The Physical Characteristics of High Level Golfers

Nowadays, golf is a different game. Once upon a time, (relatively) unathletic golfers were the norm. High level golf was rife with “golfers” but not necessarily athletes. There are still a few holdouts from the old school, but we see that the golfers that are obvious athletes- the Tiger Woods, the Rory McIlroys, the Jordan Spieths – are rising to the top.

The golf research that exists out there is still not as plentiful as I would like, especially training research (although a dearth of training studies is true of most sports). The research that does exist has made it pretty clear that physical and performance characteristics of high level golfers are far different from their high-handicap counterparts.

Here are a few examples of physical and performance characteristics of golfers that separate low-handicap and high-handicap golfers:

  • Specific aspects of flexibility (shoulder, hip, and t-spine)
    • (Sell et al. 2007, Keogh et al. 2009)
  • Strength characteristics – this includes gross expressions of strength, as well as single joint expressions of strength
    • (Keogh et al. 2009, Meister et al. 2011, Sell et al. 2007, Gordon et al. 2009)
  • Lower body rate of force development, explosiveness, measured with medicine ball throws, various jumps
    • (Gordon et al. 2009, Hellström 2008)
  • Club Head velocity (which is heavily affected by the above characteristics)
    • (Keogh et al. 2009, Myers et al. 2008)
He may not have the best putting, wedge game or irons, but boy can he drive!
He may not have the best putting, wedge game or irons, but boy can he drive!

Obviously, maximising these physical and performance attributes is not sufficient enough to make someone a good golfer. Case in point- I’m quite a bit stronger and more explosive than my golfers, but I’m awful on the course. Some days I’m lucky to shoot nine in the same way they shoot eighteen. While I have a number of the performance characteristics, I certainly don’t have the skill.

Maximising these attributes is however necessary to succeed at the highest level. High level golfers have to have the skill (which I lack) and the physical/performance characteristics to perform at the highest levels.

Now, just the fact that there are specific characteristics that separate high and low handicap golfers does not necessarily mean that improving these characteristics will improve performance on the course in and of itself. We have to know what training and improvements will actually result in improvements.

It just so happens there are a number of studies that tested this. Now, most of these studies have used club head velocity as an outcome measure. The idea is simple- improve club head velocity and thus improve driving distance. The relationship between club head velocity and driving distance isn’t perfect but it is pretty good.

So operating on the assumption that club head velocity is an appropriate-enough stand-in for increased golf performance, here are a couple of training program types that have improved low-handicap golfers’ performance:

  • Resistance training (free weights, multijoint lifts)
    • (Alvarez et al. 2012, Bull & Bridge 2012, Doan et al. 2006, Fletcher & Hartwell, 2004)
  • Flexibility training
    • (Doan et al. 2006, Alvarez et al. 2012)
  • Plyometrics
    • (Bull & Bridge 2012, Doan et al. 2006, Fletcher & Hartwell, 2004)

A couple of studies have also found that strength and conditioning-focused training can also positively affect high-handicap golfers as well (e.g. Hetu et al. 1998, Fradkin et al. 2004).

8 weeks of resistance training and plyometrics resulted in the highlighted changes. From Fletcher & Hartwell, 2004
8 weeks of resistance training and plyometrics resulted in the highlighted changes. From Fletcher & Hartwell, 2004

What is our take home from this?

It is pretty clear that non-club, non-swing, non-course physical and performance characteristics of high level golfers that separate them from the “weekend warriors”. Basically, low-handicap golfers are stronger, faster, and more flexible than high-handicap golfers.

Furthermore, it is clear that as strength and conditioning coaches, we can positively influence these characteristics. Furthermore- by focusing on the right training, we can have positive influence on club head velocity, which is a decent enough stand-in for drive distance ceteris paribus (all things being equal).

Action steps for a golfer:

  • Get stronger (learn to apply more force)
  • Get more explosive (learn to apply more force faster)
  • Get more flexible in the right ways (make sure your flexibility is not a limiting factor in your swing- Titleist Performance Institute & related assessment would be helpful here)

 

Further Reading:

  • Alvarez, M., Sedano, S., Cuadrado, G., & Redondo, J. C. (2012). Effects of an 18-week strength training program on low-handicap golfers’ performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(4), 1110-1121.
  • Bull, M., & Bridge, M. W. (2012). The effect of an 8-week plyometric exercise program on golf swing kinematics. International Journal of Golf Science, 1, 42-53
  • Gordon, B. S., Moir, G. L., Davis, S. E., Witmer, C. A., & Cummings, D. M. (2009). An Investigation into the Relationship of Flexibility, Power, and Strength to Club Head Speed in Male Golfers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(5), 1606-1610.
  • Hellström, J. (2008). The Relation Between Physical Tests, Measures, and Clubhead Speed in Elite Golfers. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 3(0), 85-92.
  • Fletcher, I. M., & Hartwell, M. (2004). Effect of an 8-week combined weights and plyometrics training program on golf drive performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(1), 59–62.
  • Keogh, J. W., Marnewick, M. C., Maulder, P. S., Nortje, J. P., Hume, P. A., & Bradshaw, E. J. (2009). Are anthropometric, flexibility, muscular strength, and endurance variables related to clubhead velocity in low- and high-handicap golfers? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(6), 1841-1850.
  • Lephart, S. M., Smoliga, J. M., Myers, J. B., Sell, T. C., & Tsai, Y. S. (2007). An eight-week golf-specific exercise program improves physical characteristics, swing mechanics, and golf performance in recreational golfers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(3), 860-869.
  • Sell, T. C., Tsai, Y. S., Smoliga, J. M., Myers, J. B., & Lephart, S. M. (2007). Strength, flexibility, and balance characteristics of highly proficient golfers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(4), 1166-1171.
  • Smith, M. F. (2010). The role of physiology in the development of golf performance. Sports Medicine, 40(8), 635-655.

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