Twice a week or so, a group of over-60 golfers – some of them over 70 – get together for a round.
Al Connelly started playing half a century ago while in the Air Force – a left-hander who switched to the other side when he couldn’t find any left-hand clubs at the time.
The only golf-related injury he can recall occurred in the ’70s, he said.
“Basically, that came from hitting the balls on the range, and I pulled a muscle in my back,” Connelly said. “When you overdo it, you can get stiff in the back. That woke me up, and I tended to just go with stretches and exercises. But the pros do it almost every day.”
Which brings us to Tiger Woods, who has been a Masters legend for 20 years, until this week.
He has recently undergone surgery for a herniated disk, and his announcement that he would not participate in The Masters generated headlines everywhere. After all, “Tiger” may be the most recognizable name in the world.
Many causal fans might have no idea that this setback is actually the latest of many. The Associated Press recently put together a timeline of 15 reported injuries. His left knee alone has gone through several injuries, including a rupture, cartilage damage and two left leg stress fractures.
There was also a ruptured Achilles tendon in the right leg, as well as an inflammation of the neck joint.
Professional golfers feel huge pressure to ignore significant injuries with all the money involved, agree Brandon Aiken, USC Aiken’s head athletic trainer, and Dr. Brian Parr, an assistant professor for exercise and sports science. Yet, even kids in their young teens can follow that path, too.
“Think about it. It’s like swinging a baseball bat,” said Aiken. “If you look, too, at the movements involved, it’s not different from throwing the baseball. The swing is high impact, and the forces generated can take a toll on the body.”
Wrist injuries also can occur when the club hits the hard ground. That can end professional careers, Aiken said.
One of Connelly’s golf buddies, Mark Miller, encountered that situation while playing last summer. He and his friends kept on going when a sudden downpour arrived during the last hole.
“The grip was wet, and it slipped during a swing,” Miller said. “The club landed a foot behind the ground, and I felt a shooting pain in my back. It hurt like hell; the first golf-related injury I’ve ever had.”
Miller’s back still bothers him, but like Connelly, he takes it easy, playing no more than twice a week.
It’s well-known that Woods started hitting golf balls at age 3.
“It’s like riding a bike,” he said. “When you’re learning to ride, it’s not the pedaling, but the timing. It takes a while to do that when you’re young, but you can still do it (as an adult), because the motor learning is constant.”
The same process occurs in golf, and that’s where overuse can be so injurious – it’s like pitchers who throw thousands of pitches with virtually the same motion every time.
Again, with the financial rewards and prestige involved, professional golfers spend a lot of money to work with top trainers in the off-season, Aiken said. They strive to maintain their fitness and their game.
Woods has done just that in the weight room and maintaining the range of motion in his swing. The attention to such detail is essential for a pro. Yet, there are risks involved, and Aiken can’t help but point out, again, that the process “can take its toll.”
Aiken has seen a lot of injuries, among them shoulders and wrist injuries. They are evaluated, and then, would the next step be surgery and immobilization or therapy like ultrasound?
“The body will adjust, but it does come at a cost,” Aiken said.
Older weekend golfers should make sure they’re warmed up and doing something to keep in condition, Aiken said. The older they get, the longer it can take to recover.
Another member of the Aiken group, Keith Encapera, has an old Achilles tendon problem that bothers him every so often. For his twice-a-week trips to the course, he manages pretty well with an ace bandage and heat. Like his friends, “I baby it. It’s not the end of the world.”
Some years ago, Encapera happened to meet and chat with a successful pro golfer.
“He can’t rotate his forearms, but he plays through those things,” Encapera said.
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.