Smooth Moves

Bodywork and Your Golf Game

By Michelle Schneider

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2003.

You're standing over an easy 3-foot putt on the 18th green, $20 riding on dropping the ball in the cup. And yet all you can think about is that sharp twinge in your lower back, that pesky crick in your neck and the growing tension in your hands--which have a death grip on the putter.

How did this happen? Didn’t you take up this game to relax?

"We Type-A personalities all seem to be attracted to golf--then we get out on the course and tense our muscles and stress out," says Marilyn McAffee of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Massage--and her massage therapist Muriel Hattori, in particular--have been godsends, McAffee says. "I consider massage a joy not just for my golf game but for my whole life." McAffee, 63, is a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala who now is president of the Jacksonville, Fla., chapter of the nonprofit World Affairs Councils. She reluctantly admits that her handicap is closer to a 23 than the 19 she once carried. "I tend to work hard, and I tend to play hard. I tense up, grip the club too tightly, swing too hard, punish myself by hitting the ball as hard as I can even though my muscles are tense."

Hattori works that tension out, loosening McAffee’s muscles and allowing her to relax, and to take deep, calming breaths. "So, of course, the ball goes farther because my swing is more effortless."

McAffee is one of a growing number of golfers--especially those who wield their clubs only on the weekend--who have seen how massage can improve not just their game, but their lives.

"People love this game so much that they just have to play, even though they’re hurting," Hattori says. She’s one of northern Florida’s massage masters, based at the famous Marriott at Sawgrass golf resort in Ponte Vedra, home to the PGA headquarters. "Try to tell a golfer to hang up their clubs and take up chess. No way. They’re going to play until their body finally gives out on them."

Hattori--whose client list includes an impressive lineup of pro football players and PGA tour golfers--says her approach to massage is the same no matter who’s on the table.

"I have to get to know your body so I can fine-tune it," she says. "The best thing a golfer, or anyone who’s in pain, can do is find a massage therapist who they’re comfortable with, and one that they can work with on a regular basis. It’s the consistency that will give you the best results."

Golfers routinely report pain in their lower backs and hips, tight hamstrings and stiff necks. "One major cause of injury among the golfers I see at the resort is that they’ve saved up for months to come play, and they’re so eager to get out there, they just start whacking the ball as hard as they can, without warming up," Hattori says. And, many tourists have crammed so much work into the week before their vacation "that they’re even more tense and stressed than they normally would be."

Hattori knows that not everyone can afford a massage every week, but that doesn’t mean they can’t start immediately to improve their flexibility and begin to lessen their chronic pain.

"Those weekend golfers must get into a daily stretching routine at home," Hattori says. "It is one of the most effective ways to start getting your body in shape. I tell them to stretch for just one minute every morning and every evening--just one minute. While you’re brushing your teeth, put one leg at a time up on the counter by the sink and stretch it. You can incorporate stretching into your daily routine without it adding extra time."

This stretching takes the pressure off, Hattori says. "If you tell them they have to stretch 15 minutes twice a day, and they only get 10 minutes in, they feel guilty, or like a failure. But if you tell them they only have to do one minute twice a day, and they end up doing 10, then they feel better about themselves."

For golfers, Hattori suggests a massage therapist who not only knows your body’s specific aches and pains, but who also knows the sport. That way, he or she can design a stretching routine tailored just for you and your game.

"Freddy Couples (14-time PGA tour winner) always had trouble with his back, so I recommended he do a classic cat stretch on a regular basis." (In the cat stretch, you are on your hands and knees and then alternately arch your back, then make it concave.)

Hattori and other massage therapists agree it’s also critical to stretch not only at home, but before teeing the ball up on the first hole.

Lynn Teachworth, a massage therapist from Orlando, Fla., whose clients include pro golfers Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak and Ernie Els, says the best approach is to stretch until you feel your muscles are warm, play your round of golf and then stretch again--longer and deeper. That’s when you’ll get the most benefit from stretching, and there’s no risk fatigue will dent your game. "A little stretch before and a lot after — that’s the winning formula," Teachworth says.

If you have a major tournament just around the corner, massage therapists recommend you come in for a tune-up before the big event. Ideally you should get a massage 10 days before, and then again three days before the tournament.

Pre-event massage involves a lot of intense stretching, not gentle, soothing strokes, Hattori says. "Before a game, I’ll use strong, aggressive stretching. You leave the soothing massage for afterwards, because then you want your client to feel like they’re in la-la land. Beforehand, you don’t want la-la land, you want them to be loose and limber but focused."

Hattori says it’s important to keep the game in perspective. "The whole idea of golf is to have a good time. That’s the secret," she says. "If you feel good physically, it’s easier for you to have a good time, and I can help with that. If you go out with the right frame of mind--that you’re going to have fun--then you’ll relax and play better."

McAffee agrees. "I can’t imagine not having my Muriel massage every two weeks. Sure, it helps me with my golf game, but it also just makes me feel so much healthier. She doesn’t just get all the aches and pains out, she takes all the tension away. It’s so relaxing that I feel I’m connecting my body with my mind. I’m becoming fully integrated--it’s such a wonderful feeling."