For physiotherapist Mike Clermont, it is as sure a sign of spring as the first robin or the first delicate purple crocus peeking through what is left of the winter's snow: middle-aged men start to show up in increasing numbers at Waterloo Sports Medicine Centre, where he works.
They complain of torn rotator cuffs; of lower back pain; of problems with their knees and elbows. He knows that golf season has begun.
"It happens every spring. They just were not in shape to do what they wanted to do," he says. "They just were not fit enough to dive right into 18 holes after a winter of nothing more strenuous than sitting behind a desk."
Which brings us to what the experts say is golf's chicken-or-egg conundrum: Do you have to be fit to play golf properly or can golf indeed make you fit?
There is also a corollary, they add: Does being fit make you a better golfer or can the process of getting fit throw your game into the toilet? So, first: Does golf make you fit? It all depends on how you play it, say the experts.
Yes,says Joe Ross, a personal trainer and operator of Fit 4 Golf in Toronto, but he adds you have to follow a few basic rules.First, start with maybe half an hour of warm-up exercises to get the muscles stretched and ready for use.
"I tell people muscles are like cooked day-old spaghetti," he says. "Try to twirl them around your fork cold and they break. Warm them up in hot water first and they bend."
Then, always walk the course. Walking 18 holes is golf's main exercise. Ride in a golf cart and you might as well have stayed at home and watched the game on television.
"Walking 18 holes burns off about 3,000 calories," says Dr. Greg Wells, director of sports medicine for Golf Canada. "You will benefit from the sudden explosive movement of the swing but walking is the chief factor in a game of golf and fitness."
Point three is to carry your own clubs or, if that does not appeal, use a push, not a pull, cart. Carrying the clubs means you burn off 15% to 20% more calories, says Dr. Wells. The idea of pushing and not pulling a golf cart is to prevent injuries, adds Mr. Clermont.
"Pulling a cart can damage your back and shoulders. Pushing one gives you additional exercise with less risk of injury," Mr. Clermont says.
Finally, for it to be of any benefit at all, you have to golf at least four times a week. Repetition is always the key to getting fit through any sport or exercise program, says Mr. Ross. The downside, however, is that if you start from scratch after a winter spent doing nothing more strenuous than walking to the fridge for a beer between periods of televised hockey games, you may indeed not become fit until August is nearly over. Your pride in being fit will not last much beyond three days after you lay down your clubs for the last time in late fall.
"Once you stop any form of exercise, fitness starts seeping away after 72 hours," says Dr. Wells. "That is when the body starts to shut down the flow of nutrients to muscles that are not being used regularly. It takes a lot of energy to maintain muscles, so if they are not Needed, the body says why be bothered supporting them."
Within weeks you will be back to square one. So, yes, golf can make you fit, but it takes time; it takes at least four rounds a week and all the benefit starts to fade away at the end of the season. So do you need to be fit to play golf? No, but it is advised, the experts agree. "I always advise spending winter months in regular exercise programs," says Henry Brunton, coach of the national men's team for Golf Canada. "You can do yoga, Pilates or just go to a gym and work out three or more times a week. Being fit may not improve your game but you will be able to play longer without tiring, your concentration will be better and you will generally enjoy the game more."
Larry Khan of Khan's Golf Academy in Toronto says almost all fitness centres now offer special golf-directed programs or there are companies such as his that make getting men and women fit for golf and then helping improve their game their main focus.
"Truly dedicated golfers all work out year-round," he says. "They also constantly work on perfecting their stance, their swing and their game in general."
That should also mean exercises that tone up all the muscles of the body, not just those that drive the ball halfway to the horizon, adds Isaac Levy of Strolf in Toronto. Strolf's Specialty, he says, is making sure the "antagonist" muscles are in as great a shape as their opposing ones.
"Most people just focus on the front of their body," he says. "What we do is address all those muscles down the back and into the legs, as well. Power in the golf swing comes from the core, not the arms and shoulders, so you have to make sure your spine, the muscles down your back and those in the gluteus maximus get their share of attention. "If I had Tiger Woods for a week, I could get rid of those neck pains that trouble him."
The final question: Does being fit make you a better golfer? Not necessarily, says coach Brunton. In fact, he has seen cases where top seeded golfers slimmed down, took a pass on beer after the first 9 holes and worked out like Trojans only to see their game slowly slide down the drain.
"Once you start reshaping your body through weight loss and exercise, you change its basic structure. The joints are different, the muscles are different, the body angles are different and so your game is bound to be different," he says.
"In fact, get fit enough and you may have to start learning how to play all over again."
Getting up to par
Want to improve your game? Dr. Greg Wells of Golf Canada suggests starting with two simple exercises, one to improve balance and the other to improve flexibility.
Balance, especially single leg balance, is critical to help with weight transfer from body to club and to maintain control of leg muscles.
Stand the way you normally would to address the ball with a golf club in your hands. Then, while keeping your body completely still, lift one foot off the ground slightly and stand on one leg. Now try just a half swing while balancing on only one leg; do it again standing on the other leg.
National team members can maintain perfect one-foot balance and swing at the same time for an average of about 45 seconds without losing their balance, Dr. Wells says.
Flexibility is critical if golfers hope to avoid injury, Dr. Wells says. ity can also help generate more motion during a swing and more torque during both the winding and unwinding phases of that swing. Stand straight and tall with feet shoulder width apart and hands on hips; now rotate your body as far as you can to one side. Repeat the same motion to the other side. Try it with a golf club across the shoulders once the motion feels comfortable. Then, to increase mobility between the shoulders and hips, lie down with arms extended to the side and bring your knees up to 90 degrees while keeping your lower legs parallel to the floor.
This is a good one to do as a warm-up exercise before a round or even on a daily basis throughout the year, he says. Remember, repetition is key to fitness.