Tom Watson is old school—leery of the long putter, swing gurus, rowdy Ryder Cup fans and a cart for Casey Martin—yet he's always learning about the game. That's why after a first-round 64 last week at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic he was comfortable on the cutting edge of golf's newest frontier. "It comes down to common sense," said the 48-year-old Watson, panting as his personal trainer led him through a brisk series of resistance training and dynamic stretching exercises at the Las Colinas Sports Club. "All things being equal, the stronger I get, the better golfer I will be. My goal is to get strong."
Pro golfers have been described as graceful, poised, stylish and gutsy. Rarely has one been called strong. Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman, in their prime, were characterized as rugged and powerful, but that was mainly because they stood out among the many pencil necks and doughboys who populated the Tour. The perception that muscle is not only unnecessary but also undesirable in golf is one of the reasons some people wonder if golfers are actually athletes. The current crop of top Tour players, though, plus many older pros, are exploding those myths about golf and musculature while changing the shape of golfers, if not the game.
The new breed has made working with weights as much a part of its daily routine as breaking out a new glove and a fresh sleeve of balls. Underneath all those billowy shirts and pleats, the world of pro golf is becoming filled with flat-stomached, broad-shouldered, finely tuned power packs, most of whom are bigger than the 5'10" and 170 pounds that had been considered the ideal. For exhibits A and B, look no further than David Duval and Tiger Woods, two of the hottest players in the world. While you're at it, check out Ernie Els, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and Jesper Parnevik, and don't forget older players such as Steve Elkington, Nick Faldo and Masters champion Mark O'Meara, all of whom are dedicated to fitness. Even Fred Couples is a closet exerciser. Desperate to stave off the aging process, Senior tour players are arguably even more avid advocates of muscle building. Larry Nelson and Dave Stockton, to name but two, are training-room fixtures.
In pro golf the walrus is becoming an endangered species. "If you lined up the top golfers in boxer shorts with their faces covered, I think most people would guess they were soccer players," says Pete Draovitch, Norman's trainer. "The reaction probably would've been laughter 10 years ago."
That was the reaction Frank Stranahan and Gary Player got from their peers when, in the '50s and '60s, the two exercise pioneers traveled to tournaments with trunks full of barbells. Now there's too much money and too much competition, not to mention too much opportunity on the Senior tour, for golfers to neglect their bodies. Just as first pro football, then basketball and finally baseball players turned to the weight room, so have golfers. In the last two years, since Woods underscored the emphasis on power in the game, Tour pros have followed in droves. "More guys are asking me to get them on a strength-training program," says Ralph Simpson, a therapist and trainer in the Tenet fitness trailer that travels to all PGA Tour stops. "They say, 'I'm tired of guys hitting it past me.' "
"It's getting harder for the little guy to survive out here," says Bill Glasson, a 15-year Tour veteran who was one of the first players to parlay his work in the weight room into extra distance on the course. "Long has always been better than short, but with the best players becoming straighter, long has gotten a lot better."
British Open champ Justin Leonard, the premier short-hitting little guy on Tour, is diligently trying to stretch his game. Leonard began working with a trainer at the beginning of last year, and the results have been dramatic. He has added 15 pounds of muscle to his 5'9" frame and gained at least that many yards off the tee. At this year's Masters, in which he tied Woods for eighth, Leonard hit a six-iron second shot on the 555-yard 2nd hole. "Power was something that I knew I had room to improve on," says Leonard, who also found some extra yards by switching to a titanium-headed driver. "There's no doubt strength training has made me a better player."
Leonard and Watson work with Alison Thietje, a Kansas City, Mo.-based trainer who last year began traveling to tournament sites to work with a stable of clients that includes Stewart Cink and Brad Faxon. Trainers such as Thietje are finding a place on the Tour because they can create and monitor safe and effective programs, and because they can inject some fun into what might otherwise be drudgery. During their workout in Dallas, Thietje and Leonard traded wisecracks, with Leonard finally breaking up his trainer by using her to demonstrate a credible imitation of a pro wrestling head slam. "Justin has the absolute best attitude for training," says Thietje. "He plays off other people to raise his energy." Says Faxon, "I can work out alone, but a trainer can motivate you, get you to follow a schedule and push you to another level. To put it another way, I know I can't make myself throw up."
The trainers and therapists have found golf to be an untapped sport in which their subjects are eager to learn. "Golfers tend to be more analytical and more compliant than other athletes," says Keith Kleven, a physical therapist in Las Vegas who has worked with many pro athletes. "Because their sport is so difficult, they're used to taking instruction. They listen. You can tell them things more effectively than you can other athletes."
In a sport in which the athletes are separated by the smallest of margins, any edge can be vital. "Right now fitness training is the thing that the guys think might save them a stroke," says Faxon. Most of the pros, though, don't view training as a fad. Says Paul Hospenthal, a physical therapist in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has many golfers as clients, "Players are starting to realize that the most important piece of golf equipment they have is their body."