Are golfers athletes?
The question itself has long had the whiff of a putdown—after all, in what other professional sport do the competitors have their athleticism questioned? (Well, maybe bowling, but that’s a screed for a different magazine.) Golf’s image problem is the result of a long history of pear-shaped play-ers and the use of tobacco products during competition. The times (and bodies) have changed, but the stereotypes endure, so recently we asked trainer Joey Diovisalvi, whose pupils Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson have won the last two U.S. Opens, if golfers are, in fact, athletes.
“That’s ridiculous. That’s insulting,” says Joey D, as he’s widely known, the corners of his mouth curling upward ever so slightly. “I would challenge anyone, anywhere to step into the gym with DJ and Brooks and say these guys are not hardcore jocks.”
Indeed, on a toasty morning at the Joey D Golf Performance Center in Jupiter, Fla., during the PGA Tour’s brief off-season, golf’s bash brothers grunted through a workout that looked like it had been designed for brawny home run hitters or maybe middle linebackers, not guys who wear white belts and perfectly pressed polo shirts for a living. While classic rock blared in the background, Johnson, 33, and Koepka, 28, moved heavy metal in old-school dead lifts and while pushing a weighted sled across artificial turf. They did drills to enhance their explosiveness, like slamming a 20 lb. medicine ball against a wall in a motion that mimicked the golf swing. They did a wearying number of pushups, made more challenging by having their feet dangle from resistance bands. At a very high velocity, they summited a couple of virtual Empire State Buildings on the StairMaster. All the while, Johnson and Koepka muttered insults and challenges at one another. (Sample dialogue from DJ: “Take off your diaper and lift some real weight.” From Koepka: “That’s good work—for you.”)
To cool down they went for a brisk ride on road bikes, then, to cool off, hit the Intracoastal for a paddleboard session, which inevitably turned into a joust that left both Open champs soaked and giggling like schoolboys. Meanwhile, their 52-year-old trainer—who has the chiseled physique and boundless energy of a Mr. Olympia half his age—managed to be the only one who stayed atop his paddleboard, which he was still woofing about an hour later. The macho ethos is integral to understanding the unique relationship between this band of brothers. “We’re always chirping,” says Johnson. “It’s one of those things where we try to make each one of us better. We’re chirping at Joey. Joey’s chirping at us: “Lift harder,” whatever it is. It works for us.”
Indeed it does. The U.S. Open is golf’s ultimate examination, designed to push players to the breaking point—physically, mentally, spiritually. Before the final round last year, Koepka created a social media frenzy with footage of him in the gym bench-pressing some serious weight. Afterward, he said, “I feel great. I could go play another 18 right now.” Power underpins both of their games, and this is particularly crucial at a U.S. Open, including this year’s vintage venue, Shinnecock Hills. Johnson (second on Tour in driving distance in 2017, at 315 yards a pop) and Koepka (311.1; 7th) can attack the par 5s for precious birdie opportunities. Longer drives mean shorter irons on their approach shots, allowing them to be more precise to the small targets. Faster clubhead speed allows Johnson and Koepka to escape the juicy rough and put more spin on their iron shots to hold the brick-hard greens. But being stronger is about a lot more than just the bulging biceps; living in the gym is part of a larger lifestyle they have embraced, one focused on discipline and rigor.
“I feel like if you outwork everybody, you’re giving yourself the best opportunity every time you go into an event,” says Koepka, who’s been working with Diovisalvi since early 2017. “You want to outwork everybody, and you want to beat everybody. Put in the work and the results will come.”
“And golf is really mental,” adds Johnson, a Joey D disciple since 2010. “Even if you think you have an edge on someone, that’s your edge right there.”
