Performing like a professional golfer

What can amateur golfers learn from top professionals to improve their physical and mental fitness without spending hours in the gym, hiring a psychologist or employing a sports nutritionist? Nick Bayly finds out


When Rory McIlroy wanted to transform himself from a professional golfer into a professional athlete, he turned to a physical conditioning scientist for help. At the end of 2010, the then 21 year old employed the services of Steve McGregor, a British-born fitness coach who was working with Premier League football champions Manchester City.

McGregor’s first move was to wire up McIlroy to a set of electrical sensors to measure muscle activation during his swing. The data revealed a golfer with a strong right side (the muscles used in the backswing), but a weaker left side (the downswing). This imbalance was limiting the speed at which McIlroy could strike the ball at impact.

Using this information, McGregor put together a 90-minute daily workout programme that included arm and leg repetitions, bench presses, dumbbell presses, wide-grip pull-ups, hanging leg raises, and split squats that would add both power and poise. These exercises, combined with sprinting and swimming, developed all the major muscle groups used in McIlroy’s swing, and within just six months transformed the young man from Northern Ireland from an 11-stone weakling into 12 stones of ripped muscle capable of launching the ball 350 yards with effortless ease.

As McGregor says: “Rory’s clubhead speed increased significantly with the regime and he was able hit the ball harder without losing his balance. He looks more stable through impact and he’s getting more yardage with less effort.”

A professional golfer's diet

The on-going fitness programme continues to reap benefits, with the world number one having gained 6lb of muscle this summer alone, as he powered his way to two more major titles.

But while McIlroy spends upwards of six hours a week in the gum, a number of scientific studies have shown that just five minutes of golf-specific exercises, five times a week, for five weeks, can improve driving distances by up to 25 per cent and reduce scores by up to four shots. All of which means that even amateur golfers can get effective results providing they are willing to put in the effort, if not the time.

MIND OVER MATTER

For professionals at the very top of the game, golf is a sport played between the ears. Blessed with textbook swings, who can cope best under pressure often determines who wins and loses on Sunday afternoon.

Sports psychologist Dr Brian Hemmings, who has worked with many leading tour pros, including Ross Fisher, Danny Willet and Chris Wood, and who wrote the book Mental Toughness for Golf, says: “Whether you’re playing to win a major or the monthly medal, the pressures are, in many ways, the same. Winning the club championship could be one player’s lifetime ambition, while for others only a green jacket will do.

Just five minutes of golf-specific exercises, five times a week, for five weeks, can improve driving distances by up to 25 per cent and reduce scores by up to four shots

“One of the simplest ways to control tension is to learn how to breathe. It sounds very simple, as breathing is an automatic response, but it’s amazing how many golfers hold their breath where they’re playing shots, which leads to a significant build-up of tension.”

To practise measured breathing, Dr Hemmings tells golfers to inhale through the nose to the count of four and exhale through the mouth to the count of seven. “Once mastered, it’s a very effective way of overcoming stress during pressure situations – and your fellow golfers won’t notice you’re doing it,” he adds.

Dr Hemmings also encourages golfers to focus on processes as opposed to outcomes. “Rather than worrying about ‘what if I miss’, I tell my players to focus on the mechanics of the stroke. You’ll often hear professionals referring to ‘playing in the present’ or ‘the now’ and this stops them from dwelling on the past, or fast-forwarding to future outcomes. The only thing in their control is the here and now,” he says.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

You have a tee time at 9am in the club matchplay and you want to win. So you wake up an hour beforehand, rush out of the house, grab a coffee and a bacon roll in the clubhouse, hit a few practice putts, and then head to the first tee in expectation of certain victory. Only you end up losing – and here’s why.

“A lot of people don’t make the link between performance and nutrition,” says Jane Griffin, consultant nutritionist to England Golf, which looks after England’s representative teams. “If you really want to play your best golf, then it is essential to understand that what you put in your body is going to affect your performance.

“Professional golfers have to plan their meal times around their tee times, as eating a heavy meal a few minutes before they play will make them feel sluggish, while skipping breakfast altogether may result in a dramatic loss of energy.

“While amateurs are often able to choose their tee times, they should come to the course with their own food and drink, rather than grabbing what’s available at the club. Take a few sips of water or a low-sugar energy drink on every hole and snack on slow-release energy foods, such as bananas, nuts or blueberries. Little and often is the mantra to maintain energy and concentration levels, so forget the idea of three big meals a day and think about having maybe four or five smaller meals.”