The revolution in natural-motion shoes, laid bare

If we could play golf barefoot, many of us would. There is something about the tactile softness of cut grass vs. the confines of traditional golf shoes that inspires rebellion, the desire to feel free, to spread one’s toes in the earth -- to perhaps grip it and rip it, from the ground up.

So it is perhaps no surprise that one of the hottest technical movements sweeping golf today is “natural motion” golf shoes, based on the barefoot training innovations of other sports.

If you have seen or tried those odd-looking five-toe running or hiking shoes, you get the idea. These shoes place the foot very close to the ground and exploit the principle that the usual method of pronation -- heel striking the ground first, with the foot rolling forward on a tight, heavily cushioned platform -- may not be nature’s way. Advocates of natural motion contend that primitive man probably ran with the ball of his foot striking the ground first -- on his toes, so to speak. In short, natural-motion footwear dispenses with some of the support structure of athletic shoes, especially the built-up heel, in order to restore the wearer to a more perfect and balanced posture.

For some time top players have been experimenting with less-structured, spikeless shoes -- Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els -- and now a few have moved to these more radical natural-motion models (Tiger Woods wears Nike’s TW ’13s; Hunter Mahan wears a prototype FootJoy model). More and more variations on the natural-motion concept are turning up in golf all the time. Here’s what you need to know:

Adidas Puremotion golf shoe
Adidas Golf
Adidas Puremotion

Let’s start with Adidas Golf’s entry into the market, the Puremotion golf shoe (photos). As you might expect, it is a highly technical shoe and very lightweight (11.5 oz.), with a curvy, anatomical shape that closely follows the natural lines of the foot. Instead of spikes, it has traction “pods” to keep golfers from performing the watusi in the rain. The toe box is wider than usual, with a web-shaped forefoot, designed to allow players to wiggle their toes and grip down at key moments, particularly during the downswing. The ClimaProof mesh uppers are extremely flexible for a golf shoe. These are not radical looking or oddly contoured shoes. At $120 (buy on Golf.com), the Puremotion might be a good shoe to consider if you want to get your feet wet in the natural-motion world. (Except they come with a two-year waterproof guarantee.)

True Linkswear
True Linkswear
True Linkswear Stealth (above) and PHX

TRUE Linkswear was founded on the idea that traditional golf shoes try to “nail you to the ground” and have over-engineered features -- a raised heel, a shank, a mid-sole, soft-spikes -- that actually put you in a position to fail every time you swing a club.

Worn on Tour by Ryan Moore, TRUE Linkswear shoes definitely have a different look, with a toe box that is quite wide, almost bulbous, like the Earth Shoes of the 1970s, and slightly raised off the ground. But the leathers are very supple and rich, like cowboy-boot leathers, and the fronts are cap-toed, like dress shoes. The original Stealth model is designed to let you feel the course, with the heel positioned close to the ground because it is not built up with cushioning .They are uncleated, with the traction nubs sitting in a slightly recessed sole area, thus allowing you to really sink into the ground.

Choose from several models, including the dressy leather Stealth ($199) and the less-expensive, more athletically styled PHX ($99).

Nike TW '13
Nike Golf
Nike TW '13

Nike was an early innovator in natural-motion technology. After learning that Stanford athletes had been training barefoot on the university's golf course, Nike studied them and the biomechanics of shoeless running, then set out to develop a shoe that felt natural and weightless, similar to bare feet.

The result was the Free running shoe. When Tiger Woods suffered leg injuries, he hooked up with the tech wizards, led by Tobie Hatfield, at Nike’s Innovation Kitchen. After meeting Woods and listening to his requests, Hatfield and his team cooked up the TW ’13, a fusion of golf shoe and Free running shoe. The shoe has spikes for traction, along with a very generous, almost wrinkly, toe box, like a pair of leather shoes that are a size too large. The Nike Free-inspired outsole was designed to mimic the natural motion of the foot. The increased flexibility, the company says, allows you to release more power through the golf swing ($180 | Buy on Golf.com).

ECCO Biom Hybrid
ECCO USA
ECCO Biom Hybrid

Denmark-based ECCO pioneered one of the original spikeless golf shoes, the “Street,” worn by Fred Couples and others. More recently, the company has developed an entire line of Biom footwear, based on the natural-motion concept, for multiple sports, including golf. The idea as applied to golf is straightforward: no over protection, no excessive cushioning, and less motion control. There are two versions of the Biom golf shoe: the ECCO Biom Hybrid ($190), which is spikeless, like the Street Premier, but is also anatomically shaped; and the ECCO Biom Hydromax ($235 | Buy on Golf.com), made of soft yak leathers, with Q-lok cleats.

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