Paying the Price

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Tiger Woods will be conspicuous in his absence from this week's field and from the remainder of this season's PGA Tour schedule, but Woods's health issues have substantiated an often snidely dismissed truth: Swinging a golf club can be dangerous.

With powerful swings generating significant stress and torque on various body parts, many elite golfers often suffer from a wide variety of ailments -- from sore hands and feet to achy wrists and tender elbows, wounded knees to balky backs. Everyone who plays the game knows how to spell ibuprofen, and they all have personal trainers, therapists, chiropractors and orthopedic specialists listed on speed dial.

"We just beat up our bodies," Jack Nicklaus said recently. "It's why I gave up golf."

Woods, whose most recent surgery was the fourth of his career, is certainly the highest-profile golfer to have coped with significant injury, but he's far from alone. Phil Mickelson incurred a wrist injury last year while practicing for the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont and needed most of the second half of the season to recover. Michelle Wie hurt her wrist in a fall while jogging last year and only now seems to be getting back to full strength.

Davis Love III and Fred Couples have been nursing sore backs for years that have limited their schedules. And recent U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate said he nearly gave up the game last year because of a surgically repaired back that wouldn't allow him to swing properly until he finally found a therapist who figured out a way to get him back on the course.

"The human body was not necessarily designed for this activity," Allan Mishra, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University Medical Center and an avid golfer, said in a recent telephone interview. "As a result, we see every type of injury you can imagine, whether it's a professional golfer or a recreational player.

"The big difference between the weekend golfer and a professional is the weekend guy is more likely to injure his back. The pros are more likely to injure wrists, elbows and shoulders because they do hit so many balls, which leads to tendinitis."

The more they play and practice, the more chronic those injuries can become. It's the main reason so many players now spend as much time in the gym as they do on the practice range.

"The body is like a set of tires," said NBC Sports golf analyst Johnny Miller, who no longer plays competitive golf because of knees that have required four surgeries. "You can only go down the road so many times before the tread starts to come off."

Jan Anderson, a therapist at Advantage Physical Therapy in Gainesville who specializes in rehabilitating golf injuries, also said she sees far more back problems than she does knee injuries among the amateur golfers she treats.

"Amateurs generate more abnormal forces to the spine because we probably swing too hard, do reverse pivots and don't have the same fitness level," she said. "Then we go out at 6 a.m. totally cold and hit the golf ball as hard as we can. We don't warm up properly, we don't stretch properly, and as a result, we get injured.

"I put golfers through a program that involves the back, hips and abdominal muscles. Golf is a rotational sport, and your primary rotator is your trunk. In golf, you want more stabilization between your thighs and your chest. And you want to stretch what's tight and strengthen what's weak. You want to have a body in balance, and Tiger Woods looks like he's in total balance. He's what we should all strive for in our preparation to play."

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