in my abdominals and glutes. I cannot rotate my shoulders ninety degrees while standing tall. I cannot stand on my right leg with my eyes closed longer than ten seconds; most PGA Tour golfers can go sixteen or more, proving they have a rock-solid right side on which to load. My right shoulder girdle is tight and I have less than 120 degrees of flexion. As shown in the photo atop this story taken at Linville Golf Club in the fall of 2016, that tightness affects my ability to rotate my trunk around my lower body past impact and can cause my right arm to become restricted through my finish.
Beyond that, as Mrs. Lincoln might have said, it was a wonderful play.
“You’re a writer, you spend all day hunched over a computer,” Erik Hernandez tells me. “Your everyday work life affects your body and, thus, your golf game.”
Hernandez and I are standing in the strength and conditioning complex of the Loudermilk Center on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, Hernandez just having administered to me a battery of tests under the auspices of the Titleist Performance Institute. Hernandez is assistant director for Olympic sports strength and conditioning for Carolina, and among the teams he coaches in the weight room is the men’s golf team. That responsibility led him to acquire certification from TPI, which since inception in 2003 has been at the cutting edge of studying how the body functions in relation to the golf swing.
“Your lats are limited from everyday work life,” he says. “We want to offset your daily activities with more mobility. You’ve got restrictions in your shoulders and hips. All of this translates to your swing characteristics. If we improve the basic parts of your mobility and strengthen the lower body, your consistency will be much improved.”
Having diagnosed the problem, Hernandez lays out a plan of rehabilitation. Maybe I won’t achieve the limberness of Rory McIlroy; but I can certainly improve over The Tin Man.
Over the next hour, Hernandez brings out a foam roller to hammer out the tightness in my back, shoulders and legs and a muscle roller designed to “destroy” my calves. I throw a medicine ball against a wall and stretch my back on a Swiss ball. He hooks me up to various weighted cables to push and pull. I learn to execute the “Brettzel Stretch” while lying on my back with my limbs venturing into never-never land—my right arm to the east and my right leg to the west. (I learn the stretch was so-named because a guy named Brett was turned into a human pretzel the first time it was catalogued). Another exercise essentially has me assuming a yoga-esque “child’s pose” and then rotating my shoulders from a stable lower body.
At every juncture, Hernandez implores me to engage my abs, to stretch tall, to keep my back neutral and do not, under penalty of death, let my shoulders round. There’s a lot of focus on the lower body and the hips. Quantity of reps is not important. Quality is.
“The lower body is so important,” he says. “It gives you stability and a foundation for walking the course and swinging the club. Leg strength is the foundation for everything. Your balance and power are related to leg strength.”
The business of golf fitness has been dramatically elevated the last two decades with Tiger Woods and his maniacal pursuit of Navy Seal-level fitness the spearhead. Annika Sorenstam can hit balls balancing on a Swiss ball. Still, Hernandez says that golfers have been slow to embrace the benefits of a well-rounded strength regimen.
“Guys like Tiger and Rory work their tails off,” he says. “They lift hard, take care of their bodies, sleep right, eat right. But it’s still not engrained in the culture. Too many golfers—and athletes of every kind, for that matter—still don’t understand the value of rotation and a strong core.”
Hernandez mimics the motions of hitting a golf ball, wielding a lacrosse stick and pitching a baseball.
“Every one of them is built around rotating around a solid base and strong core,” he says. “We get a lot of kids in every sport who are great at their sport, but they’re not great athletes. If we can improve that athleticism, think how much better they can be at their sport.”
So my New Year’s resolution is crystal clear. As my gray hairs populate, as my metabolism cools, as I get more creaks and cracks slogging out from under the covers, I have a plan to help stave off Father Time. Perhaps now I can make a fuller turn on the first hole and my golf bag won’t feel any heavier trudging up any hills on the back nine.
As they say about birthday No. 60: “From zero to sixty in 1,893,456,000 seconds.” Pedal to medal for the next ten as well.
Lee Pace hopes a more limber body will help in 2018 as he searches out the great walks in Carolinas golf. The story will be published in a handsome coffee-table book by UNC Press. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.