Injuries in Professional Golf - What's Going On?
Wed May 7, 2014 by Dr. Greg Rose
There’s been a lot of talk about injuries recently. If you follow golf regularly, this topic is all over TV and social media, as almost every week we hear about a player dropping out or missing a tournament due to an injury. But how can this be since more players now have medical specialist and physical fitness programs that are there to help them prevent these problems in the first place?
Well, it’s impossible to answer that question with one blanket statement, as I firmly believe each injury is unique to each player. However, I do feel there have been some fundamental changes that have occurred within professional golf that when taken in the aggregate, may help to explain why injuries appear to be on the rise.
First of all, the number of professional players competing on an international stage has increased dramatically over the past ten years. This is due to the fact that we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the number of official professional tours globally. Since there are more professionals competing on a daily basis, it only makes sense that there would be more total injuries now than ever before. Additionally, the media coverage that these players receive is relentless. Any injury or withdrawal can set the 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere into overdrive.
Second, the length of the competitive season for professional golfers is increasing. Starting last year, players who want to play a full season on the PGA Tour were only given one month off for recovery. Currently, the official 2014 season started in October of 2013 and will end with the Tour Championship in September of 2014. That is eleven months of straight competitive golf with no rest. It is not unusual to see a young player compete five to six weeks in a row without taking a break. That is a lot for any athlete to handle.
Third, if you haven’t noticed, elite level players seem to be getting younger and younger each year - from a 14 year old boy making the cut at the Masters to a 15 year old girl winning the LPGA Tour’s Canadian Open. Many parents start their kids in golf at a very young age and then have them specialize only in golf. They spend hours a day hitting golf balls without any other physical activity. In the past, most players had a good athletic background. They played baseball, soccer, tennis, track and many other sports throughout the year. Golf was just one of the sports they played, not the only sport they played. This trend towards early specialization and the lack of full athletic development could be a major cause of injury or breakdown in the modern player.
Fourth, we have to look at trends in teaching the game. Over the past 30 years, there has been a fundamental shift in teaching technique towards something called the “Modern Golf Swing”. This is where the player is taught to minimize the movement in their lower body during the backswing and create a large separation between the upper and lower body. In the past, players would allow their lower body to turn and rotate with the upper body, even to the point where their lead heel would come off the ground in the backswing. Could this teaching philosophy or style be a reason for more injuries in the game now?
Lastly, let’s talk about fitness programs that players perform on a daily basis. Many players understand the importance of keeping their bodies physically fit to stay competitive for as long as possible. This involves getting physically assessed to find their specific limitations and working with an exercise coach to help eliminate these problems. The vast majority of players who engage in a regular supervised fitness program have less injuries, perform at a higher level of competition, and compete for a longer period of time. The Champions Tour is loaded with players who would not be competing at such extraordinary levels without dedicated golf fitness programs.
There is a difference between “fitness” and being “fit to play golf.” These two concepts often get incorrectly lumped together. Some people not only appear to be incredibly fit but are very fit in a traditional sense of the word. For example, they may be in exceptional cardiovascular heath, have explosive strength, eat well and train often. But that does not mean their bodies are properly prepared for the repetitive demands of the golf swing. Properly developed golf fitness programs target specific areas that need work. It may be stability for one player, mobility for another, power in the third and injury rehabilitation in somebody else. This is not to say golf fitness is the magic pill that will prevent all injury, far from it. But I am convinced that a properly assessed player who is actively engaged in the right training program has a far better chance of playing for more years and at a higher level.
Now of course there are scenarios where a fitness program can cause an injury versus help prevent one. I’ve seen this first hand. First, if the player is doing something beyond their capabilities an injury is always a possibility. Many high level players are extremely competitive individuals in every aspect of their lives. If they treat the gym as a competition and try to “win” in the gym, with more weight and more repetitions, then injury is only a matter of time. Secondly, if a player blindly works out on their own, without any initial screening process or supervision from a trained fitness expert, it is easy to put themselves at risk. Finally, the “No pain, no gain” rule is just asking for trouble. My saying is, “Pain equals no gain!”
So is the incidence of injury increasing over the past 10 years across professional golf? Well, the answer is probably yes. I say probably because we do not have definitive data yet. But if so, the reason may be different than what you think.
- There are more professionals playing the game today.
- They have very little down time for rest and recovery during the season.
- They early specialize exclusively in golf to the detriment of their long-term athletic development.
- Players are taught the modern golf swing technique which can place more demands on the body.
- Players might bring their competitive mindset into the gym and engage in fitness programs that are ill advised or unsupervised.
If I could give just one piece of advice to golfers of all levels, it’s to be physically assessed by a competent professional. A well-trained professional can identify key areas of weakness or imbalance and develop highly effective exercise or rehabilitation protocols. It’s no guarantee that you’ll remain injury free, as the golf swing puts incredible forces on the body, but it puts the odds in your favor.