Golf fitness: How training can help your game
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Golf fitness: How training can help your game

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The Butch Harmon School of Golf in Rio Secco, Nev., is in equal measure a world-class teaching facility and a colorful shrine that commemorates some of the most iconic moments in golf over the past 30 years.

Amongst all of the autographed portraits of Harmon’s most famous pupils, the vintage staff bags and golf equipment, a compilation of press clippings and magazine covers, rare out-of-print golf books and other memorabilia very few have seen in person, lies a simple black and white sign that proclaims: GOLFERS ARE ATHLETES.


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It’s not exactly a revelation, but I don’t ever recall Harmon ever waxing poetic about box jumps. However, he can break down Ben Hogan’s swing path with exacting precision. After all, here’s a guy in Harmon who honed his craft during the era of the persimmon-headed driver and the wound ball, analyzing swings in golf’s version of analog -- you know, back when TrackMan wasn’t a thing.

What we now know about the physics of the swing has given us a much keener appreciation for the physical ability it takes to hit a golf ball at an elite level. We can also thank players like Tiger Woods for crediting fitness and training as such a huge component of his success and inspiring others to do the same.

By the same token, he’s also the reason why fitness continues to be tripped up by suspicion and angst within the golf community. All those injuries he accumulated over the course of his career while relentlessly training his body prompted many people to wonder if all those hours in the gym contributed to his decline.

Woods, of course, isn’t the only professional golfer who’s ever been criticized for engaging in activities that were seen as distractions. In 2013, Rory McIlroy found himself in the cross hairs for signing a blockbuster deal with Nike and for failing to capitalize on the success he had the year prior. In explaining his lackluster play, critics took turns bashing the following three things: the overhauling of his equipment, his then high-profile relationship with Caroline Wozniacki and his sudden extensive dedication to fitness (not always in that order).

It’s not that there’s some sort of vendetta towards Nike golfers. Just last year Reuters reported that Nick Faldo warned Jordan Spieth to be “careful what you wish for” when he learned the newly crowned world’s best player wanted to get longer off the tee. What should’ve been apparent to Faldo, let alone anyone else for that matter, is that Spieth had begun laying the groundwork to building a better body long before that quote ever made it to print.

Golf has a strange relationship – a borderline phobia – with fitness. There's a disconnect we don’t see in any other mainstream sports.

Leading LPGA teaching professional Karen Palacios-Jansen, who is also a certified trainer, thinks it starts with a misunderstanding of golf fitness.

“There’s a misconception out there these guys are simply bulking up,” she told me. “But guys like Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel, even Dustin Johnson - they’re just lean and are in incredibly good shape. I laugh at people who are criticizing them for working out because they’re just trying to stay healthy and injury-free.”

Alright, fine. But is there a way to quantify how fitness affects a player's performance? Web.com Tour and PGA Tour player Jin Park isn't certain.

“If your body moves well and it’s efficient, you’re going to perform better no matter what sport you participate in,” said Park. “That being said, I’ve never found a golfer who works out is a better player than the guy who doesn’t. Or vice versa. To be honest, I don’t know how you can measure being fit and and being a better golfer.”

Measuring Fitness

During the golf swing every joint and muscle is used so it’s hard to pinpoint which are the most important muscles - they are all important. And so what you want to engage in is a total body conditioning program.

-- Karen Palacios-Jansen

In 2012, the Department of Movement and Sport Sciences at the University of Leon in Spain organized a study to determine the effects of an 18-week strength training program on the golf performance of low-handicap players.

Ten right-handed male golfers of similar age, averaging a handicap of five or less, were randomly divided into two groups. The control group followed a standard, no-frills conditioning program over the duration of the study while the treatment group engaged in a scripted routine that emphasized equal parts maximal strength training, explosive strength training incorporating plyometric exercises and golf-specific training swinging a weighted club. Both groups worked out five days a week during the study and were given the option of resting or playing a full round of golf on Saturday or Sunday.

