What a Pain
Ouch! Don't let a golf injury force you to give up the game. Take a page from these four pros and put your ails behind you.
Torn ligaments and strained tendons. Bum hips, bulging discs, and balky backs. Just because you can't hit it like the pros doesn't mean you can't get hurt like them. Good news: You can heal like them, too. Consider the following case files from some of the world's top players, in which experts document how these pros battled common golf woes. Maybe you've dealt with these injuries yourself. Maybe not. Either way, there are lessons to be learned from their struggles to recover - lessons that can benefit your body and your game.
Problem: Lower-back pain
Backstory: "It's a good thing I could putt," Crane says of his early years on the PGA Tour, when steady aches and pains in his lower back interfered with his free-flowing swing. After cortisone shots failed to ease the agony, Crane contemplated surgery, then reconsidered and checked in with a noted chiropractor instead.
Diagnosis: One careful look at Crane, and Dallas-based chiropractor Dr. Troy Van Biezen realized why the golfer's health problems persisted. His doctors had been dealing with the symptoms, not the cause. Sure, the pain was in his back, but the source of Crane's discomfort lay somewhere else. "Ben had such limited flexibility in his hips and shoulders that his midback had to do all the work," Van Biezen says. "It's no wonder he was feeling the strain."
Prescription: Applying his expertise in active-release therapy, a specialized manual therapy that treats muscle imbalances and improves flexibility, Van Biezen went to work freeing Crane's hips and shoulders from their soft-tissue constraints. A rigorous stretching regimen, which Crane now adheres to religiously, further liberated those rigid body parts.
Upshot: "It's night and day," says Crane of the changes in his body and his golf swing. His pain is gone. His clubhead speed is up 3 mph, which translates into longer drives and crisper irons. "In golf, there are three parts of the body that absolutely have to be able to move - the hips, the shoulders, and the midback," Van Biezen says. "A pro like Ben is skilled enough where he can play pretty well even if those areas are limited. But the average guy is taking lessons, he's practicing on the range, but he can't improve if his body won't allow him to execute a proper swing."
Problem: Neck and upper-back pain
Backstory: A two-time winner on the PGA Tour who led the '95 Masters after three rounds, Henninger had his competitive years cut short in his early 40s by debilitating pain in his upper back, shoulders, and neck. "To compete at Tour level, you're not just talking about banging a few balls here and there," Henninger says. "It's a full-time job. Never mind playing, I couldn't practice enough to get my game in the place it needed to be."
Diagnosis: Henninger, a longtime fitness fanatic, tried massage and physical therapy. But strength and flexibility weren't his problem. An MRI revealed two severely herniated discs and degeneration in his cervical spine, the stretch of vertebrae just below the skull.
Prescription: In 2007, his career on the line, Henninger turned to Dr. Rick Delamarter, a respected surgeon at the Cedars-Sinai Spine Institute in Los Angeles. "In Brian's case," Delamarter says, "the wear and tear was so great that bony spurs were putting pressure on his spinal nerve, so we had to deal with that for starters." During the 2010 surgery, Delamarter cleaned out the culprit spurs, then fused the ruptured discs with cadaver bone to prevent the discs from shifting painfully.
Upshot: Henninger's injuries sidelined him for five years. But thanks to surgery, his cervical spine is no longer an issue and he's planning on a run at the Champions Tour next season. The path he chose in his recovery was personal, and he recognizes that it's not for everyone. "If I weren't a pro golfer and led a sedentary life, I wouldn't have had the surgery," Henninger says. "I could have tolerated the levels of pain and discomfort. But I would never choose a lifestyle without physical activity."
Problem: Overused, chronically injured hip
Backstory: Hitting middle age is not for sissies. As he moved into his 40s, Magee, a PGA Tour veteran, was beset by a problem pervasive among serious golfers: Aches and stiffness in his hips restricted movement in a part of the body crucial to producing a powerful swing.
Diagnosis: For Magee, as it is for many dedicated golfers, the pain did not result from a single trauma; it was the outgrowth of long-term wear and tear. The hips, after all, are the engine of the swing, a key element to explosiveness through impact. Like all overused machinery, the lower body runs the risk of breaking down.
Prescription: With eligibility for the Champions Tour approaching, Magee was looking hard at hip-replacement surgery, a last-gasp measure he ultimately avoided after consulting with Steve Heller of Fore-Max Golf, a sports-training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Andrew was typical of a lot of amateur guys I see," Heller says. "His hips were so locked up, it was no wonder his performance had suffered." Under Heller's watch, Magee began an intensive fitness program aimed at strengthening and loosening his hips, including rotation work with medicine balls and resistance bands, and full-swing practices in the low-impact environment of a swimming pool. The improvements were so swift and dramatic that Magee opted against surgery.
Upshot: After a long layoff from competitive golf, Magee returned to tournament play this year, the explosive power in his hips restored. "Fifteen minutes every morning, right when he gets up, and that's all it takes," Heller says. "Some strengthening and flexibility exercises for his hips and, boom, it's amazing the transformation you see."
Problem: Torn ligament in left thumb
Backstory: In 2010, Creamer withdrew from the first event of the LPGA season, citing the thumb injury she'd sustained the year before. She tried competing through the pain while attempting rehab on the damaged digit. But no dice. By March of that year, she was weighing other ways to heal.
Diagnosis: Exams revealed that Creamer suffered from "gamekeeper's thumb," named for Scottish gamekeepers, who often hurt their hands while breaking the necks of small animals such as rabbits by pinning them down with their thumbs. In more scientific terms, she'd torn her ulnar collateral ligament, a common golf injury, as players' hands absorb the shock of repeated, forceful impact.
Prescription: In generations past, Creamer's injury might have ended her career. Nowadays, though, the surgical repair job is relatively straightforward, according to Dr. Bruce Thomas, the LPGA's medical director, who consulted with Creamer but didn't conduct the procedure himself. "Some hand specialists advocate simply casting, then rehab. But for athletes, a surgical repair is the standard of care," Thomas says. "It is less likely to cause future problems and enables her to return to play rapidly and permanently."
Upshot: On July 11, 2010, in just her fourth event after the procedure, Creamer captured the U.S. Women's Open, proof not only that the surgery worked but of her dedication to rehab. Common postsurgical exercises for a surgically repaired thumb include squeezing a rubber ball and threading the injured hand through hot wax to build strength and flexibility. "Once you've got a plan, stick to it," Thomas advises. "And don't play through pain."