Golfers can big themselves up all they want – they ain’t fooling me

Obsession with doing weights overlooks the fact that golf is a mental game

There are few more glaring examples of sport’s ovine instincts than this faddish bulking up by golf’s top players. And there is no greater example of the dangers of turning this most psychological of games into a muscle contest than what has happened to the man who started it.

It's an evocative time of year to be flinging around the 'J' word but Tiger Woods has been golf's Judas Goat, leading a generation of awestruck wannabe-Major winners to the gym, and leaving more than his former caddie Steve Williams to suspect it is the reason Woods can now barely swing a club.

You would imagine that toning down on the toning would be an obvious lesson to take from Woods’s physical decline. But as with most sportspeople it’s not damage but dividend that appears to count: Woods has his 14 Major trophies to console him, even if he struggles to pick them up.

The fascinating part is gauging how many of those Major victories were down to skills other than being able to hit the ball further than most anyone else. And it’s fascinating because there’s no definitive answer, just the sort of vacuum for an industry to thrive in.


Of course the fitness game was big business long before Woods came along but golf is a perfect fit, with all that corporate branding and fundamental instinct to blend in and be seen to do what the other guy does.

And there’s little harm in flogging thread-mills to those bloated billions around the globe daring to care their way around 18 holes on a Sunday morning.

But following decades of being scoffed at by smart-arse sceptics, professional golf is marketing its new athleticism with a vengeance, the leading players buffing up the game’s image, and not un-coincidentally, their own as elite sportspeople.

It isn’t just Adam Scott’s apparently persistent ability to find clothes a size too small that produces arms the Australian is clearly fond of exhibiting.

Perhaps the most famous transformation of all has been our own Rory McIlroy's. The chubby adolescent has been long replaced by work-out Rory, complete with 'selfies' highlighting his weight-crunching regime, including one alongside another Nike ambassador, Dan Carter.

It’s easy to see why a rugby player needs muscle: a lot harder to work out why a golfer does.

The official justification for such strenuous gym-work includes lots of jargon about muscle groups and core strength, often incorporated with dollops of cod-Californian shinola about feeling good in order to play good, none of which dilutes the suspicion it’s really about simply looking good.

Since there's possibly never been as mercurial a golf talent, it is dangerous, but nevertheless necessary, to point out how McIlroy hadn't actually been playing so good up to the WGC-Dell Matchplay: or that he hasn't won a Major since luminaries such as Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger started expressing concern at how the Irishman's changing body-shape could impact on his game.

“It is not a requirement to get in the Hall of Fame or to win all four Majors to be as fit as [McIlroy] seems to be striving to be,” Azinger commented last year. “I am wondering what’s the motivation behind that: I just hope he’s not changing his body to his own detriment.”

Presumably the motivation isn’t plain narcissism. At 26, and wealthy beyond measure, McIlroy has surely been around the block enough to realise that when it comes to a tussle between rich and handsome, rich wins.

He also seems enough of a student of the game to realise that golf’s real ‘G-O-A-T’ laboured under the moniker of ‘Fat Jack’ for a long time and Nicklaus was hardly ‘ripped’ while winning Majors up until he was 46.

And if McIlroy understandably possesses supreme self-confidence in his ability, he doesn’t come across as the type of individual comfortable with allowing it step over the line into arrogance, always a dangerous route to take in a game as fickle as golf.

So it’s hard to shake the idea he’s simply going with the fitness flow, an orthodoxy most of the current generation of top players have been weaned on, and one which could be dismissed as a largely irrelevant placebo were it not for its potential to be counter-productive.

Woods is crocked at 40, and without a Major win since 2008. The following year Angel Cabrera won the Masters at 40, dragging his belly to a gasping cigarette break at most every hole.

Pointing that out isn’t some contrary retro-belch but a reminder that golf isn’t the athletic challenge it seems determined to portray itself as. If all elite sport is fundamentally a psychological rather than a physical challenge, golf is little else.

Players might feel it necessary to physically transform to reassure themselves they’re not tired walking up the final fairway but it’s a conspicuous mental sticking plaster, and one which encourages a view that much more fundamental fortitude will still be the most critical element when the going gets tough.

Since every sport has its fashionable trends, golf is hardly unique in its faddishness. But its focus on muscle is as dumb as it is essentially cosmetic.

Bench-pressing twice your own body weight is all very well but it won’t silence any internal voice determined to worm doubt into a player’s mind. And it might very well screw up that intangible but very real feel which is vital to any top player.

"Golf is a game played on a five-inch course," Bobby Jones famously declared. "The distance between your ears."

That’s as true now as when the legendary amateur champion was playing 90 years ago, a salutary reminder to those flexing in the mirror that nothing dates faster than trendy.