These guys look for an advantage even at mealtime. Both have embraced what they call “clean eating”—in essence, eliminating anything fun from their diets. (Diovisalvi has been an inspiration; Johnson describes his trainer’s typical dinner as “twigs and berries.”) Koepka has a meal service that stocks his home fridge with low-fat proteins and vegetable-intensive dishes. Johnson flies in a chef to all the majors and big tournaments. She is vegan-trained and brings that sensibility to the food, although DJ still eats plenty of fish and chicken. Both he and Koepka scoff at the notion of cheat days. “If you eat really healthy, and then go out and eat shitty food, you actually feel awful,” Johnson says. “It’s amazing the difference between eating super healthy and not, and how much better you feel. You sleep better. You have way more energy. The healthier you eat the more you want to keep it up.”
Of course, even a guy doing all the right things can get hurt, and the first half of Koepka’s 2018 campaign has been compromised by a partially torn tendon in his left wrist. The perils of swinging a club at 125 mph.
“The best surgeons in the country agreed this was a one-time event, and that Brooks will be all good long-term,” says Diovisalvi. Koepka remains defiant to the Brandel Chamblees of the world, who have opined that too much time in the gym can lead to an elevated risk of injury. “If you look at some of the strongest athletes in the world,” says Koepka, “they’re gymnasts. And they’re the most flexible. You can be very strong, very flexible, and still be able to move.” He has spent as much time in the gym as always, even as he hasn’t been able to swing a golf club. “He’s worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen with an injury,” says Joey D. “His lower body, heart and lungs are stronger than they’ve ever been. He’s a machine. That capacity to work is really rare.”
Joey D has seen that before, in Vijay Singh, the big Fijian he helped get to number one in the world and win 22 tournaments in his 40s. Singh’s rise coincided with Tiger Woods’ physique becoming increasingly shredded, and ever since, Tour players have flocked to the gym to maximize their performance. “If you take the top 50 in the world, you’re not going to find anyone in there that doesn’t have a very strong training regimen,” says Johnson, momentarily forgetting about portly Kiradech Aphibarnrat, the exception who proves the rule. “It’s just how golf is nowadays. Everybody’s athletic, everybody is in good shape, and everybody hits it a really long way.”
Diovisalvi is more blunt: “You can’t eat a fatty steak, drink red wine at dinner, then sleep in and think you’re going to roll onto the first tee and compete against these guys. You’re gonna get your ass handed to you. You’re gonna get embarrassed. The game has changed. To compete, you better keep up.”
JOEY ON THE GO
Most weekend golfers can’t log the gym time to turn themselves into power players. But even at home or in the office, Joey D has his ways.
SIMULATING YOUR SWING WITH RESISTANCE ALLOWS YOU TO FEEL MUSCLE ACTIVATION DURING YOUR SWING SEQUENCE.
“Holding a large bottle of water in each hand and stand in a golfer’s address position, with your feet at shoulder width. With arms extended as if you’re holding a club, and your wrists separated by 6 to 8 inches and elbows tight to your rib cage, rotate into your backswing and pause at the top for one second. Then slowly move through simulated impact and follow through. Pause at the completion of the swing, then repeat.”
TO ENHANCE YOUR BALANCE AND STABILITY…
“Stand with your feet at shoulder width. Using three water bottles placed 18 inches away from you at the 9:00, 12:00 and 3:00 positions, draw your right foot back and slightly off the ground. Keeping your right foot elevated, lower yourself into a slight squat by gently bending your left knee. Reach with your right hand to tap the 3:00 bottle, then reach and tap the same bottle with your left hand. Repeat for each bottle. Switch legs and repeat again. Yeah, it kills.”
JUST DO IT
In the gospel according to Joey D, there are certain guiding principles. Here are two of them.
ALWAYS THINK SPINE ANGLE
“Build strength and create stability in the small muscles of the back by maintaining a good spine angle whenever and wherever you can. On a bike at the gym or on the road, don’t hunch—maintain a good spine angle. Do your standing curls in a golfer’s address position—and maintain a good spine angle. Do squats with a trap bar (right). You get the picture. The more you’re aware of the importance of this posture, the better golfer you’ll be.”
MAKE FEEL BECOME REAL
“Movement patterns and exercises allow us to feel golf-specific muscle activation and awareness of muscle strain or hindrance to mobility. By isolating and improving key muscle function in a golf context, you can begin to create a more efficient, powerful and repeatable swing.”