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Turn your golf game into a great workout by following tips from the pros

Special to The Baltimore Sun

Can golf be part of a serious fitness routine, or is it simply a recreational pastime highlighted by driving an electric cart and swinging a club every five minutes? And can golfers even be considered "real" athletes?

Now you've got us started.

If you want to use your round of golf for health benefits — in addition to dropping your score and having fun — here's how to do it.

Give up the cart

"It's how you decide to make golf healthy or not," says Joe Plecker. "Walk the course, carry your bag or use a push- or pull-cart for 18 holes. Then you start to see how you can exert yourself. But if you spend a lot of your time cart riding, you're really not going to get the most benefits.

Plecker should know. As a PGA teaching professional at the Baltimore Country Club in Mays Chapel, where he's director of instruction, he lives the life as well as teaches it. He's also the host of 105.7 The Fan's "The Better Golf Show" on Sundays as well as one of Golf Digest's "America's Top 40 Under 40" instructors, and as such he needs to stay in shape.

Others agree that golf can be a significant exercise and a useful part of a workout regimen.

"As far as golf being a good fitness tool, I think it can be a great one," says Jeff Crews, vice president of marketing at WeightTraining.com. "If you walk, then you can easily get many miles in a round and burn many calories between playing the game and walking. ... I recently went golfing and burned a little over 1,900 calories in an 18-hole round."

Stretch before swinging

"Give yourself time," Plecker says. "If the first thing you do is grab a club and swing, you're not doing it how the pros do it. Any time a tour professional arrives at an event, they head to the fitness trailers, where there are physical therapists and trainers who stretch them 20 to 30 minutes before they even put on their golf shoes."

Serious golfers also dabble in yoga and Pilates, "which are great because they involve a lot of core stability, and you have to be in balance and strong in the core to do a lot of these flexibility exercises with your extremities," he says.

"Golf is a very similar activity; you're getting into a golf posture with your core very stable — your abdominals, your lower back, your hips, everything's in a pretty strong position there. You can swing easier, hit it longer and play longer."

Weight training is OK

Golfers were once told that bulky muscle mass would cut down on vital flexibility. "Tiger broke that myth," says Plecker. Indeed, the vision of a trim, cut Tiger Woods smashing drives and draining putts with sinewy forearms and vein-thatched biceps changed how other pros approached the weight room.

"If you have more muscle, you can move the club head faster and you can hit the ball farther," Plecker says.

Yes, golfers are athletes: "Just try to live the life of a tour pro for a week," says Plecker. "You arrive on Monday for practice and have a long session; Tuesday you play and walk a practice round or two; Wednesday you play in the 18-hole pro-am all day; and then you walk and compete for four consecutive rounds and leave Sunday night and do it all again on Monday.

"You can't keep the schedule that these guys do and travel the miles and be as 'up' for every round if you're not an athlete. You have to be an incredibly good athlete to be competitive in golf."

"Whether the average golfer realizes it or not, golf requires many athletic characteristics," says Andy Steigmeier, a Titleist Performance Institute-certified golf fitness professional in New York. "Strength, power, balance, coordination and — if walking the course — stamina. The average tour pro can stand on one leg with eyes shut for 16 to 20 seconds, not easy."

Steigmeier helps golfers realize their sport is on par, so to speak, with those considered far more athletic.

"I ask golfers to think of an Olympic sport that best resembles the golf swing in terms of rotary force production. They usually admit that they are not sure," he says. "When I tell them that biomechanics research says golf is just below the hammer throw, they are amazed, then realize its direct connection.

"Of course, there are many other sports that resemble the golf swing motion, including hockey, throwing a baseball or football, even a javelin."

Behave at the turn

Many courses have a snack shop between the ninth and 10th tees, the "turn" halfway through 18 holes. It is fraught with temptations. "The halfway house is very dangerous for a lot of golfers," notes Plecker. "They get a hot dog, Coke, bag of chips, maybe a Snickers bar, ... and they tell me they crashed the rest of the round.

"The best thing golfers can do is be smart when you get to the halfway house — don't binge on the bad food, don't eat the salt, don't eat the sweets." Plecker snacks on trail mix, nuts and fresh fruit that he keeps in his bag along with his clubs. "And some of the low-fat, low-sugar energy bars are really good," he says.

Water hazard

"You want to keep a consistent level of water in you, so all the time, sip water," Plecker says. "You're out there for 41/2 hours for an 18-hole round; you don't want to wait until you're hungry to eat, and you don't want to wait until you're thirsty to drink."

Plecker says hydrating at the course is too late. "With the high heat we get around here, you better start drinking water the evening prior to getting to the golf course. Getting your hydration up before you start exerting yourself is critical, then it's a constant, steady dose of water during the round."

As for hydrating with beer, the pro says don't. "There's nothing wrong with celebrating when the round is over with, but save the toast for the 19th hole."

Be like Ferebee

And then there's J. Smith Ferebee. The Virginia-born Ferebee was a Chicago stockbroker who made a $100,000 bet in 1938 (more than $1.5 million in today's money) that he could walk 600 holes of golf in four consecutive days in eight different cities, starting in Los Angeles and ending in New York.

"A plane was rented for him to get from city to city, but the fact is that Ferebee walked or ran 182 miles in addition to the golf he played," says James P. Ducibella, who recounts the tale in his book, "King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938." Ferebee did it on a bum leg and survived a gambler's sabotage attempt in Philadelphia. He never lost a ball.

"He was 32 at the time," says Ducibella, "but people who knew him later in his life — he died in 1988 — say he never took a cart, hated anything but walking his rounds of golf, and generally played 18 holes in barely more than two hours."

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