Golf: Glad to see the back of golfers

Tim Glover visits the physio unit where the walking wounded are treated
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The Independent Online
IT IS the nightmare scenario. The game's biggest box-office attraction, in only his second full season as a professional, is not launching 350- yard drives on the US Tour. He's lying on a couch in Las Vegas. Tiger Woods is down.

At the age of 22, Woods, a multi-multi-million pound industry, withdrew from the Kemper Open last week because of back problems. He's undergoing physiotherapy in an attempt to ensure his appearance at the US Open which starts at the Olympic Club in San Francisco a week on Thursday.

Woods, who has had a history of back trouble, is on a programme of heat and ice, stretching and back stabilisation. "It's a precautionary measure to ensure that Tiger is ready and able to play in the US Open," a spokesman for IMG, Woods's agents, said."It's not threatening his ability to play golf but it's a problem Tiger has to be aware of and get treatment for periodically."

Woods, the sensational winner of last year's Masters, has been working with a therapist for six months. "There are some irregularities in his lower back," the man from IMG said, "but his condition is not as severe as it is for other players, like Fred Couples."

Despite being a non-contact sport, golf is littered with the walking wounded and some of the game's biggest names are suitable cases for treatment: Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer spend as much time in the European Tour's physiotherapy unit as on the practice ground. They were all born in the Fifties and 20 years or more of swinging a club has taken its toll.

"Seve is a chronic case," Guy Delacave, PhD, director of the physio unit, said. "It's all down to over use. He desperately wants to make a comeback and he's working at it like a young player. I admire him but I think he's trying too hard."

The unit, sponsored by 3M and supported by the Royal and Ancient, is a pounds 300,000 state-of-the-art mobile clinic and gymnasium which follows the Tour wherever it lays its hat. It hit the road in 1992 and has tripled in size to 65 square metres.

"The players were always visiting local physios and they wanted something on site," Delacave said. On average he and his staff treat 45 players a day. "Langer is our most consistent and punctual customer."

Delacave, a Belgian, began to concentrate on golf related injuries after taking up the game following 10 years on the ATP Tennis Tour. "In tennis the stress points are ankles, knees and shoulders. I managed to keep Ivan Lendl going. In golf the lower back is the weak area. The trouble is in tennis the players are about 10 years younger. We can offer treatment to sports injuries, medication and advice but when you look at some of the older players there is something inevitable about their condition. That is why we're trying to convince the new generation that prevention is better than cure. Stretching exercises should be as important as the club they use."

Delacave, stretching the point, added: "Trying to rotate your spine through 100 degrees involves risks. Swinging a club exerts a centrifugal force on the discs between the vertebrae. The discs have to support four times your body weight and when your hitting 200 balls a day the wear and tear is obvious. Our first priority is to ensure they are fit to play in the final round."

Worryingly, the long term prognosis for Woods and everybody else who has trouble touching their toes, is not that healthy. A recent congress of neurosurgeons at the University of Belgium concluded that people who have a back operation have no more than a 60 per cent chance of being cured.

Medicine is and always will be an art," Delacave said. "Back problems are the discomfort of the century. Swinging a golf club may be an unnatural activity but then so is competing in the Tour de France or even gardening. If Woosie had stayed on the farm he could still have had a bad back. In the old days people had more natural exercise. Now most people sit behind a desk or drive a car. There is no single cure for a bad back and we are trying to bring in a whole spectrum of treatments."

The latest addition to the unit, which can consult a rheumatologist, a radiologist and an R&A doctor, is a diagnostic ultra-sound machine which gives a precise image of the injury. "Sometimes," Delacave said, "I look at a player and... oh, oh, oh. That's when we send them to hospital."

When Tiger began playing a game with which others were not familiar, Greg Norman, for one, predicted the American would have problems with his back. The key to Woods's phenomenal hitting is that he generates the power from a huge shoulder turn and high hip speed.

In his prime Norman, who is at present out of action following shoulder surgery, was probably the biggest hitter in the world but he was forced to re-model his swing.

Woods has a couple of things going for him. One is his age and the other is that his coach, Butch Harmon, is the man who brought out Norman Mark Two.

The bad news is that if Tiger is unable to give his swing the full treatment, he will cease to be the fastest gun in the west. And that, of course, is what separates him from the rest.