Rigorous hi-tech tests used at the Butch Harmon School can accurately assess how your body will cope with a decent golf swing.
Motion-sensing apparatus can help golfers hit farther and straighter
OK, try this. Feet together, lift one knee and get your balance. Now close your eyes. Chances are that unless you're a golf pro, ballerina or fitness fanatic you'll fall over in a couple of seconds. I managed about three seconds. Ernie Els can do more than 25 with no trouble at all. It's an exercise that tests something called "proprioception" or "feel balance", roughly translated as the ability to sense where you are in space and what all your limbs are doing. It's also part of a rigorous hi-tech series of tests that can accurately assess how your body will cope with a decent golf swing.
People who sit for long hours at a desk often find this exercise a problem. They sometimes neglect their bodies so if you can't do it, it's time to do something about it, especially if you are serious about golf. I'm at the Butch Harmon School of Golf at the Els Club in Dubai where the world-famous golf coach's son, Claude Harmon III, is putting me through my paces. My handicap has stalled at 18 and I want to know if that's it, or if I can realistically expect to reduce it.
Harmon, 40, has been teaching for 15 years and has been involved with the sport all his life, including several years working with tour pros on the European tour. It was his own dodgy hips that gave him an even greater understanding of what the body is capable of and why there's no point in trying to teach someone a formulaic swing if they are physically unable to execute it. "I have early signs of arthritis and may need a hip operation," he says. "I just couldn't do what my dad was telling me to do, but after I went through the tests I could see why, so I've modified my swing to protect my right hip."
He really doesn't need all the hi-tech equipment, most of which has been developed by the Titleist Performance Institute, with which Harmon works closely. He can spot a swing fault in seconds just by watching a golfer on the range. Some people, however, need to know precisely why the ball is swerving to the right or why their putts are always sliding past the hole to the left. The equipment leaves no room for doubt.
"It's like going to a doctor with a sore arm and he sends you off to get an X-ray. If nothing shows up on that he might suggest an MRI scan. Think of all this technology as an MRI for the golf swing. I need to know what you can and can't do, just like a doctor. The more information I have, the easier it makes my job. "Some people don't even know what they are supposed to be doing out there. About 80 per cent of the time they are doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing."
The equipment is so advanced that it can be quite daunting and not everybody needs so much information. For a pro, however, it can mean the difference between winning and coming second, and it was impressive to see Soren Hansen out on the range. Rory McIlroy was expected the following day and Lee Westwood spent time working on his game here before his triumph in the Race to Dubai last year. The top pros have entire teams looking after them - nutritionists, physiotherapists, fitness experts, mind experts and doctors, along with agents and managers. No aspect of their lives is left to chance: what they eat and drink, how and when they exercise, what's in their minds, how well they sleep; everything is monitored, discussed and amended.
Although that degree of intensity is too much for the ordinary golfer, Harmon and his team have adopted a holistic approach for everyone who comes to them for help, examining lifestyle and fitness and taking a realistic approach when it comes to working out a training schedule. How much or how little of it is incorporated is very much up to them but the science is there to illustrate the possibilities.
What was fascinating to see on a screen was that even though the top-rank golfers come in all shapes and sizes, a kinematic sequence, or energy transfer graph of their swings, show up as remarkably similar with peaks and troughs in all the same places indicating the release of power. Says Harmon: "Jim Furyk's graph appears identical to Ernie Els's but their golf swings look completely different. However, their energy transfers are similar. We can tell by the way the graph works if your swing is efficient. If the sequence is 'lower body, upper body, hands, golf club' then I know that person either can or has the capacity to hit the golf ball straight. If someone does that but doesn't look good we don't mess with it."
Harmon, who moved to Dubai in August 2008, having been director of instruction at the Butch Harmon School in Las Vegas, adds: "We aren't trying to teach a system. We try to teach people to play golf rather than teach golf to people." He hands me over to Justin Parsons, the senior teaching pro, whose first job is to test my body's physical ability and fitness and give me a golf fitness handicap. At the end of that, just like a doctor, he will prescribe a series of 18 workout sessions designed to strengthen the various weaknesses. The exercises can be downloaded on to an iPod or phone.
