By Chaz Hudd
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2000.
When Fred Couples walked off the course after the third round of The 1996 Players Championship (TPC), he hardly wore the look of a winner. Heading into the next day’s final round, he trailed leader Tommy Tolles by four strokes. More of a concern to Couples that afternoon in 1996 was his ailing back, which had bothered him for years. Chances for a comeback victory looked bleak.
“When Fred came in to see me Saturday night he was very depressed,” said licensed massage therapist Muriel Hattori, who works out of the Sawgrass Club in Ponte Vedra, Fla. which hosts TPC. “He told me all of my good works during the week had gone down the drain. It had gotten cold and windy during Saturday’s round, and his back started acting up. Fred has had chronic back problems, and was in a lot of pain. I had to work really hard on his back. Not only that, but he was really down, so I sort of had to play ‘bartender’ and pump up his confidence.”
Hattori’s concoction of physical and mental therapy worked wonders for Couples. He went into the final round Sunday and shot a sizzling 64 to capture The Players Championship title by a stroke.
“When Fred went out and won the next day, I really felt like a part of me was out there with him,” Hattori recalled. “It was very rewarding, and that’s the most exciting part of the job. He acknowledged my work and gave me a lot of credit. Fred told me he refers to me as his ‘main woman in Ponte Vedra,’ a distinction I’m very happy about.”
Hattori has been working her magic on professional golfers out of the Sawgrass Resort since 1996. She also has provided massage therapy for the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars since their inception in ’96. These are all finely-tuned athletes who are extremely particular when it comes to entrusting their bodies to someone such as a therapist. Couples is the sixth career money winner in the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA), with winnings of nearly $12 million. He has won 14 PGA titles and played on five Ryder Cup teams for the United States during his 20-year career. Similarly, many of the Jaguars football players are earning several million dollars every season. Their trust in Hattori and her work speaks volumes for the service she provides.
Hattori got into the massage field back in 1980. Born and raised in Toronto, most of her education was in Canada. A childhood accident indirectly led Muriel into the field of massage.
“I was originally studying acupuncture, but couldn’t get over my fear of needles,” she recalled. “When I was 8, I had a traumatic accident. I had fallen over a banister and suffered a blood clot in the brain. All I remembered was getting stuck with needles four times a day. I always had been interested in acupuncture, and thought I’d overcome my fear. The problem was that I’d always empathize with people who were afraid of needles like I was, and found that it just wasn’t going to work as a full-time profession. I wanted people to like me, not fear me. The next best thing I could think of was shiatsu massage, which was kind of the same theory. I wanted to help people, and that’s what brought me into massage.”
Hattori began her massage studies at a shiatsu school in Toronto. Soon after, she moved to Los Angeles, Calif. where she lived for 15 years. Over the years she has studied shiatsu, touch for health, feng shui, structural integration, reflexology, reiki and sports massage, among other modalities. When she moved to Florida, Hattori practically started over from scratch. Needing a license to work in Florida, she went back to school for the required 500 hours.
“I have been very fortunate in my massage career,” Hattori said. “When I was in Los Angeles, my business was basically with the entertainment trade. Networking was very important, as was being in the right place at the right time. I was just finishing schooling in California; a very young, inexperienced but enthusiastic woman. I met a woman in a Spanish class I was taking, who asked me what I did. When I told her I was a massage therapist, she said she and her husband loved massages. Her husband turned out to be a financial big-wig who was very well-connected. They liked my work, and referred me to quite a few people they knew. I was luckier than most, in that the circle I found myself in was more affluent and open to massage.”
Hattori’s good fortune continued when she moved to Florida. She came east having no contacts, no job, and having to start her massage education over again. Luckily, while in school, Hattori met someone who worked at the Sawgrass Resort in Ponte Vedra. They offered her a job.
“At the time, I had no idea it was a famous golf course and I knew nothing about sports,” Hattori said. “My husband and I were immersed in the entertainment world. I couldn’t have told you the name of one golfer when I started at the resort.”
Muriel now counts many of the PGA players among her regular clients. Most of the work she does on them is when the players are at TPC, or in town for some other reason. With many tour members residing in Florida, this is quite often. With two children, 9-year-old Kristen, and Jeffrey, 12, Hattori doesn’t travel with the tour to do massage.
Still, there is plenty to attend to when the golfers venture back to Sawgrass. “Anyone who’s in golf should know that it is not a natural game to the body, and eventually you will develop some problems,” Hattori explained. “I work generally on the vertebrae and the muscles in the back. I do a lot of stretching on the guys. We see a lot of very tight hamstrings. The neck and shoulders get very tight because of the stress these men are under. Some of the players like to come in before a round to get loosened up. Many come afterward so I can relieve their tension, so I keep very long hours during the tournament.”
