Tom Watson is old school--leery of the long putter, swing gurus,
rowdy Ryder Cup fans and a cart for Casey Martin--yet he's
always learning about the game. That's why after a first-round
64 last week at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic he was comfortable
on the cutting edge of golf's newest frontier. "It comes down to
common sense," said the 48-year-old Watson, panting as his
personal trainer led him through a brisk series of resistance
training and dynamic stretching exercises at the Las Colinas
Sports Club. "All things being equal, the stronger I get, the
better golfer I will be. My goal is to get strong."
Pro golfers have been described as graceful, poised, stylish and
gutsy. Rarely has one been called strong. Sam Snead, Arnold
Palmer and Greg Norman, in their prime, were characterized as
rugged and powerful, but that was mainly because they stood out
among the many pencil necks and doughboys who populated the
Tour. The perception that muscle is not only unnecessary but
also undesirable in golf is one of the reasons some people
wonder if golfers are actually athletes. The current crop of top
Tour players, though, plus many older pros, are exploding those
myths about golf and musculature while changing the shape of
golfers, if not the game.
The new breed has made working with weights as much a part of
its daily routine as breaking out a new glove and a fresh sleeve
of balls. Underneath all those billowy shirts and pleats, the
world of pro golf is becoming filled with flat-stomached,
broad-shouldered, finely tuned power packs, most of whom are
bigger than the 5'10" and 170 pounds that had been considered
the ideal. For exhibits A and B, look no further than David
Duval and Tiger Woods, two of the hottest players in the world.
While you're at it, check out Ernie Els, Davis Love III, Phil
Mickelson and Jesper Parnevik, and don't forget older players
such as Steve Elkington, Nick Faldo and Masters champion Mark
O'Meara, all of whom are dedicated to fitness. Even Fred Couples
is a closet exerciser. Desperate to stave off the aging process,
Senior tour players are arguably even more avid advocates of
muscle building. Larry Nelson and Dave Stockton, to name but
two, are training-room fixtures.
In pro golf the walrus is becoming an endangered species. "If
you lined up the top golfers in boxer shorts with their faces
covered, I think most people would guess they were soccer
players," says Pete Draovitch, Norman's trainer. "The reaction
probably would've been laughter 10 years ago."
May 24, 1998
That was the reaction Frank Stranahan and Gary Player got from
their peers when, in the '50s and '60s, the two exercise
pioneers traveled to tournaments with trunks full of barbells.
Now there's too much money and too much competition, not to
mention too much opportunity on the Senior tour, for golfers to
neglect their bodies. Just as first pro football, then
basketball and finally baseball players turned to the weight
room, so have golfers. In the last two years, since Woods
underscored the emphasis on power in the game, Tour pros have
followed in droves. "More guys are asking me to get them on a
strength-training program," says Ralph Simpson, a therapist and
trainer in the Tenet fitness trailer that travels to all PGA
Tour stops. "They say, 'I'm tired of guys hitting it past me.'"
"It's getting harder for the little guy to survive out here,"
says Bill Glasson, a 15-year Tour veteran who was one of the
first players to parlay his work in the weight room into extra
distance on the course. "Long has always been better than short,
but with the best players becoming straighter, long has gotten a
British Open champ Justin Leonard, the premier short-hitting
little guy on Tour, is diligently trying to stretch his game.
Leonard began working with a trainer at the beginning of last
year, and the results have been dramatic. He has added 15 pounds
of muscle to his 5'9" frame and gained at least that many yards
off the tee. At this year's Masters, in which he tied Woods for
eighth, Leonard hit a six-iron second shot on the 555-yard 2nd
hole. "Power was something that I knew I had room to improve
on," says Leonard, who also found some extra yards by switching
to a titanium-headed driver. "There's no doubt strength training
has made me a better player."
Leonard and Watson work with Alison Thietje, a Kansas City,
Mo.-based trainer who last year began traveling to tournament
sites to work with a stable of clients that includes Stewart
Cink and Brad Faxon. Trainers such as Thietje are finding a
place on the Tour because they can create and monitor safe and
effective programs, and because they can inject some fun into
what might otherwise be drudgery. During their workout in
Dallas, Thietje and Leonard traded wisecracks, with Leonard
finally breaking up his trainer by using her to demonstrate a
credible imitation of a pro wrestling head slam. "Justin has the
absolute best attitude for training," says Thietje. "He plays
off other people to raise his energy." Says Faxon, "I can work
out alone, but a trainer can motivate you, get you to follow a
schedule and push you to another level. To put it another way, I
know I can't make myself throw up."
The trainers and therapists have found golf to be an untapped
sport in which their subjects are eager to learn. "Golfers tend
to be more analytical and more compliant than other athletes,"
says Keith Kleven, a physical therapist in Las Vegas who has
worked with many pro athletes. "Because their sport is so
difficult, they're used to taking instruction. They listen. You
can tell them things more effectively than you can other
In a sport in which the athletes are separated by the smallest
of margins, any edge can be vital. "Right now fitness training
is the thing that the guys think might save them a stroke," says
Faxon. Most of the pros, though, don't view training as a fad.
Says Paul Hospenthal, a physical therapist in Scottsdale, Ariz.,
who has many golfers as clients, "Players are starting to
realize that the most important piece of golf equipment they
have is their body."
