Sam Snead learned the game barefoot. Even as a pro, whenever he felt himself losing his signature rhythm, Snead would ditch his cleats and hit the range. During the 1942 Masters, Snead even played two holes of a practice round with no shoes, much to the dismay of Gene Sarazen.
The style of shoe Snead ditched that day stayed more or less unchanged for the rest of the century. Golf shoes were modeled on dress shoes, with stiff, heavy leather stitched onto a stiffer, heavier platform. Metal spikes anchored the player to the ground.
Now, though, the idea that stability can only come from anchoring your feet to the ground is being questioned. A new style of natural motion-shoes -- ones Snead would surely have preferred -- is starting to gain traction.
The idea, advocates say, is simple: Your foot is already designed for balance and stability; your shoe should, as much as possible, get out if the way. This less-is-more approach has taken hold in the barefoot and minimalist running movements, which encourage a lighter, less-structured and lower-profile shoe.
“Footwear has been overbuilt for a while now,” says Dylan Moore, footwear creative director for Adidas Golf and Ashworth, whose PureMotion shoe was released earlier this year. “In the past, people thought big, thick shoes made you more stable. But our research shows that’s not the case. It shuts off the nerves and small muscles in the feet. The idea here is to turn those muscles back on, and get them sending signals up to the brain.”
Those signals add up to better balance, Moore says. And the growing number of players wearing this style of shoe -- among them Tiger Woods (who wears Nike’s TW ’13), Ryan Moore (TrueLinkswear’s Stealth), and Justin Rose and Camilo Villegas (who have been practicing in the Adidas Puremotion) -- seem to agree. Some of the best personal trainers in the country can see why.
“On a continuum from nothing on your foot to ski boot, a [traditional] golf shoe is about 80 percent of the way there,” says Mark Verstegen, founder and president of Athlete’s Performance, which operates high-end training centers across the country. “The rigid sole doesn’t allow much movement. It locks down the joints and tendons in your feet and lower leg, which forces all that stress up to your knees, your hips, your lower back. And that affects the swing.”
“Essentially, the foot is just cast in those shoes,” he adds. “Initially, it was for traction. But there’s been a big evolution. Technology has advanced to the point where you can have your cake and eat it, too: You can have a less structured shoe that allows for motion and gives you the same or better traction you had before.”
For Verstegen, the reduced weight and increased flexibility are the most exciting features. Golf, he reminds everyone, is mostly a long walk. A lighter, more comfortable shoe can make that a much more pleasant experience for average players.
The Adidas Puremotion, for example, is modeled after training shoes that are designed to keep your foot comfortable through long bouts of exercise by relying on your body’s natural biomechanics. At only 11.5 oz., the shoe has lines that adhere closely to the contours of the foot as well as a wider toe box. According to Moore, this helps during the step and the swing: golfers can use their feet (toes included) to grip down during important motions, whether it’s the pronation of a normal step or the more exaggerated weight transfer of a downswing.
“A traditional golf shoe has a hard edge,” says Moore. "But a hard edge creates a hinge, which is a very unnatural movement. So we gave our shoe all rounded edges to help you roll through the swing. A flexible foot means a flexible ankle, which allows for the hip to open up. Justin Rose tried the Crossflex, which is an earlier take on this idea, and he told us he felt a better turn right away.”
Added flexibility may mean fewer injuries for the average golfer as well. According to Verstegen, 70 percent of injuries suffered by golfers come from repetitive use, which stems from improper biomechanics. While the shoes are not a cure-all, joint stress often works from the feet up, affecting knees, hips, and eventually the pesky lower back, every golfer’s looming nemesis. “Freeing things up,” as Verstegen calls it, may be a key step in injury prevention.
Right now, natural motion shoes range in looks from wild to traditional, with more offerings on the way. You can expect to find one to fit your style in the near future. Don’t, however, expect to see this trend towards lighter, more flexible footwear go away any time soon.
“We really feel that this is the proper way to make a golf shoe,” says Moore. “It’s pretty exciting. First with spikeless technology and now this, golf footwear is finally catching up with the rest of golf equipment. It’s about time.”