Sometime around age 50, skill, natural athletic ability, general fitness and all the tofu in the world stop being enough to keep even the best golfers competitive with players half their age.
Death and taxes are long-established certainties. Golfers of a certain age can add a decline in flexibility and its negative impact on their swing to the list. It’s a physiological fact.
Brian Vail, 54, hit the inevitable wall this year. It revealed itself in an involuntarily modified swing that masked his physical shortcomings and produced the worst golf he had played in years.
Wanting to stay relevant with the best players of all ages at his club, the Sacramento real estate developer had to admit his repetitive gym routine wasn’t working and he needed help in the form of individualized golf-specific fitness training that focused on flexibility, extensibility and rotation over strength.
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“Everything I was doing on my own was hurting my game, in theory,” he said. “I came to the conclusion I had to do something else.”
An increasing number of older golfers, men in particular, are concluding the same.
Three months ago, Vail started working with Greg Johnson, the owner of Varimax Fitness. Johnson is a strength and conditioning specialist and also certified by the Titleist Performance Institute, a leader in golf fitness, health and swing mechanics.
Johnson does a full-body assessment of every new client. Among his initial measurements, he found that Vail had 55 degrees of thoracic (upper) spine rotation to his right in his backswing and 50 degrees to his left during follow through. The ideal is 75 degrees.
“With Brian and guys like Brian, if they’re tight in their thoracic spine, they end up getting their quote unquote shoulder turn from someplace else,” Johnson said. “Either they stand up or sway or slide or close their hips to the target. That leads to inconsistent ball striking and a lot of extra work for the body.”
Vail has diligently worked to improve to 68 degrees in both directions along with improved spine extension.
Vail’s pectoral muscles may not be as large, but his handicap index has gone from a 4.3 to a 0.1 since he started working with Johnson twice a week. He’s not necessarily hitting the ball farther, he said, but he is striking it solidly with more consistence.
“I’m turning again instead of swaying,” Vail said.
Vail’s immediate and significant improvement are an anomaly, Johnson said. But still.
“I have guys in their 70s who prove this can be done,” Johnson said. “A lot of people who used to give up golf at 40 because they had a bad back realize that if they do the right things off the course maybe they’re able to play the game they love longer.”
Phil Shaver, 73, spent much of his long and distinguished career as a professor of psychology at UC Davis hunched over at his desk. He also suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative condition that has naturally fused four of his vertebrae and restricts his ability to twist and rotate – not optimal for swinging a golf club.
His average score was 110 when he resumed playing after a 55-year break in 2015, the year he retired. Two years after hooking up with Charles Burton, a golf-specific personal trainer who has created a loyal following over the past seven years at Ancil Hoffman, Shaver now carries an 18.6 handicap index and has broken 100 in 19 of his past 20 rounds.
His chest is out and his shoulders are back.
“He knows muscles like I know the mind,” Shaver said of his trainer.
Burton said a loss of extensibility is a bigger problem for older golfers than a decline in flexibility, and as such many of the exercises he advocates involve extension.
Working at a golf course allows him a luxury most other trainers don’t have – the ability to observe his clients in action and plot exercise regimens to address specific swing flaws. A scratch golfer, Burton regularly tees it up with many of his clients, including Shaver after most of their twice-a-week sessions.
“I put (video of them swinging) up on the screen and say this is what you are doing and put them next to (a video of) Tiger Woods or whoever,” Burton said. “I show them this is what Tiger is doing and this is what you are doing. These are the exercises we are going to do to fix what you are doing. What we end up doing is golf-specific exercises that mimic parts of the golf swing. Each part has its own exercise.”
Increased flexibility won’t necessarily help someone hit the ball farther, they said – that has more to do with the kinematic sequence of a swing – but it might.
Working out in a building with a wall of windows that provide an inspiring view of Ancil Hoffman’s 18th green, Shaver said he appreciates Burton’s willingness to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing.
“I’m putting the same fanaticism into this as I did my career,” Shaver said.
Good thing, the trainers said, because it takes a commitment to maintain strength, mobility, stability and balance past 50. At least two days a week in the gym, they said, and a daily stretching regimen at home.
“(Decline) can be mitigated,” Burton said. “You can turn the clock back five years. Maybe 10 if you’re really willing to work.”
A person who can’t do a basic toe touch is 83 percent more likely to suffer a back injury, Johnson said. Both trainers are in favor of anything that promotes stretching, such as yoga – there is no downside to increased flexibility, regardless of the motivation, they said.
“As long as you start to work on your mobility, there’s pretty much a 100 percent chance you’re going to improve it,” Johnson said. “We may not be able to turn someone into their 20-year-old self, but you can gain a lot of degrees of range of motion as long as you’re doing the right things.
“It’s a lifelong journey. It’s not something that after three months, you’re done. As soon as you stop working on your flexibility, you will start to lose it again.”