The trouble is, while other sports have clearer guidelines about
how to maximize training, golf hasn't made up its mind about
what constitutes the optimum physique. A fitness regimen
designed to prevent injuries and build endurance produces a
leaner body consistent with the traditional profile of a fit
pro. If the goal is enhanced power, resistance training with
weights, tempered by stretching to preserve flexibility,
Duval and Woods have chosen the latter route, lifting heavy
weights and building mass. Woods's program, which includes
squats and other free-weight exercises, was put together by
trainers at Stanford. Duval started lifting in 1995 to trim a
figure that had ballooned to 230 pounds. He has dropped more
than 40 pounds and increased his strength more than 75%. Duval
and Woods often do several sets of bench presses with more than
The risks of heavy weight work include injury from poor form,
overdevelopment of the chest and biceps, which can restrict the
ability to turn, and body changes that can alter ingrained swing
patterns. Putting on muscle fast can also alter a golfer's sense
of touch and distance control. "In golf it's not wise to push
the envelope," says Kleven. "When a machine is finely tuned, it
doesn't take much to upset the system. Golf is a sport in which
a little injury is a big injury, and it's particularly tricky
because there's such a mental element. If a player makes big
changes and suddenly starts feeling like he doesn't know his own
muscles, that can affect his confidence. Once confidence is
affected, problems start."
That's what happened to Johnny Miller when he chose the summer
of 1977 to do heavy work around his house. Miller became bigger
and stronger, but when he returned to the Tour, he had lost the
groove that had made him one of the most accurate iron players
ever, and he never fully recovered it. In 1992 Nick Faldo was at
the height of his domination of the major championships when he
decided to embark on a heavy weightlifting program to gain
distance. Whether his new musculature is to blame or not, Faldo
hasn't been the same player since, and these days his fitness
program consists of stretching and aerobics.
Conventional wisdom among trainers is that golfers should only
do heavy work when concentrating on their legs, abdominals and
lower back. Pectoral and arm muscles will fire more easily if
they are worked into a "smooth" state with lighter weights
rather than being molded into the "cut" look that comes from
heavy work. "What looks good at the swimming pool doesn't get
you to the trophy presentation," says Pat Etcheverry, who trains
Els, Faldo and Frank Nobilo.
Offering a dissenting view is Keith Clearwater, who has more
sculpted muscles than any Tour pro since Stranahan. Clearwater,
38, was considered one of the Tour's bright lights in the late
'80s, when he won two tournaments. Then in '92 he began to lift
and was soon maxing out. It wasn't long before he gained 22
pounds of muscle, putting 215 pounds on his 6-foot frame.
As Clearwater's strength increased, his earnings and
effectiveness as a golfer decreased. He developed a short, quick
swing, and many observers believed he was constricted by his
musculature. By 1995 Clearwater had lost his exemption. Most
people thought he had lifted his way out of golf.
Not so, insists Clearwater, who owns three health clubs in his
home state of Utah and plans to try to regain his Tour card. "It
was a lot of things, but none of them related to training," he
says. "Basically I quit wanting to play. I had the worst
attitude on Tour. I needed to get away from the game. I'm
disappointed that people think weights are no good because of
me. I'm looked at as a guy who lifted too much, but I have a
great desire to be the forerunner who proves that golfers can
really benefit by muscle development."
Clearwater points to Woods to make his case. "Tiger is the
model," he says. "By enhancing his genetic gifts with hard
training, he's put together a package that's lean, flexible and
very strong. When he's on, he's the most devastating, most
dominating ball striker the game has ever seen."
Glasson, 38, is an adherent of Clearwater's philosophy. After
six years of intense weight training, Glasson has chiseled his
180-pound body into a form distinct from his peers'. Employing a
swing that is one of the simplest and most efficient on Tour,
he's a player of immense power. Glasson's biggest problem has
been staying healthy. He has had 13 surgeries, the most recent
last November to reattach a tendon in his left forearm. None of
the injuries have been caused by lifting, he says. In fact,
Glasson claims that without weightlifting he would have had to
"I became a much better golfer because of it," he says. "I hit
the ball farther with less effort, and because I needed less
effort, my swing was more stable and repeatable. I'm a believer
in the swing being controlled by the big muscles, so the
stronger I get--as long as I maintain my flexibility--the better
Glasson also disputes the concept of hammerhands--a loss of
touch that some believe can result from lifting heavy weights.
"Besides, if my mechanics are good, I don't really need touch,"
he says. "When it's 40 degrees out, no one has touch, and I know
when you're choking your guts out on the last few holes, you
don't have touch. That's when you're only as good as your
Glasson is a natural mesomorph who puts on muscle easily. If his
still troublesome knees could handle it, he would get even
bigger. He experimented with creatine, a nutritional supplement
that helps build muscle, and gained bulk, but the added pounds
caused him more problems than they were worth. "As long as you
remain flexible, you can't get too big or bulky," Glasson says.
"I think Keith is probably right on the line. He's probably the
only pro who knows where the line is."
For now, golf is still taking its first baby steps in the world
of muscle and fitness. "There hasn't been enough research done
to prove that working out helps you shoot lower scores," Faxon
says. "I think it helps most in mood and attitude. Working out
has helped me hit the ball straighter, which has always been my
weakness, but my scores haven't gone down. In fact, I've been in
much worse shape and played a lot better."
Even Watson says as much. "There are still a lot of things we
don't know, and probably things we will never know," he says,
"but being in shape helps a player carry himself with pride and
confidence, and that's worth something."
"A trainer...can push you to another level," says Faxon. "I
know I can't make myself throw up."
"I'm disappointed that people think weights are no good because
of me," says Clearwater.