Having PGA Commissioner Tom Finchem as a regular client certainly hasn’t hurt Hattori’s popularity among the players. He has referred quite a few of them to the therapist, and they trust her work. As a group, she has found them to be open and receptive to her techniques.
“In the past five years or so, most of the players have gotten into better shape,” Hattori explained. “Since the arrival of guys like Tiger Woods and David Duval, most players are more health conscious and physically fit. Chris Perry is a good example. He’s an up-and-coming star, having finished fifth in earnings last year. He told me he’s been working out quite a bit and getting regular massage whenever he can. He really believes in taking care of his body. I work a lot on his neck and shoulders, as well as his hamstrings. Chris was having a lot of tension, and thinks it is very important to relax his neck and shoulders because of the posture required for hitting a golf ball. Fred Couples has chronic problems with his back, so that is where I focus my work on him. Fred’s my favorite. He’s just one of the nicest, sweetest men out there.”
Another favorite is Earl Woods, father of Tiger Woods, the top player on the tour. Hattori describes Earl as a wonderful man, and a fellow “chocaholic.” When he’s in town, he stops in every day for a 90-minute massage. Hattori says she has learned a lot about life from Earl Woods.
Fortuitous circumstances also brought about Hattori’s involvement with the Jacksonville Jaguars football team. “It’s amazing how people find you,” she related. “I was working at the resort and a young lady was waiting for a facial. The esthetician was stuck in traffic across town and I had an opening, so I told the lady to come in and I’d give her a free massage while she waited. It turned out that she was the fiancee of Steve Beurlein, then a quarterback with the Jaguars. She said he loved massages, and would like my technique. The team had just arrived in town, so I started with them right from the start. I work on several of the coaches and many of the players.
“My technique with the football players varies depending on when I work on them. I see some of the players once a week, some twice. Generally, if it’s right after a game, I’ll work on sports-related injuries. If they have any problems, I try to work them out. Many of them like to be treated again two days before the next game when I’ll do a lighter flush. I work on most of the players in their homes, where I’ll use a mat on the floor rather than a table. These are very strong men, so I’ll do more of the Oriental shiatsu-type massage, the deep tissue work. It’s more demanding, but more rewarding than Swed-ish massage.”
The football players don’t come to Hattori year-round, cutting down a bit on the physical wear-and-tear on her. The football season ends about a month before the golf season starts in Florida. Just as golf season is slowing down for the summer, training camp for the Jaguars starts up again. A self-described workaholic, Hattori puts in many 12-hour days. With a husband and two children, Hattori uses a mother’s magical ability to somehow find time for everything.
“I feel you have to take advantage of the times when you are in demand,” Hattori said. “When I work, I work hard, and when I play, I play hard.”
Hattori readily admits she has been blessed when it has come to finding massage clientele. In 20 years in the profession, she has never had to advertise. Her business has always come from word-of-mouth. Hattori recommends caution when taking on new clients, having never taken one that couldn’t give her the name of a referral. Her expertise in many modalities helps prevent her from reaching either boredom or burnout.
“My massages are very eclectic,” she said. “I’ve studied so many techniques over the years, I never really know what I’m going to do with anyone until I’m working. I tend to work intuitively. Wherever my hands guide me is where I go, and my hands just do whatever I need to do. I try not to think about it too much.”
Besides the athletes, Hattori also works on a lot of local people, including guests of the resort. Hattori uses less strenuous techniques on these clients, which gives her a bit of a break from her arduous work on the professional athletes. Hattori offered some advice for her fellow therapists on running a successful practice.
“You need to be careful not to burn yourself out,” she said. “I recommend getting as much education as possible, really learning to do massage well. The more modalities you know, the better for you and your clients.
“The massage profession needs to network. There are so many good therapists out there who could do a lot of good, especially with athletes who count on their bodies for a living. I try to network whenever I hear about a good, quality therapist. There’s a lot of work out there.”
Hattori is a prime example of what can be accomplished in the profession through education, hard work, and most obviously in her case, enthusiasm. Not all therapists will count celebrities and famous athletes among their clients, but the work is out there to form a solid customer base.
“I still really enjoy doing massage,” Hattori concluded. “I work with wonderful people. I get to see results with the athletes, and it’s very satisfying. When these famous people seek me out, it’s a very gratifying feeling for me. Some of these people are heroes and idols to lots of people. When they come to me, I can’t even tell you how good that makes me feel. When you have someone who will send you accolades for what you’ve done, and to know that you helped them to achieve that championship, there’s no better satisfaction than that.”