Flexibility and Wiry Strength are Perennial Keys to a Solid Golf Swing

Golf instruction meets biomechanical function in the training techniques of Mike Malaska

The human body is hurting these days—these generations, actually—but we can reverse the trend individually, and golf can help. Should you happen to be young, trim, flexible, free of pain and aware of proper fitness and nutrition, you can probably ignore the widespread physical decrepitude taking place around you. But if you are the average adult or even the average youngster, your body’s lack of sinew and flexibility is probably getting in the way of your golf.

As industrialized humans, we face what author and biomechanics expert Pete Egoscue has called “an epidemic of anatomical disfunction.” We began the 20th century without the machines that make human life easier and more prosperous–the same machines that have rendered our daily lives sedentary. We now limp toward the 21st century facing a point of reckoning. Egoscue (pronounced “ee-GOSS-kew”) teaches that “modern man violates the design sense of the body every minute of every day” by avoiding physical motion.

The result of “a motionless lifestyle,” he preaches, is “a slow death.” Egoscue, a close friend of Jack Nicklaus, rejuvenated Nicklaus’s career after the two men met in 1988, with Nicklaus badly hobbled and facing back surgery. He is a great admirer of accomplished golfers, but for all his belief in golf’s athletic nature, Egoscue attributes much of the game’s new popularity to the fact that hobbled baby-boomers have been forced to quit the more demanding sports of tennis, basketball and jogging.

In the early 1990s, Egoscue appeared on the scene as an ex-Marine with no medical degrees but a long list of professional athletes and teams streaming to Del Mar, Calif., to seek his help. His 1992 book, The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion, was a succeld be short, slow and not a bit like Charles Atlas to succeed at golf. What the new wave of physically oriented instructors point out these days is the unseen, inner blend of strength and flexibility possessed by such ordinary-looking tour winners as Don January, Gene Littler, Lanny Wadkins and Larry Nelson, to name just a few.

And as the sublime athleticism of yesterday’s PGA pros gets acknowledged, a new trend toward pumped-up, stretched-out tour stars eating healthy diets and staying out of nightclubs is upon us–Duval being the latest example. Discussing Tiger Woods, who like Greg Norman, Tom Watson and Nick Faldo employs a full-time personal fitness trainer, Malaska makes a point about Tiger Woods that harks back to the physically unimpressive golfers of a prior generation.

“In golf, physical strength is the strength to not break down as you bring the club forward at a high speed toward impact,” says Malaska. “It requires postural integrity. You have to be structurally strong, if that makes sense. There are points in the swing when you’re putting tremendous stress on your inner muscles and soft tissue.”

In other words, it doesn’t take bulging biceps and popping pectorals for Tiger Woods to get the head of his driver orbiting at 135 miles per hour. What it takes is force-resisting sinew equivalent to the struts that keep airplane wings from drooping down during the trauma of takeoff. Malaska suggests you run a slow-motion tape in your head of Woods’s swing, as seen from the golf ball’s point of view. Studying Tiger’s shoulders as the clubhead rockets toward impact, doesn’t it seem that a powerful centrifugal force is drawing them forward and in toward one another?

That’s exactly what is happening, Only Woods, who as a collegian tested out as one of the strongest varsity athletes at Stanford University, has the postural musculature to prevent that squeezing-in and squeezing-down process from happening. With the shoulder joints maintaining their original alignment and staying the same distance from one another, Tiger’s ball-striking machinery can be highly precise. No mid-swing adjustments of the hands or alteration of the waist bend is required.

“It’s also been shown that the top players possess a very high degree of hand and arm strength,” notes Malaska. “Is that so they can grip the club tightly? No, you don’t want a tight grip. But what you need is the strength to maintain that steady, firm hold on the club during the downswing. Again, it’s the strength to not break down.”

Malaska says most women golfers swing at slow clubhead speeds because “their shoulders, hands and arms don’t have the strength to support” more speed. The point is that vital unseen forces and attributes within the swing are being uncovered. Without sensitive video equipment and kinesthesiological expertise from the outside, golf was unable to capture this information and begin unraveling its performance mysteries. And in this sport, lack of information leads with lightning speed to myth-making, speculation and old wives’ tales.

“Weight-training will make you muscle-bound, so you can’t swing. That was a classic,” notes Duke University’s director of sports medicine and physical therapy, Bob Bruzga. “The idea of weight training as part of a golfer’s program to prevent injury and enhance performance was slow to be accepted, but it’s here to stay.”

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