If you happened to be watching Sunday’s final round of The Barclays, last week’s tournament on the PGA Tour, you may have seen something rare. After striking a shot, Tiger Woods dropped to his knees in pain. A back spasm caught him at exactly the wrong time, and he had no choice to but to drop to untwist his aching muscles.
This was singular for a number of reasons. First, Tiger Woods is in top physical condition, and he’s a tough guy. No matter what else you may think of him, Woods is extremely fit. Not enough body fat to keep an egg from sticking to a hot pan. A weightlifter and avid trainer from an early age. And remember, this is the man who won the U.S. Open in 2008 on a hilly course near San Diego; it took 90 holes (the 72 of the four-day tournament, plus an extra playoff round) for him to beat Rocco Mediate. All that time, his knee was literally falling apart. Still, he torqued it on every full swing.
All pro golfers have an elevated supply of pride; they don’t do a lot of wincing and yelling. Woods has more than his share. Like the baseball player who takes a 90-mph fastball in the ribs, he would rather trot down to first base than admit that anything is bothering him. Hence the stoic performance in that ’08 Open.
And all the more amazing that his Sunday spasm felled him so publicly. If Tiger Woods drops to a knee with millions of people watching, he is in pain that would make you or me faint.
This brings up some key points about the golf swing that surprise non-golfers, and astonish those who maintain that golf isn’t a sport, or at least not a hard one. Watch the golf swing and compare it to other athletic motions. Golf may not be the only “opposition” move in sports, but it’s one of the most intriguing. Look at the planes it creates: the tilted back, the flexed legs of the player, who is standing perpendicular to the line of flight. The movement of the club itself during the violence of the swing, intensified by the centrifugal force of swinging a weight at the end of a stick, creates another plane (or two, depending on who your instructor is). The back must twist, the arms and shoulders pull and push the torso in sudden shifts of momentum, the wrists snap with immense force to create an impact with the ball that lasts only about 400 milliseconds.
Compare baseball, where a thrower of the ball can arrange himself in any convenient angle to the line of flight and unify the twist of his back with the action of his shoulders in various ways. (Not that ballplayers never have back problems, but the arm is in more danger here.) Witness tennis, in which the player similarly has some leeway in positioning that will still allow a powerful stroke. A football quarterback, assuming he has time and protection, can get a solid base under him and face down the target line before unleashing a 70-yard pass.
Golf, while it allows for differences of style, plants the feet and legs, and the big muscles of the back twist against this supple but fixed base. Over years, the effect of all that twisting can ravage a spine, even in players with little in the way of contributing factors. Woods is hardly overweight, nor does he have congenital issues. Other players with back problems are legion: Fred Couples, who is far too good a player to have won only one major championship, has well-documented back problems that have forced him to withdraw from many tournaments. Back issues cut short the admirable career of my former Golf Channel colleague, New Zealander Frank Nobilo (he won 15 professional tournaments anyway). These are just two of many examples.
Almost every golfer, from the elite level of the game down through the recreational ranks, has some sort of back trouble some time. It’s something we all work around as best we can. As satisfying as a golf swing may be, it remains an unnatural motion, one that must be handled with care for strength, flexibility, and knowing one’s limitations with respect to ability and fatigue.
But as any avid player of the sport will tell you, it’s worth working around.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr