Back Man Forever
Spine saver Tom Boers is a hero to more and more Tour players
This is an article from the June 22, 1998 issue
Pow! Down goes Tiger Woods, out of the Kemper with a bad back.
Bam! There goes Ernie Els, a WD at Westchester. Meanwhile, in
Columbus, Ga., mild-mannered Tom Boers helps put golf's bad
backs back in business.
When Els, wincing with back spasms, withdrew from last week's
Buick Classic after nine holes, Davis Love III had three words
of advice: "Go see Tom." Els rode his private jet home to
Orlando last Thursday and on Friday flew to Columbus for a
session with Boers, who is fast becoming one of the most
important healers in sports. Neither an M.D. nor a chiropractor,
the Netherlands-born Boers, 45, is a physical therapist whose
work on Fred Couples's back helped Couples return to form after
years of spinal miseries. "I was at the Masters with Fred," says
Boers, "and I'll be at the Open, fine-tuning him, loosening him
up and restoring the functioning of his back." Boers works with
tennis's Steffi Graf and San Diego Padres pitcher Kevin Brown as
well as Love, Brad Faxon, Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman. "He
doesn't use ice, heat or machines," says Faxon. "He straightens
your joints with his hands."
Boers believes that swinging a golf club can be hazardous to a
pro's career. If it is true, as he claims, that "each player has
a finite number of healthy swings left," many pros are risking
their livelihoods by pounding hundreds of balls at the range
every day. Air travel can make matters worse for those whose
backs tend to stiffen up. Els's schedule over the past month is
a case in point, with flights from South Africa to Dallas, then
to England, to Columbus, Ohio, to Orlando and to New York City.
He first felt twinges in his back during the European PGA in
May. The pain got worse at the Memorial, and he faked his way
around Westchester during last Wednesday's pro-am, hitting one
more club than usual and swinging more easily than ever, but
there was no faking it during Thursday's first round. "I was
hitting it 230 with a big slice, and it got worse as the round
went on," he said.
"He's really hurting," said Boers after treating Els last
Friday. "It may not be wise for him to play in the Open." On
Sunday, when Els told Boers he was feeling considerably better,
they settled on a plan: Els would drop by to pick up Boers on
Monday morning. They would fly together to San Francisco, where
the back man could treat both Couples and Els. All signs were
go, but the decision on whether Els would defend his Open title
could not be made until the therapist examined him on Wednesday.
With the world's top player joining his client list, the back
man is sure to have more pros than ever knocking on his door.
"It's not my goal to be the spinal guru of the PGA Tour," says
Boers, who works at Rehabilitation Services in Columbus. "I'm an
employee in a practice. I have regular patients. But I'm also a
golfer, and I'll admit it's a treat to work with Tour players."
Boers may soon need his own trailer at Tour stops. He can back
it up to the back nine, call it the Backmobile and be a hero to
millions, or at least to dozens of guys who make millions.
Lisa Walters, who has a surgically repaired back, a
reconstructed left knee and a serious case of '70s nostalgia,
tied Wendy Ward's LPGA scoring record by finishing 23 under par
at last week's Oldsmobile Classic in East Lansing, Mich. "I kept
an empty head most of the time," said Walters. Perhaps her
secret was repeated humming of the phrase long-haired freaky
people need not apply. The short-coiffed Walters, 38, admitted
having the 1971 hit song Signs by the Five Man Electrical Band
rattling around her brain as she cruised to a six-shot victory
over Donna Andrews, who earned place money for the fourth week
in a row.
The man who wins this U.S. Open deserves combat pay on top of
his $535,000 check. Not since the '74 Massacre at Winged Foot
have players faced rough as evil as the stuff at the Olympic
Club. During the '55 Open at Olympic, Ben Hogan strayed 20 yards
into the rough and took three whacks to return to civilization.
This weekend, players might be wise to take the drivers out of
their bags and replace them with machetes. "The new guys don't
have much experience in this sort of rough. There is no way to
prepare for it," says Hale Irwin, who beat the rough three times
to win Opens. Tom Lehman adds, "The first rule of the Open is,
Don't get in the rough." Violators are referred to rule 2: Don't
try to be a hero. "Unless you're sure you can get the ball on
the green, don't mess with the shot," Lehman says. "Play out to
the fairway and try to get up and down."
Arnold Palmer beat British Open rough at Royal Birkdale in 1961.
Nursing a slim lead over Dai Rees, Palmer found his ball hiding
in long, wet grass. The smart play was to chip out, but Arnie
decided to go for broke. "I tore into the shot as hard as I
could," he recalled. He left a divot a foot long, but his ball
reached the green, helping him to a one-shot victory. Five years
later, however, he met his match in U.S. Open rough. Palmer took
a three-iron to the Olympic Club's hellacious rye. The ball
dribbled 100 yards. He bogeyed, and lost a playoff to Billy
Casper the next day.
Palmer had the brute strength to keep a club moving through
heavy salad, but Jack Nicklaus was the prototypical rough
character. Nicklaus had muscle as well as an upright swing,
which produces a high fade that lands softly.
