Back Man Forever
Spine saver Tom Boers is a hero to more and more Tour players
Pow! Down goes Tiger Woods, out of the Kemper with a bad back. Bam! There goes Ernie Els, a WD at Westchester. Meanwhile, in Columbus, Ga., mild-mannered Tom Boers helps put golf's bad backs back in business.
When Els, wincing with back spasms, withdrew from last week's Buick Classic after nine holes, Davis Love III had three words of advice: "Go see Tom." Els rode his private jet home to Orlando last Thursday and on Friday flew to Columbus for a session with Boers, who is fast becoming one of the most important healers in sports. Neither an M.D. nor a chiropractor, the Netherlands-born Boers, 45, is a physical therapist whose work on Fred Couples's back helped Couples return to form after years of spinal miseries. "I was at the Masters with Fred," says Boers, "and I'll be at the Open, fine-tuning him, loosening him up and restoring the functioning of his back." Boers works with tennis's Steffi Graf and San Diego Padres pitcher Kevin Brown as well as Love, Brad Faxon, Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman. "He doesn't use ice, heat or machines," says Faxon. "He straightens your joints with his hands."
Boers believes that swinging a golf club can be hazardous to a pro's career. If it is true, as he claims, that "each player has a finite number of healthy swings left," many pros are risking their livelihoods by pounding hundreds of balls at the range every day. Air travel can make matters worse for those whose backs tend to stiffen up. Els's schedule over the past month is a case in point, with flights from South Africa to Dallas, then to England, to Columbus, Ohio, to Orlando and to New York City. He first felt twinges in his back during the European PGA in May. The pain got worse at the Memorial, and he faked his way around Westchester during last Wednesday's pro-am, hitting one more club than usual and swinging more easily than ever, but there was no faking it during Thursday's first round. "I was hitting it 230 with a big slice, and it got worse as the round went on," he said.
"He's really hurting," said Boers after treating Els last Friday. "It may not be wise for him to play in the Open." On Sunday, when Els told Boers he was feeling considerably better, they settled on a plan: Els would drop by to pick up Boers on Monday morning. They would fly together to San Francisco, where the back man could treat both Couples and Els. All signs were go, but the decision on whether Els would defend his Open tide could not be made until the therapist examined him on Wednesday.
With the world's top player joining his client list, the back man is sure to have more pros than ever knocking on his door. "It's not my goal to be the spinal guru of the PGA Tour," says Boers, who works at Rehabilitation Services in Columbus. "I'm an employee in a practice. I have regular patients. But I'm also a golfer, and I'll admit it's a treat to work with Tour players."
Boers may soon need his own trailer at Tour stops. He can back it up to the back nine, call it the Backmobile and be a hero to millions, or at least to dozens of guys who make millions.
Lisa Walters, who has a surgically repaired back, a reconstructed left knee and a serious case of '70s nostalgia, tied Wendy Ward's LPGA scoring record by finishing 23 under par at last week's Oldsmobile Classic in East Lansing, Mich. "I kept an empty head most of the time," said Walters. Perhaps her secret was repeated humming of the phrase long-haired freaky people need not apply. The short-coiffed Walters, 38, admitted having the 1971 hit song Signs by the Five Man Electrical Band rattling around her brain as she cruised to a six-shot victory over Donna Andrews, who earned place money for the fourth week in a row.
The man who wins this U.S. Open deserves combat pay on top of his $535,000 check. Not since the '74 Massacre at Winged Foot have players faced rough as evil as the stuff at the Olympic Club. During the '55 Open at Olympic, Ben Hogan strayed 20 yards into the rough and took three whacks to return to civilization.