Workout Program

Maximal Strength Training (sessions on Wednesday and Fridays)

(3 sets of 5 repetitions at 85% load with 4 minutes rest between sets)

  • Horizontal bench press
  • Seated row machine
  • Barbell squat
  • Seated barbell military press
  • Seated calf extension
  • Triceps cable push-down
Explosive Strength Training (sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays)

(3 sets of 6 repetitions at 70% load plus 10 repetitions) with 4 minutes rest between sets)

  • Horizontal bench press + plyometric push-ups
  • Seated row machine + explosive pull-downs
  • Barbell squat + vertical jumps
  • Seated barbell military press + plyometric push ups
  • Seated calf extension + vertical jumps
  • Triceps cable push-down + plyometric push ups
Golf-Specific Strength Training (sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays)

(3 sets of 10 repetitions with 4 minutes rest between sets)

  • Golf drives with weighted clubs
  • Accelerated drives with an acceleration tubing club system

Both sets of golfers in the study were evaluated on five separate occasions. Specifically, the researchers were able to measure each person’s change in body mass, body fat percentage, jumping ability, isometric grip strength, maximal strength, ball speed and golf club mean acceleration. The researchers were primarily interested in evaluating how a strength training program would impact a person’s performance swinging the driver, since it’s naturally assumed that a person’s fitness level has little to no bearing on putting and finesse shots around the green.

Several interesting things were noted when the study ended. The participants in the treatment group all fared better than those in the control group for each key performance indicator (KPI). On average, players in the treatment group lowered their body mass and body fat percentage by 1.4 and 2.4 percent, respectively.

As far as driver performance, the average ball speed of the control group was measured at 131 mph after the first testing session, never fluctuating over the course of 18 weeks. Meanwhile, the treatment group went from 140 mph after the first six weeks to 152 mph at the end of the cycle. As a point of comparison, the average ball speed for a PGA Tour player is 165 mph which equates to about 269 yards of carry distance.

For the researchers in Spain, this was a significant find as far as correlating fitness to golf performance. Researches came to the conclusion that an additional 10 to 15 yards off the tee allows for shorter, more accurate shots onto the green. Fewer, less erratic strokes preserve the golfer's energy, cutting end-of-round fatigue.

The most critical finding of the study, however, is that golfers see that kind of dramatic improvement with a highly structured workout program.

The fitness experts I spoke to were all in agreement that self-directed workouts are the number one reason why most golfers never improve. They also felt that recreational players tend to overtrain the wrong muscles. With men especially, there’s a tendency to focus on power lifting without any regard to building a stable foundation.

“People who attempt to get more club head speed make the mistake of trying to do exercises with a speed component,” said Palacios-Jansen. “Well, if you don’t have balance or if your muscles can’t go through their full range of motion you won’t be able to swing fast.”

“Recreational golfers should start with a physical fitness assessment to identify where their weaknesses are,” she adds. “For instance, if they lack mobility or flexibility or strength. And we know that women and men are kind of different. Women tend to be much more flexible so they are going to need to work much more on strength. Men, on the other hand, need to work on flexibility and mobility.”

Chasing Distance

Golf fitness is going in the right direction simply on the basis that things are more quantifiable now. Whether it’s through the use of motion capture technology or GEARS, we’re now able to accurately pinpoint what the club is doing and how the body relates to it. You also have to give credit to Titleist Performance Institute for building the market for it and for getting people trained and certified.

- Jeff Flagg, 2014 World Long Drive Champion

In long drive, the person who hits it longest (and in the grid) wins and gets paid. Most everyone else goes home empty-handed and tries again in 12 months. In 2014, Jeff Flagg outlasted former champions like Joe Miller and Tim Burke to win the World Long Drive Championship in Las Vegas. Hitting from a raised platform into a crosswind on a evening that called for wearing a long sleeve layer, Flagg fired a 365-yard dart that cleared his competitor’s drive a mere two yards to earn his first title.

