On the Ball

Golfers, once the slackers of the sports world, are in the front ranks of an amateur-athletics revolution

March 23, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Thwack. Ari Flaisher drills a golf ball into a floor-to-ceiling retaining net with his seven iron -- head down, swing nicely grooved -- then tees up another shot. And another. And another. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

"The main reason I'm here," he says, "is to learn more about my golf swing and my body."

Thwack.

"Here" is a small, window- less room inside ClubGolf in Gaithersburg. Flaisher, a boyish 30-year-old who still caddies on occasion, paid $325 to undergo a so-called "golf physical." Club employee Lance Gill, who did graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh's Neuromuscular Laboratory, snaps digital pictures of him hitting balls from behind and from one side, then transfers those images to a computer monitor for visual analysis. He draws colored vector lines through Flaisher's torso and extremities, notes arm-to-shoulder-to-club-shaft angles, sometimes pulling up action shots of Tiger Woods and Davis Love III for in-your-dreams comparison's sake. After Gill finishes, a physical therapist leads Flaisher through a handful of strength, balance, and flexibility exercises to assess his general level of fitness.

Who'da thunk it? Golf -- the plaid-pants pastime -- is in the middle of a let's-get-serious training boom. It's the trickle-down effect of technology. Sports science has gone mainstream. Muscle-targeted conditioning and the biomechanics of body motion are open secrets now. And weekend golfers will grasp at whatever competitive edge they can get, whether it be a titanium club or swing-analysis "physical."

"If they could take a pill and hit the ball another 50 yards, believe me, they would," says Jim Folks, head golf pro at Bethesda Country Club.

This uptick in dedication is ironic, considering golf's notoriously sedentary history. Almost from Day One, professional golfers were to other athletes what school crossing guards are to the law enforcement community: considered not quite on the same playing field.

The idea of conditioning began creeping into vogue over the past 20 years, but it exploded with the success of Tiger Woods, the first pro golfer who could play in a swimsuit without causing fits of laughter in the gallery. Thin is suddenly in on the links, thanks to Tiger. So, too, are pumping iron and crushing 300-yard tee shots.

Beth Diaz, fitness director at Country Club Fitness, which runs 10 onsite conditioning programs at golf courses in Maryland and Pennsylvania, says the golf market is currently three or four times that of other sports.

"We've had people lower their handicaps by 10 or 12 strokes, which is unbelievable," says Diaz, who concedes there's room for rapid improvement with many of her country-club clients who have spent most of their lives lifting nothing heavier than file folders at the office.

Elite technology for all

ClubGolf, which opened last June, is the first public facility of its kind in the country: a 10,000-square-foot combination playland, fitness center and research lab that's dedicated to the golf junkie, to the kind of guy who, if forced to choose between taking his wife out to dinner on their anniversary or playing a round at Augusta National, would probably wind up happily divorced.

ClubGolf has seven staff therapists and trainers, plus treadmills, bikes, weights, an artificial-grass putting green, video cameras, 3-D swing-analysis software, a Doppler radar system that (instead of tracking thunderstorms) predicts how far practice shots would travel outdoors, and a "launch monitor" for calibrating the trajectory of shots hit from various club-head positions.

In short, it's a far cry from your basic bucket-o'-balls driving range.

"Before, this [technology] was only available to elite athletes," notes club co-owner Greg Rose, who earned degrees in engineering and chiropractic, but ultimately fell in professional love with the biomechanics of golf. He has studied the swings of several hundred PGA tour players and several thousand everyday hackers, and has photos of most of them stored on his computer and in his mind.

"I think I can tell you better than anybody in the world why you can't hit the ball farther," says Rose.

Ari Flaisher lives in Cabin John and works as a salesman for a company that manufacturers screw-on golf spikes. He apparently spends a lot of time testing the product because he has a very respectable handicap of five. Nonetheless, Flaisher bogies his golf physical. Among other things, Lance Gill tells him, he rounds his shoulders when swinging, costing himself power on his drives. Flaisher also needs to improve his "core separation," meaning move his hips and upper body more independently, thereby increasing the torque in his swing. He bends his right knee a little too much. His hamstrings and hips are tight, his abdominal muscles mushy.

"Each one of those body-swing connections is what we use to lay out your exercise program," Rose says. "And we have many ways to torture you in the gym."

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