Pro golf’s 2008 highlight reel will show the first limping U.S. Open winner since Hogan in 1953, the bug-eyed intensity of Tiger replacement Padraig Harrington and, for a change, the American Ryder Cup team squirting the champagne. But a foursome of undercurrents also deserves mention.
The entourage was a growth industry in ’08. Quietly but steadily short-game coaches, psychologists, physiologists, nutritionists, nannies and massage therapists have been woven into the fabric of pro golf. “Every three or four months, someone is added to the team,” says Ron (Bambi) Levin, a veteran caddie who has toiled for Anthony Kim, Todd Hamilton, Charles Howell and Jack Nicklaus. (Levin currently works for Frederick Jacobsen.) “Golf has become more of a science than a game on Tour. If you’re playing poorly, you can’t be simply in a slump. There has to be a reason.” And a specialist to deal with the problem.
Get a Grip
The year’s byword was bigger, most obviously concerning K.J. Choi’s putter. After ordering one of those giant Super Stroke grips, which he saw on a Golf Channel infomercial, Choi suddenly had the short strokes to complement his superior ball striking, and four wins followed in 18 months — two in Asia and two on the PGA Tour. Choi isn’t the only believer. “[The big grip] is the greatest piece of equipment in my bag,” says Matt Bettencourt, who in September won a Nationwide tour event with the Super Stroke, the diameter of which is approximately that of the 16-ounce tube of Jimmy Dean Pure Pork Sausage. Bettencourt ascended from 158th to 32nd in putting this year and won the Nationwide money title and a PGA Tour card for ’09.
Getting Strong Now
Another part of the players’ support staff rolls to every tournament on eight wheels. Traffic has continued to increase in the green-and-white fitness vans, which are actually 44-foot-long semitrailers, expandable to 1,000 square feet. Two trailers — one for working out, another primarily for rehab — are open from 8 a.m. on Tuesday until the last starting time on Sunday. “When I started five years ago, about a third of the players in a field would come in,” says Larry Yack, one of the vans’ physical therapists, who are employees of Physiotherapy Associates. “Now it’s about half. My theory is that the younger players are used to this because they were working out in college.”
Biometrics Be All
The high-tech counterpart to the low tech of the exercise bike is biometrics — the graphic, computer-based analysis of the swing. “It’s where the sport is headed,” says John Scheffler, director of certification for K-Vest, one of the leading 3-D systems. Improvement-obsessed Tour pros, and the companies that supply them, are leading the way. “David Leadbetter said it best,” says Sean Hogan, an instructor at Leadbetter’s ChampionsGate facility in Orlando. “Biometrics is the MRI of the swing.” An early convert to the technology, Leadbetter had an elaborate and expensive biometrics lab built at ChampionsGate but now relies on the simpler K-Vest. Charles Howell, one of Leadbetter’s students, traveled to K-Motion Interactive’s headquarters in Bedford, N.H., and flew home with his own $5,000 K-Vest.