To achieve such soft landings at your home course, watch the
pros at the Open. They take extra time over the ball in the
rough, making sure they have the firmest possible footing. Then,
as they grip the club extra hard to keep it from twisting, they
put an upright swing on the ball--a steep takeaway and a sharp,
descending downswing--and swing as hard as they can without
The world's best players may spend the week driving with irons,
tiptoeing past Hogan's graveyard, but Olympic's rough is bound
to catch them all at least a time or two. On Sunday evening only
one tired golfer will remain unbeaten, grass-stained but unbowed.
Some men display their good taste by sporting tailored suits or
smoking fine cigars. In golf, connoisseurship can take the form
of a forged blade. Unlike perimeter-weighted molten metal clubs,
a forged iron is literally pounded into shape from a blob of
soft carbon steel, then hand-ground to its classically trim
final shape. Lovely to look at, delightful to hold, but if
you're like 95% of the world's golfers, you probably have no
business swinging one.
Few amateurs consistently hit the ball on the sweet spot. "Even
10 handicappers are all over the clubface," says LPGA tour swing
coach Mike McGetrick. Cavity-backed cast irons address that
problem by spreading out the weight of the clubhead, enlarging
the sweet spot to make mishits turn out better. But pros seek
feel, not forgiveness. "Look at a low handicapper five-iron or a
Tour player's wedge," says McGetrick. "You'll see marks where
the clubface is worn away on the sweet spot."
"Forged blades give me a better sense of how I'm hitting the
ball, and I can maneuver it more," says Justin Leonard. Like
about a third of Tour players, according to the Darrell Survey
of pros at two tournaments earlier this year, Leonard relies on
his soft blades for the feedback he needs to groove his swing.
To him, a cavity-backed stick has the feel of a spatula.
Tiger Woods's preference for classic blades has made them
fashionable. Later this summer, Titleist will introduce 500 sets
of replicas of Woods's irons, perfect down to the letter T
engraved on each clubhead, for the forge-crazy Japanese market.
MacGregor, too, is getting into blades. "We offer the Tourney
Personal Forging," says Jim Bode, the firm's R and D director.
MacGregor will reportedly make 100 sets of TPFs per year and
sell them for $5,000 a set. "For that price we will invite a
golfer to our plant and have him work with our designers to
customize the blade he wants--the same treatment Tour players
Want a middle ground between feel and forgiveness? Clubmakers
including Wilson and Cobra sell perimeter-weighted forgings that
blend elegance and playability. Still, Woods's forged Titleist
irons, which a company spokesman says will be "very pricey" if
and when they hit the U.S. market, may soon be bigger news. They
will cost more than some compact cars. Too bad so few players
will be skilled enough to steer them. --Andy Brumer
The Best Jack
Golf nut Jack Nicholson occasionally practices at Studio City
Golf, a par-3 course near Los Angeles. "Remember when he was in
the news for slamming a club through another motorist's
windshield? I taught him that move," jokes head pro Ron del
Barrio. Saturday Night Live alumni Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz and
Phil Hartman also played the course, and after Hartman's death
on May 28, golfers at Studio City remembered the day when the
Joker himself made a fourth for the threesome of comics. All
three did their best Nicholson impressions, but Hartman won the
day. "He was the only one whose Jack made Jack laugh," del
The Best Diet on the LPGA Tour
Jill Briles-Hinton thought it hurt to lose a sudden-death
playoff--her fate at the 1994 Children's Medical Center Classic
in Beavercreek, Ohio. Two years later she learned more about
hurt when her baby son, Bert, began having epileptic seizures.
Anticonvulsant drugs didn't help. "We went to hospitals in three
states, but nothing seemed to help," says Briles-Hinton, whose
son had to wear a helmet to keep from injuring himself.
Last winter Briles-Hinton and Bert were at Boston Children's
Hospital when she offered another patient a grape. "He can't eat
that," said the boy's mother, who explained that her son had
epilepsy and was on a strict diet that controlled his seizures.
Soon Briles-Hinton and her husband, Bob, a tour equipment rep,
took Bert to the Pediatric Epilepsy Center at Johns Hopkins, in
Baltimore, where director John Freeman told them about the
ketogenic diet. "The diet mimics starvation. It makes the body
burn fat almost exclusively, which somehow helps stop seizures,"
said Freeman. Epilepsy and diet have been linked since Biblical
times when, according to the Gospels, Jesus cured a
demon-possessed boy who was foaming at the mouth, then told the
boy to practice prayer and fasting. At Johns Hopkins, prayer is
left to parents, but food is tightly regulated. The children's
diet (it doesn't work for adults) is 90% fat. Butter and whipped
cream are staples, but bread is tantamount to poison. The
program, which works wonders for 20% to 30% of the kids who try
it, is so strict that suggested treats include ice chips and
lettuce. "It's exhausting," says Briles-Hinton. "Bob and I have
to police Bert all the time. We measure his special foods like a
science experiment. I feel like I've aged 10 years since March."