For someone who excels at the singular task of hitting a golf ball an excessive distance, Flagg spends surprisingly little time swinging a club and even less time sweating mechanics. Rather, he’s an old-school gym rat who values athleticism over technique.

“As an athlete I don’t care about technology or science. I don’t care how much I’m hitting up on the ball. I’ll leave it to my coach to look at all those numbers,” said Flagg. “I just want to take swings and have the numbers validate the feels I’m trying to cultivate. Unfortunately, a lot of guys get caught up in the numbers and the mechanics. Instead, we could all use a little more Bubba Watson in our approach.”

Flagg, a former minor league baseball player, is also a certified fitness professional. He splits his time maintaining peak shape for long drive while simultaneously training other golfers in the Chicago area. While Flagg admits that he’s always been a long hitter, he and his coaches have developed a program to increase his power and prolong his competitiveness in a sport that is short on longevity.

“I was already bringing it a little bit when I first began swinging a golf club and working with my coaches, topping out at about 136 [mph] in club head speed,” says Flagg who has been clocked as high as 150. “But what fitness does is bring the top end up. Not only that, but, as importantly, it brings your average club head speed up. It definitely gives you that sustained top speed which is essential for long drive.”

When preparing for the annual contest in the desert, Flagg works on core stabilization and power development. As the competition nears, he and his coaches adjust their fitness strategy into something that blends power lifting with speed training, all the while performing the movements at angles Flagg describes as being more sports-oriented.

Not long ago the objectives of a typical long-drive athlete and that of a pro golfer were, if not diametrically opposed, at least sufficiently dissimilar. You can’t say that anymore. Not when a player like Jason Day shows up to Kapalua in January bragging about his increased dedication to fitness and correcting muscular inequalities that may have cost him not yards, but fractional yards off the tee.

Statisticians working for the PGA Tour will tell you that players are not significantly longer than they were nearly a decade ago pointing to an average driving distance that has fluctuated within a 3.7 yard range since 2005. What they conveniently downplay is that there was only a single golfer (John Daly) who averaged more than 300 yards in 2000. As of last year, 26 players eclipsed that number and it’s reasonable to conclude that the average driving distance for nearly all players has increased since the era of the Tiger Slam.

Columbia Business School professor Mark Broadie, author of Every Shot Counts, knows the edge a player has when they can outdrive the competition.

“Distance matters,” wrote Broadie. “A two-putt from 60 feet is a good result. A two-putt from two feet is a poor result. A simple count of putts [equals two strokes] in both cases, but the skill level involved in the two cases is clearly different.”

That thinking extends back from the green to the tee.

Still, there are those in the golf community who will point to the success of a Luke Donald or a Jim Furyk as a beacon of hope for shorter hitters. A case can also be made, as Jin Park argues, that the scoring average on tour has hardly changed in the past 50 years or so and that putting remains the great equalizer. But if you take the long view over the course of a whole season or even a career, the player who consistently creates eagle and birdie opportunities by taking advantage of shorter clubs to improve their proximity to the hole is going to outlast someone who makes a living riding a hot putter.

“A guy like Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan or Luke Donald - they can still compete and win on Tour,” says Park. “There are times when a 350-yard hitter can have a lights out putting day but there’s never a time when a lights-out putting guy starts hitting it 350 yards. Zach’s never going to have a hot week where he’s suddenly hitting 8-irons into par 5s. So when a Dustin Johnson or a Rory McIlroy is absolutely on their game, the fact is a short hitter cannot beat them.”

The Eternal Debate: Short Game vs. Long Game

I actually did ask Dave Pelz about Broadie’s work but for space reasons was unable to include his response in the article. Pelz said, ‘If you could improve any one aspect of your game to pro level, what would you choose? It would be long game, absolutely. The problem is, you can’t. It would take forever and you still couldn’t get there.’

- Wall Street Journal writer John Paul Newport

Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, but it's true: pro golfers play a very different game than the average amateur. However, while the games may be different, the path to improvement is similar.

