At last month’s PGA Championship, Tiger Woods followed his typical tournament-week routine and lifted weights daily. Masters champion Adam Scott strolled around in a golf shirt too small for his biceps. Even Phil Mickelson, 43, looked tan and trim in an all-black ensemble.
Into this display of fitness and firmness strode 6-foot-1, 265-pound Angel Cabrera — smoking a cigarette — who spoke to the merits of exercise for golf preparation.
“I don’t need to work out,” Cabrera said, smiling. “Never.”
Almost as prevalent as corporate logos and courtesy cars at the BMW Championship this month in Lake Forest, Ill., were the varying opinions on the importance of fitness in a complex game that also demands feel and mental fortitude.
On one hand, golfers walk four-plus miles per round, generate intense clubhead speed and perform a repetitive swinging motion that demands strength, flexibility and stamina. On the other, nobody will confuse the portly pro John Daly with a pinup. And former Masters champion Craig Stadler, nicknamed “The Walrus,” remains a hero to pudgy weekend golfers everywhere.
Other top golfers, meanwhile, fear that lifting weights or changing their body type through exercise could ruin their carefully calibrated swings.
“You have to find what’s right for you and for your game,” said Steve Stricker, ranked 10th in the world. “But there’s no definitive answer to it. I’m not buff.”
Woods is, and there’s no denying his impact on the fitness craze in golf.
“When I first came on tour (in 1994), maybe a handful of guys worked out and nobody really even talked about it,” Stricker said. “When Tiger came on the scene and started lifting all the time and bulking up and winning, that’s when it became more prevalent. It seems more common now.”
So commonplace, in fact, that at each PGA Tour stop, two large trailers set up shop. One houses a mobile gym with weights, treadmills, elliptical machines, bikes, medicine balls and more. The other is a physical therapy center with therapists, nutritionists, chiropractors, treatment tables and electrical stimulation and ultrasound machines.
According to Jeff Hendra, one of three full-time physical therapists who staff the trailers, there is regular communication regarding golfers’ specific needs.
“I started out on tour in 2002, and we used to see anywhere between 25 and 35 percent of any given field in the trailers in any given week,” said Scott Riehl, a former full-time and now part-time strength and conditioning coach for the PGA Tour. “We’re probably looking now between 75 and 85 percent of the field coming through.”
Woods’ success didn’t just help grow the game’s biceps. It increased prize money and endorsement opportunities. And it helped golf shatter a stereotype as a country club sport in which the most exercise is the walk from the cart to the “19th hole.”
“Physical fitness over the long haul is key; you just never get tired,” Woods said. “When you hear a guy saying, ‘I just got tired coming down the stretch,’ that’s hard to imagine. That’s why you train and that’s why you run all those miles and lift all those weights — so that when you are asked (after) rain delays to go 36 or whatever holes (in a day), you feel just as explosive on the last hole as you did on the first.”
Riehl points to the unseen demands on tour professionals — the hours of practice before and after each round, the travel, the preparation needed to minimize injuries. Hendra emphasizes the unnatural demands that 400 to 500 swings a day place on the lower back.
“That’s why we work on all-around fitness training to make sure golfers are strong, stable, mobile, flexible and powerful,” Riehl said.
Riehl left the tour full-time two years ago to open the Riehl Golf Academy in New Jersey. He says fitness lessons for the game’s elite also apply to everyone from those wanting to win the club championship to junior golfers seeking college scholarships to 30-handicaps looking for any edge to lower their scores.
But how, then, to explain the longtime success of Cabrera, who can claim the 2007 U.S. Open and 2009 Masters among his 50 worldwide victories? Or Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, who makes no secret of his love of good wine and Cuban cigars and whose pre-round stretching routine looks like a ponytailed stork with a pot belly. (YouTube it.)
“That put golf fitness back about 30 years,” Hendra joked.
Even the sport’s gold standard, Jack Nicklaus, once was derisively called “Fat Jack” before storming to a record 18 major championships.
“Even those who may not look athletic are still conditioned for golf,” Hendra said. “What stands out to me is their hips and core are very well-conditioned, as well as their lower backs.”