The tests have nothing to do with how fast you can run or what your stamina is like. They are mostly to ascertain how supple you are and if you can rotate your arms and move the upper part of your body separately from the lower part. I wonder if they'll spot an old shoulder injury or a stiffness in my left hip caused by a lower back injury. Parsons explains that the most important areas are the glutes, the triceps and the core muscles: "The glutes and the abs are the support system."
My gluteal muscles, it seems, are badly in need of attention and may be the cause of a common swing fault called the S posture. And sure enough, the hip problem shows up in an exercise to test the rotation of the lower body independent of the upper. In simple terms, it is stopping me from executing the downswing in the proper sequence and making me "throw" the club. With my weedy glutes and total inability to stand on one leg with my eyes closed revealed, I feel a bit depressed, but after some deep squats, pelvic tilts, hip hinge mechanics tests, toe-touching and various other bends and stretches it turns out that on the whole my co-ordination is good and I'm pretty flexible. So I am gratified to discover that my golf fitness handicap is 7.4, but if I want to harness real power there is work to be done.
"There is a balancing act, as some players do not have the time or inclination to exercise so we have to respect people's reasons for coming for lessons," Parsons explains. "However, the physical screens help me a great deal to know what a player's body is capable of so that I can start them on the correct path to improvement. The technology gives me a big list of findings relative to golf, letting us know your limitations with mobility, stability and balance.
"For example, if your toe-touch is bad, then that indicates that your hip hinge mechanics or hamstrings are not working correctly. This will make attaining good posture and making a good swing difficult. If you can't do the exercise then we have to work out whether it is a hamstring or hip issue and which leg it is worse on; from there we can give physical corrections which will lead to a better golf swing."
Next comes some truly amazing technology called advanced motion measurement. I'm strapped into a harness and electromagnetic sensors are placed at 12 points on me and a golf club. Trying to swing with wires attached to you isn't easy but after a couple of attempts an accurate image of me and my swing is captured on screen and transformed into a three dimensional robot figure that can be viewed from any direction.
The machine also produces an energy transfer graph, which shows how efficiently your body is transferring energy to the ball. So however good you think you might look when swinging a club, there's no getting away from the evidence. If you really want to add to the pain you can compare your swing with those of your golfing heroes. Els, for example takes two seconds to complete his beautiful, fluid swing, his body moving in perfect sequence from the top of the backswing, pelvis, thorax, lead arm, club. I take 2½ and it's somewhat less than perfect.
However, I can now see exactly why my ball veers to the right and even better, do something about it. "We are lucky if we see two good kinematic sequences in six months and they are usually golf pros," says Parsons, and by way of encouragement adds that he is certain he can knock five or six shots off my handicap. Medical and fitness experts are available to help with physical problems and professionals also give advice about the kind of clubs that suit you best. Parsons assures me that he can also help me play "pain-free golf" with some simple adjustments - music to my ears after years of back trouble.
In another room, eight strategically placed cameras film you putting and show exactly how the ball is spinning and where it is heading. If your putts are going in, Harmon's policy is not to change a thing unless you want him to, even if your putting stance looks awkward. "The great thing about technology is that it tells us exactly what you are doing," he says. "You aren't guessing. We can see where you are aiming or if the putter face is open on impact and where contact is made. It also gives us a consistency score. If you have a lot of time to practise and you want to change it then you can, we just give you the information. Some people don't know that they are aiming five degrees left of the target. If they are good at putting then that's fine, but if they aren't then we can tell them how they can fix it."
Tuition and advice of this calibre doesn't come cheap. Six lessons with Harmon himself will set you back Dh3,750. The other coaches charge less but the serious low-handicap golfer who wants to be the best he or she can be is often prepared to pay top dollar. Harmon's father, Butch, has taught the best players in the world including Tiger Woods and his son is bringing the most advanced technological aids to all those years of experience.
"I've been involved with golf for 37 years. I take old-school information and combine it with new-school technology. In the old days we used to show people pictures of Tiger Woods's swing and tell them to do it that way. Today I believe in making the best of what you've got and taking advantage of the best performance aids in the world. All we are trying to do is make you a better golfer." For more information about the Butch Harmon School of Golf visit www.butchharmondubai.com.