But to her delight, Bert has not had a seizure since March 29th.
By his third birthday next summer, he may be able to go off the
diet and all medication, maybe even eat a piece of candy.
When asked about golf, Briles-Hinton blinks as if she has
forgotten how she makes a living. "I could give up golf in a
heartbeat," she said last week before finishing 52nd at the
Oldsmobile Classic. "I've been out here 12 years now. I have not
reached my main goals, a million-dollar career [she has won
$571,789] and winning an event, but I gave it a good shot. My
goal is my little guy now."
The Shag Bag
O'Meara-proofing? After 14 months of denying that Augusta
National needs to be toughened up, or Tiger-proofed, club
officials announced last week that Tom Fazio will modify the
course in time for the 1999 Masters. Fazio will lengthen the
par-5 2nd hole by 25 yards, bringing a bunker on the right side
of the fairway back into play; raise the green at the par-4 11th
to create a new, difficult pin placement behind the pond in the
back left corner; cut down the mounds on the right side of the
landing area on the par-5 15th to keep drives from hitting them
and bounding down the fairway; and add 15 yards to the par-4
17th, lengthening it to 415 yards. No word on whether Augusta
will replace its famed peach cobbler dessert with more
challenging crab-apple pie.
No Parking: Se Ri Pak (below) wound up 38th at the Oldsmobile
Classic but got a pleasant surprise when Samsung, her primary
sponsor, sent her a golf bag emblazoned with her name. Her
correct name. Until last week her bag misidentified South
Korea's national hero as Se Ri Park.
Casey Who? "Confidence is a fickle thing," said new Nike tour
superstar Doug Dunakey, who had plenty of it after shooting a 59
two weeks ago. He tied for second that week, but last weekend,
brimming with consistency, Dunakey closed with a pair of 65s to
win the Cleveland Open.
What a Way to E-Z-Go: According to the Consumer Product Safety
Commission, 25 people have died in golf cart accidents since
those funny cars first appeared. The government will soon
require seat belts, headlights and other safety features in all
carts capable of doing 15 mph.
Beware Wolf: Don't be surprised if Blackwolf Run in Kohler,
Wis., produces black moods at the July 2-5 U.S. Women's Open.
Based on the early buzz--Ernie Els predicts four-putts for the
women on the ticklish greens at Blackwolf, which also has
Olympic-quality rough--there'll be oodles of scores in the 80s.
Rotten Apple: In a stirring charge to avoid last place, New York
City edged Richmond, Va., in a recent ranking of America's golf
cities. Gotham finished 308th on the list, based largely on
public course availability, behind golf meccas Duluth, Minn.,
and Rapid City, S.D.
See You in Court: Senior player Rocky Thompson, who uses a long
putter, says banning the device would be "absurd." According to
him the USGA is "a bunch of old men who don't like to see people
playing better. They want golf the way it used to be, but I've
got news for them. It won't be." Thompson knows what he will do
if the Over-the-Far-Hills gang outlaws his putter: "Approach the
most affluent law firm I can find."
They Won't Leave Canada Dry
It's quite a commute from Nashville, site of last week's
BellSouth Classic, to Calgary, Alberta. Still, this week's AT&T
Canada Senior Open, the Great White North's only Senior tour
event, has attracted a solid field by providing a free vacation
for players and their families. The Royal Canadian Golf
Association forked over $100,000 to First Air, an Ottawa charter
firm, to fly a Boeing 727 to Nashville and whisk 100 players,
family members and caddies to Calgary. The RCGA's guests are
being lodged near the resort town of Banff in the Canadian
Rockies. They can enjoy fly-fishing in the Bow River,
sightseeing at Lake Louise and a side trip to a nearby glacier.
Upon the Open's close on Sunday evening, the Senior tourists
will reboard their charter and fly to New Jersey for next week's
Cadillac NFL Classic. In-flight drinks, of course, will be on
Call Him Aqua-Man
Ray Ainsley coulda been a contender in the 1938 U.S. Open.
Instead, he waded into history. At Denver's Cherry Hills 50
summers ago, Ainsley hit a five-iron approach into a brook at
the 397-yard, par-4 16th hole. He tried a splashy mashie but got
nothing but splash. He flailed again and again as his official
scorekeeper flopped to the turf, laughing. Fans abandoned Gene
Sarazen, who was playing an adjoining hole, to watch Ainsley,
who kept slashing and splashing. When at last he lifted his ball
from the drink and finished the hole, he had taken 19 strokes, a
total that still stands as the worst single-hole score in Open
history. Ralph Guldahl won his second straight Open that week.
Ainsley was left with a little girl's voice ringing in his ears.
"Mummy," the girl said when he finally picked up his ball, "it
must be dead now because the man has quit hitting it."
What do these players have in common?
They are the last three to lose U.S. Open playoffs. Simpson fell
to Payne Stewart in 1991; Montgomerie and Roberts lost to Ernie
Els in '94.