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The History of Golf Performance: Past, Present, and Future

Golf is one of the only professional sports where players have historically not trained in the gym to prepare for the season. If you were to ask any player in the 1950s - 1970s how they prepared they would say "By playing more golf of course!" Back then they would probably give you the same answer about how they developed their swing. Many early swing coaches simply tried to mimic the best players. “Why do you do that move with your hips?” Answer: Well Ben Hogan did it and it worked for him. “Why do you swing so damn hard?” Answer: Well John Daly did it and he hit nuclear missiles. There is still some of that sentiment, but today’s swing coaches use much more data to help their players swing better.

Now before the 1980s, it was believed that golfers should never touch a weight. If they committed this terrible act it was thought that instantly they would get stiff and their swing would suck. You can still hear some of this opinion from Johnny Miller who blames Rory McIlroy’s drop off on how he lifts too heavy in the gym (even though Rory has hit the gym since he was an amateur). To be fair, Johnny Miller did take a year off to work on his California ranch and came back stronger, but with his swing worse; that was from doing hours of manual labor, not a customized program targeting muscles and movements important in the golf swing. If lifting weights made you swing stiffer then we would see hockey players and baseball hitters with stiff, choppy swings. Or basketball players with worse shots after the off-season. This is one of those old wives’ tales that is just not true.

Where it Started

Something changed in the 1980s. Before this you could see Fuzzy Zoeller or Arnold Palmer smoking a cigarette walking down the fairway. Enter Lanier Johnson, the marketing director of the sports equipment manufacturer Diversified Products. Johnson saw that football and basketball players had embraced strength training in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and wondered if there would be benefits to golfers. So he tested out a 10 week program of hard weight training. He is quoted as saying, “Not only did it (strength training) not make me less flexible, but it made me more flexible and gave me an extra 10-12 yards off the tee.” How ‘bout them apples Johnny?!

So in 1985 Johnson brought a 40-foot trailer to tournaments to give players space to exercise, see a physical therapist, and work on their fitness. Jack Nicklaus, who had to pull out of the 1983 Masters because of back spasms, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langher, and others started using the trailer with great success. They focused on core, leg, and shoulder strength. Players started hitting the ball longer and spending less time off the course because of injury. A win-win if you ask me!

It’s safe to say Tiger really made people take a look at the performance side of things. But, but, but . . . he’s had so many injuries! Yes, you’re not wrong. But you have to consider just how many golf balls he’s hit in his life. He had an agreement in his scholarship at Stanford that he could use the practice facility 24/7; and he legit did it. If you read his biography, he spent many Friday nights hitting balls at 2:00 AM when his classmates were out partying. That’s a shit-ton of swings. He also did some crazy Navy SEAL training after his dad died but that’s a different story for a different time.

Where it is Now

These days there are multiple training trailers at every PGA and LPGA event because almost all of the players are training. They also have a team that travels with them, physical therapists, chiropractors, trainers and the like all on their pay-roll. I know, I know. You can’t afford to have a team of 3-4 people helping you with your fitness and golf, you don’t need it and training is really affordable these days (if you’re wondering how affordable send me an email, DM, or comment on this blog).

The leading organization as far as golf-focused training is the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI). Many of the top PGA and LPGA players work with a TPI trainer or PT. While I’ve been through 2 levels of their training, there is a lot lacking in this area. Many of the exercises they demonstrate and use look like the golf swing. Must be good right? You’re basically strengthening your swing. But as Lanier Johnson found out, you don’t have to do that; just strengthening your body with traditional exercises then practicing your golf swing has huge benefits.

There are also a lot of gimmicks. Because “stability” is important in the golf swing many pros can be seen on Instagram swinging a heavy object while standing or kneeling on a big ball or some other uneven surface. Let’s stop and think for a minute: when you play golf, both feet are firmly planted on the ground. So why would you practice swinging on a surface that moves? Well it looks cool and is a gimmick to sell equipment and programs.

In summary: it is AWESOME that more golfers are training. But just like golf swing coaching used to be based on word of mouth and anecdote, the same thing is happening with golf training. Just because your favorite player won and is doing some crazy complicated exercise does not mean you should. Most professional golfers are genetic freaks and would be playing as good if they didn’t train. This takes me to what I think golf performance should look like in the future.

Where it Should Go in the Future

If you can’t tell by now, I disagree with some of the leaders of the golf training world. First off, people refer to “golf fitness” which is silly to me. Do you say “basketball fitness” or “football fitness”? No, those athletes train. So I think it should be called golf training or golf performance training.

Secondly, the “golf fitness” world has figured out how to make exercises really hard, complex, and look like a golf swing. This is unnecessary. The best trainers in any sport and even in things like professional body-building or powerlifting will tell you that simple is better. Sure you should work hard, but that is dictated by how much weight you are using, how fast or slow you are moving, and the position used for the exercise. Exercise should not be made harder by adding unstable surfaces and putting yourself in harm’s way. The more complex an exercise gets here the less able you are to actually produce force from the ground up, which is the backbone of the golf swing!

Finally, swing coaching has really taken a scientific, biomechanical approach with 3-D swing analysis, force plates, and the use of simulators like Trackman for data on club path, face angle, and ball speed. We can use some of these tools (force plates, HR monitors, biomechanical trackers) to track and develop customized programs for golf athletes so that they are in peak condition. This will lead to more longevity and less injury risk. That means you play more golf and play longer into life.

In summary: most professional golfers are doing some form of training these days which is awesome. More amateur golfers should be doing some form of training during the week to help them play more and be more resilient in the face of injury. Complex exercises that look like a golf swing are not necessary to make your body strong and “golf fit”.

If you’re interested in what Golf Performance Training looks like, send me an email at or DM me on Instagram

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I described above, drop a comment and let me know what you think, whether you agree, disagree, or have questions!

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