Physical therapist Tom Cooney assists Jim Long with a shoulder stretch as part of Long’s rehabilition process.
Physical therapist Tom Cooney assists Jim Long with a shoulder stretch as part of Long’s rehabilition process. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
Sunday April 14, 2013

Warning: Early season golf can be hazardous to your health.

"Most recreational golfers don't think fitness first," said Tom Cooney, a longtime physical therapist in the Berkshires. "The recreational player tries to get fit as the season goes along instead of before the season."

With a new golf season dawning in the Berkshires, even if you haven't been walking a few miles a day, it's not too late to prepare the right way and avoid injuries to your knees, trunk and shoulders.

"In the Berkshires, the weather turns good, and suddenly people are out hitting two buckets of balls," said Cooney, a recreational golfer who has a doctorate in physical therapy and has been in business for 33 years, treating hundreds of golfers. "Instead, golfers should stretch out some of the major muscle groups before starting to hit balls and slowly work their way up to the driver."

Golfers who don't take that measured approach can suffer muscle strains and other injuries and have their season derailed before it starts.

"Most golfers don't recognize the wear and tear on the body that the swing's rotation and twisting can cause," Cooney said. "I play racquetball, and golf is harder on my body."

Even if you're late to the course and have to hustle to the first tee, there are simple ways to stretch.

"If you don't have time, at least stretch your legs, which you can do while you are getting the clubs out of the trunk of the car," Cooney said.

That's done by putting one leg at a time on the bumper of the car and stretching.

Poor posture on the course is one of the leading causes of golf-related injuries. Even things as simple as tying your shoes (sitting is recommended), how you carry your bag (close to your body and/or using both shoulders), picking up the ball (bend from the waist and hips) and using a pull-cart (keep it close to your body or push it) can contribute to injuries.

"When people complain about back pain, posture usually has a lot to do with it," said Cooney, 55, who works at Berkshire Physical Therapy and Wellness, which has offices in Pittsfield and Dalton.

Cooney, who has taken specific courses on the prevention and rehabilitation of golf injuries, cited a Golf Digest study that indicates the combination of an improper warm-up routine and a lack of fitness lead to poor golf.

"The study shows that golfers score their best in the middle holes of their rounds," Cooney said. "Their [worst] scores are on the first four holes and last four holes."

Hall of Famer Gary Player has had an exercise routine that has allowed him to play good golf into his 70s despite his diminutive size (5 feet 6 inches). Most of his competitors didn't take his routine to heart, but that is no longer the case.

Spurred by Tiger Woods' example, today's PGA Tour players are stronger and much more fit than their predecessors.

"Recreational golfers, with the exception of really low-handicap players, haven't picked up on that, especially in a place like the Berkshires, where the season is short." Cooney said. "You can tell that today's tour player is in great shape compared to 25 years ago.

"There aren't many like ‘The Walrus' [the rotund Craig Stadler] these days. If you watch their pre-shot routines, you can see that they are always loosening up their bodies."

Cooney visited the PGA Tour's fitness trailer during a tournament and saw firsthand how seriously today's players take fitness.

"I asked a therapist which players come into the trailer, and he said all of them do before and after their rounds," Cooney said.

Naturally, all golfers want to score better, but in many cases their priorities on how to do so are misplaced.

"It's common sense that being in better shape will help your game," Cooney said. "Golfers go out and purchase a $500 driver when if they just improve their flexibility and range of motion, they will hit it longer and produce better scores."

Of course, many people rehab injuries that are the result of accidents or simply the aging process. Many of Cooney's golf patients are people from age 60 to 95 who have suffered injuries or are dealing with the inevitable wear and tear of growing older.

"They want to stay active, but they also have physical issues," Cooney said. "Their main thrust in rehabbing is to get back on the golf course. Studies show that exercise and socialization extend life expectancy, and golf hits those areas."

For instance, Pittsfield resident Jim Long, 65, fell on the ice on March 16 and suffered a partially torn rotator cuff.

"I was totally incapacitated," Long said last week. "I couldn't lift my left arm past here [his waist], and now I have all my mobility back. We are now working on getting my strength back."

Long, who played a few holes last weekend at GEAA in Pittsfield and was hoping to play nine more this weekend, said he's had seven therapy sessions -- grueling at times -- to get back to where he is.

"Tom pushes you to the extent you can handle it," Long said. "He doesn't baby you. I had tears in my eyes at times."

Long also does four sets of exercises at home each day off a list provided by Cooney. Long also had two knee replacements. He said he was back on the course six months after each, thanks to therapy sessions.

Also working on his fitness Friday was 85-year-old Nick Boraski, a former vice president at General Electric who retired in 1988. Boraski injured his left rotator cuff last June.

"Now I have full use of it," said Boraski, who like Long, works out at home. "It's come back pretty good."

Boraski, a member of the Country Club of Pittsfield, was a low-handicap player when he was younger, hitting seven hole-in-ones and shooting his age on numerous occasions, including a few days before he had a knee replaced at age 76.

As is the case for many older golfers, the game is a blessing that helps keep his body and mind young.

"It's a disciplinary sport," Boraski said. "It teaches you patience and discipline. I like the competitiveness of it. You can compete against yourself."

Boraski says he plays nine holes twice a week, with one concession to age.

"I play with two guys who are 93, so we use a cart," he said. "But you still get exercise."

For many, riding in a cart is the only option. For others, the benefits of walking -- golfers cover some five miles for 18 holes on a regulation course -- are obvious.

"Some people, like those who have had hip or knee replacements, have no choice, and I'm happy they are out there playing," Cooney said. "Even if they utilize carts, they should work on strength, conditioning and stretching. But if you can walk, you should, even if you walk nine holes and ride nine. I hate to see young people in carts."

To contact Richard Lord:
rlord@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6236

Let's stretch

Here are some simple stretching exercises that can get you ready to play. It is suggested you do each five times and hold them for 10 seconds.

n Tilt your head by bringing an ear to your shoulder. Repeat on the other side.

n Pull one arm across your chest with your palm up, placing the other hand on the shoulder you are stretching. Turn your head toward the shoulder you are stretching. Repeat on the other side.

n Hold a club over your head. Slowly bend to one side, keeping your feet flat on the ground, until you feel stretch on the opposite side. Return to starting position and repeat on the other side.

n Hold a club behind your shoulders. Slowly rotate to one side until you feel a stretch in your trunk. Return to starting position and repeat on the opposite side.

Source: Physical Therapy Associates of Schenectady (N.Y.) , P.C. Education Center