Broadie’s analysis of the pro game revealed that putting contributed far less value to a player’s scoring advantage than most people naturally assume. Compiling statistics across all tournaments over an eight-year period, putting accounted for only 15 percent to the top 40 golfers’ scoring advantage. The rest came as a result of shots around the green and the long game. As for tournament winners, the flat stick mattered more to them, contributing up to 35 percent more value to their victories, but other facets of their game were also rated highly relative to the field.

As for amateur play, the outcomes are remarkably identical. Broadie’s data on recreational players, while not as substantial as what he compiled on professionals, revealed that putting contributes 15 percent of the scoring differential across handicaps. So if you to take a typical golfer with an average score of 80 and compare them to someone who shoots 100, you’d have to account for the difference in 20 strokes that separates them. And what you’d discover is that the more accomplished golfer in this example only gains an average of three putts per round (three strokes out of 20); the rest is determined by the other 13 clubs in the bag.

“The long game explains two-thirds of the difference in scores between two typical amateur golfers; short game and putting explain the remaining one-third,” wrote Broadie. “Golfers might see quick improvement in scores by working on their short game and putting, but they aren’t crazy for taking full-swing lessons and working on their approach shots.”

Like many of you, I’ve had the importance of the short game drilled into my head almost from the very day I began playing the game. Needless to say, I wasn’t ready to have my whole world turned upside down by Broadie’s research; I wanted something resembling definitive proof that ball-striking ability determines scoring potential.

Historically, statistical analysis on amateur play has been less than comprehensive. But that changed significantly when Game Golf, a start-up in wearable technology and gamification, began collecting scoring data from recreational players. Over the past two years, Game Golf has recorded hundreds of thousands of shots from golfers across the entire handicap spectrum.

If you compared the scores of any set of Game Golf users separated by 20 strokes you’d find that putting accounted for 3-5 strokes of that difference in performance, depending on the handicap range. If that wasn’t compelling enough, the putting performance between one set of golfers and the group above them showed a separation measured by whiskers. In all but one case (scratch players or better) the stroke differential was 1.44 or less. That means for a typical 90-shooter, they only need to improve their putting by less than two strokes to shoot an 85; the other three strokes have to come from somewhere else. You would think the difference might come from short game, but the scrambling averages don’t show any substantial improvement between brackets until you get to the set of golfers who flirt with breaking 80.

Avg ScoreDriving Dist.Driving Acc.GIRScramblingPutts/HolePutts/RoundPutting Diff
105-110158 Yards43%11%4%2.1739.06--
100-105171 Yards41%14%5%2.1338.340.72
90-95189 Yards43%23%10%2.0136.181.08
85-90208 Yards45%31%15%1.9334.741.44
80-85222 Yards48%41%22%1.8733.661.44
75-80235 Yards51%52%32%1.7932.221.44
Scratch250 Yards56%69%59%1.628.83.42

When a player's ball-striking takes a great leap forward, so, too, does their ability to get up and down. But how much of that scrambling is the result of better-than-average chipping ability as opposed to substantial improvements in ball-striking that put players in better situations overall? Most people would agree that golfers are less prone to calamity if you put a short iron or wedge in their hands as opposed to a long iron or fairway wood. From that perspective, it’s hard, if not practically impossible to instruct a golfer to be a better player without devoting a reasonable amount of time to sorting out their long game.

As instructor Hank Haney says, distance determines your potential as a golfer. Working at getting longer can be difficult, but that shouldn’t discourage someone from buying properly fitted equipment, taking lessons, hitting a bucket of balls at the range, or spending time at the gym swinging a kettle bell.

Which brings us back to fitness. For Flagg, fitness isn't a panacea. Rather, it's a foundation upon which every improvement in your game can stand.

“I see my role as a fitness professional as someone who is trying to make your life easier for you as a golfer,” says Flagg. “Are you going to be able to go from a 10 handicap to a five just by coming to see me and working out? No. But a solid fitness regimen will improve your balance, improve your posture and will lower your risk for nagging injuries allowing you to increase your time practicing and playing. That in turn will make you a better golfer.”

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