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Published: Wednesday, 4/19/2006

It s a stretch, but it really can help your game

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

We all do it.

We speed into the parking lot, change shoes, throw our golf bags onto a cart, pay the greens fee, and head for the first tee.

Five hours later, if we re lucky, we walk off the 18th green with yet another 93, a sore lower back, wrists and elbows that are throbbing from slamming the club head into the ground all day, and various aches and pains in our neck and shoulders from trying to contort our bodies into producing something close to a proper golf swing.

A few days later, we do it all over again.

A golf professional can solve some of the problem, particularly the 93, with a few lessons and with you spending hour upon hour on the practice range.

But you can solve a lot of them yourself in just a few minutes.

It s called stretching.

"If you give people a 30-minute, pre-round regimen they probably won t do it," said Jim Vitale, a physical therapist and an expert in care of the spine. "But if a golfer would take just 10 minutes he or she would not only feel better, but play better, too.

"People take lessons, buy videos, and subscribe to every golf magazine that s published to try and improve their games, but they don t do anything to prepare their bodies. The golf swing forces motion that our bodies aren t prepared to do. If your body can t do what the swing requires you ll play poorly and you re likely to get hurt."

To lessen the chances of injury, The Blade called on four experts for advice on stretching exercises.

Vitale is a non-golfer who operates the Spine Care and Rehabilitation Center. Bill Hartman, who describes himself as a "major hacker" on the course, is a physical therapist and athletic trainer affiliated with Toledo Orthopedic Rehabilitation. Dr. Steve Saddemi, who posed for many of the pictures illustrating this story, is a former Northwestern University golfer and a low-handicapper who is a partner in Toledo Orthopaedic Surgeons, Inc.

Last but not least is Don Kotnik, the much-decorated PGA Master Professional at Toledo Country Club, who very recently took part in a three-month physical training program at KMX Kinetics Lab at the PGA of America s learning center in Port St. Lucie, Fla. A former PGA national professional of the year, Kotnik also is a member of Golf Magazine s panel of America s Top 100 instructors.

"If I had my druthers, every student who comes to me for lessons would first go to a physical therapist to be tested," Kotnik said. "Either I can work around what s wrong or the physical therapist can put together a personalized program to improve inefficiencies in strength, balance and flexibility.

"Golf is a sport of turning in balance, and physical conditioning and flexibility are the things that most impact the golf swing. Everybody wants to swing like a tour player, but few understand what great athletes they are."

Kotnik reached for a newspaper and pointed out the top five players in the World Golf Rankings Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els.

"Do they have the best games? I don t know," Kotnik said. "There are a lot of guys out there with great games. But I can tell you this; those five are the best conditioned, have the best balance and the best efficiency of motion. And they all worked extremely hard for that to be the case."

No one expects the average golfer to work equally hard or produce anywhere near the same results. But can you spare 10 minutes before a round of golf? Do you have 15 free minutes at home a few times a week? Do you belong to a gym? Maybe you ve never noticed that there are drills you can do on different gym devices that are specific to the golf swing.

Pre-round preparation is especially important this time of the year, according to Hartman.

"A lot of people spend four or five months away from the game, probably doing very little, and expect to walk to the first tee and have flexibility and endurance while being reasonably fit," he said. "It doesn t work that way. Most people spend a lot of the day sitting and they go from no functional activity to the golf course, where they re forcing their bodies to do things the body isn t prepared to do."

Vitale suggests that might be the case even when not swinging the club.

"There was a study that determined the average round by a PGA Tour pro took 253.2 minutes," Vitale said. "The actual time they spend swinging a club during that round is 1.8 minutes. So there is a lot of time to get hurt in other ways. You lift your golf bag out of the trunk of your car. You pick up the bag to carry it between shots. How do you tee the ball up or bend over to mark it on the green? You re always putting stress on some part of your body and it all adds up.

"Walking the course is a big help because a lot of muscles are in constant motion and can t tighten up. But if you re in a golf cart for four or five hours and you re swinging the club for about two minutes, you certainly have to guard against tightening up."

With that in mind, several of the stretching exercises shown on these pages are ones that can easily be repeated any time there is a lull in your round.

According to Hartman, the most injured body part among pro golfers is the back.

"For amateurs, it s the back, shoulders and elbows," he said.

Many of those injuries, said Saddemi, are caused by golfers who have poor grips that result in poor swings that, in turn, result in "hitting the ground improperly with the club."

The grip can be assisted by exercises that stretch tendons in your wrists and that promote flexibility in thumbs and fingers.

As Kotnik points out, if you don t have the flexibility in your thumb to stretch it and lay it flat against the golf club you ll automatically be battling an ineffective grip. So start with this simple drill: Wrap one hand around the thumb of your other hand and

repeatedly stretch it out as far as possible from its corresponding index finger.

Even if your grip is perfect, though, the swing is flawed if you can t come as close as possible to turning your back to the target.

"The goal is to have the flexibility to rotate your body during the golf swing so that you ve turned your back to the target while keeping your head level and your shoulders behind the ball," Saddemi said.

"That s a whole lot easier said than done. It calls for tremendous core strength and flexibility in your abdomen, back and hips. The back is probably the most important because if you can t rotate and extend your back you can t properly swing the club. But the other areas are crucial, too. Every key body part has to work together properly to move through the swing in a proper plane.

"Every good golfer, or anyone who wants to be a good golfer, needs balance, good posture, flexibility and strength. There are exercises and stretches that work on all key body parts to accommodate those four needs. Hopefully, we ll show you [in pictures on these pages] something you can work on to accomplish all four factors."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398



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