Tiger Woods said his practice routine before the U.S. Open was to hit a few balls on the range, sit in the golf cart until the pain subsided, then hit a few more balls. As we now know, Woods played 91 holes on a shredded left knee at Torrey Pines in San Diego, managing to beat 45-year-old Rocco Mediate in a Monday playoff.
Woods' victory not only underscores his determination and talent, but it points out how physically demanding golf can be. Professionals hit balls nearly every day and walk 18 holes during tournament rounds. The grind tends to put stress on muscles and joints, and most players with lengthy careers have at least one injury setback.
Phil Mickelson, 38, injured his wrist last year while practicing for the U.S. Open and needed most of the season to recover. Michelle Wie, 18, hurt her wrist while jogging last year and only now seems to be back in shape. Davis Love, 44, Fred Couples, 48, and Mediate all have had sore backs for years and missed chunks of time while recovering.
"We just beat up our bodies," Jack Nicklaus told the Washington Post. "It's why I gave up golf."
At 32, Woods is not going to give up golf, but it's likely fans won't see him in action until this time next year at the earliest.
"An athlete like Tiger Woods, he'll be able to come back at some point,'' said Dr. Ronald Grelsamer, an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "It's not career ending. The long-term prognosis is good. It's not like he's a football player. A football player could never play on a knee replacement, but a golfer could.''
Amateurs don't grind nearly as much as professionals, but they still have the same injuries. Dr. Terry Golden, a St. Petersburg chiropractor who treats golf injuries, said there are many things average players can do to reduce the risk.
Don't be Tiger Woods
You can't hit the ball 300 yards on every drive, so don't swing like you can. Woods is the world's No. 1 golfer for a reason, and even his full-force swing has led to some physical problems. A smooth, easy swing can result in distance as well. "A lot of people swing too hard, which leads to problems,'' Golden said.
Get to the course at least 30 minutes before your tee time. Before heading to the range, do some stretches as if preparing to run. Deep knee bends, toe touches, jumping jacks, windmill stretches and back stretches are all beneficial preround exercises. Put a club behind your back and rotate your hips to loosen the lower back.
"Warming up is huge,'' Golden said. "They say 80 percent of the people warm up for less than 10 minutes before golfing. And of those that do, their incidents of injury is about half of those that don't warm up. Just warming up reduces the risk of injury by 50 percent.''
Golden referred to a 2004 study in The Golf Biomechanic's Manual by Paul Chek to make his point.
"Amateur golfers achieve approximately 90 percent of their peak muscular activity when driving a golf ball,'' Chek's study said. "This is the same intensity as picking up a weight that can only be lifted four times before total fatigue. This level of exertion and muscular activation equates golf with such sports as football, hockey and martial arts. The difference is that other athletes outside of golf include conditioning as an integral part of their preparation before play."
Take a lesson
Weekend warriors sometimes don't have the smoothest swings. A golf professional could point out flaws that likely will reduce stress on the lower back and joints.
"If it's something you're going to do on a regular basis, go see a golf pro and get a lesson,'' Golden said. "Poor swing mechanics is a primary cause in golf injuries. A golf professional can improve your swing and lessen your chance of injury.''
Don't ignore the pain
Granted, this advice is coming from a doctor, but if back or joint pain persists, get it checked out. It could be something simple, but it also could be something more serious. Don't make it worse by trying to play through the pain.
"Chiropractic is great at pain relief and could also increase range of motion,'' Golden said. "To prevent low back injuries in golf it's a matter of flexibility. Primarily, stretching for the low back and for the hips is key.''
It's normal to have a golf injury
Don't feel the need to make up an excuse for having a golf injury (wrestling alligators, pick-up tackle football game). It's a physical sport. Even young players get injured.
"The average Joe Public looks at golf as a leisure sport,'' Golden said. "Most people don't think there is any fitness requirements to golf. That is absolutely untrue. There is just about as much muscle exertion in a golf swing as there is in any other sport.''
The reality is, the more golf swings taken, the higher the risk of injury. Take the time to warm up and fine-tune your golf swing and it will likely lead to more pain-free rounds.
"The body is like a set of tires," Johnny Miller, the NBC Sports golf analyst who no longer plays competitively because of knees that have required four surgeries, told the Washington Post. "You can only go down the road so many times before the tread starts to come off."
Rodney Page can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8810.