The pandemic caused many to rediscover the joy of walking. Will the feeling last?
Golf’s return to walking, at least in the game’s motorised cart-centric markets, might be an isolated moment dictated by the necessity of the times. But it’s also a chance to appreciate anew the game on foot and maybe embrace walking as an aspect at least as central to the golf experience as, well, what carts were just six months ago.
Quaint, perhaps. Retro cool, in a way. To some, maybe an inconvenience. Nevertheless, walking brought golf back quicker than any other previously “normal” activity. Whether it was in chilly Tasmania or sunny Western Australia and Queensland, walkers were everywhere, many possibly rediscovering the way they first came to the game. Walking golf made social distancing natural, not something to be mandated. In essence, the experience wasn’t all that different from a walk in the woods.
Golf, of course, is more than a Robert Frost poem. So maybe we frame our discussion in less romantic, more practical terms. Science and data are clear: walking is better for your health, your swing and your score.
Maybe golfers intrinsically knew this. In every state where courses reopened, lightweight carry bags and pushcarts were gobbled up like flat-screen TVs on Black Friday – and back orders stretched beyond mid-year. Bag Boy, a leading manufacturer of buggies/pushcarts, called the interest level “unprecedented”, with sales projected to be “four to eight times” what they were a year ago. On eBay, “buggies” and “trollies” were selling for three times their original price (if you could find one), and some local shops were looking for trade-ins.
Though it was initially the only option, all sorts of golfers embraced playing the game on foot – in Australia and abroad. Lowell Weaver, owner of The Medalist Golf Club in Michigan, one of that US state’s top public courses, says there were fewer than 200 rounds recorded by walkers in all of 2019 at his place, but this spring, he saw more than that number in a single day – on a course that winds up and down hills, across ponds and ravines, over and through 111 heavily wooded hectares.
“People were itching to play,” Weaver says. “People found out they could walk our course. I now have people coming out to walk that wouldn’t have before.”
The numbers for walking rounds decreased as states and countries reinstated cart privileges, but that meant leaving behind one of the healthiest aspects of the golf experience. If sitting is the new smoking, playing golf while planted on your rear for 90 percent of the afternoon seems at best counter-productive. Making the biomechanically demanding moves of the golf swing after reclining in cushioned comfort seems a bit like jumping off your couch to suddenly execute a couple of squat thrusts every five minutes.
By contrast, walking can be the foundation for a better swing, says Lance Gill, founder of LG Performance and co-director of the Fitness Advisory Board for the Titleist Performance Institute. “What you’re doing on every single step is, you’re going through a golf swing,” he says. “It involves your neck to your shoulders to your mid-spine to your lower spine to your pelvis and, of course, your legs and feet and how they work together as a team. It’s the best warm-up you can do because it involves every part of your body.”
Neil Wolkodoff, the medical director at the Colorado Center for Health and Sport Science, says that though golf on foot is additive to your fitness routine, his studies show that walking burns 50 to 55 percent more calories than riding. “That can be significant in terms of health impact,” he says. How significant? A study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, where the vast majority of golfers walk, showed the death rate for golfers is 40 percent lower than the rest of the population.
Wolkodoff says walking can help reduce injury, too. “Walking the course is like idling the metabolic and muscular engine,” he says, “so the body is partway warmed up to the demands of the actual swing.”
Tour players are better than average golfers for a lot of reasons, but Gill says walking is one of them. “Their ability to be able to control their knees, their pelvis, their ankles, their core is off-the-charts good,” he says. “It’s not necessarily because they work out more, it’s because they walk upward of 50 miles a week.”
Health is nice, of course, but how about something immediate and tangible? Well, Wolkodoff’s study showed that players averaged three shots better for a nine-hole round when they walked with a buggy compared to riding.
There is a natural rhythm to the game on foot that goes beyond calories burned and strokes saved. “Walking is a form of meditation,” Gill says. Golf’s sense of escape, especially in times of stress, is best experienced as a walk in the woods rather than a race around a cartpath. (And we haven’t even discussed how course maintenance is easier and less expensive when the majority of rounds don’t involve 550 kilograms of motorised vehicle compacting the turf everywhere you look.)
Unfortunately, despite all these benefits, despite the rise in popularity of golf meccas like Barnbougle Dunes or those bucket-list trips to Ireland and Scotland where walking is more or less mandatory, and even the recent surge in walking-related purchases like buggies and lightweight carry bags, there is no sense the walking game will fully return to golf. In the US, lawsuits demanding the use of carts in states that had banned them were threatened before state authorities eventually relented on their no-carts rules.
Furthermore, the cart is built into the economic model of how the golf-course business functions at some venues. As Weaver says about the business side of his course operation, a riding golfer in a typical outing might generate twice the revenue of a walking golfer, and that’s not just in cart fees. “If you’re in a golf cart, you’re more likely to get a hot dog or a burger, a couple of snacks and a six-pack to go.
“If you’re walking, you might only get a bottle of water.”
“If you’re walking, you might only get a bottle of water.”
Healthier, certainly, but walking seems simpler, cleaner. Probably what we need in times like these. Weaver has seen that change at his course. “There was a willpower to walk,” he says. “I had people who had signed up thinking they were just going to play nine, but they’d come in after the turn and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to walk the back nine, too.’”
Maybe this resurgence in walking is a good reminder that the game’s basic appeal lies in a steady progression of steps that seem to refresh more than they fatigue. Steps forward that bring us all the way back to where we started.
Walk Your Way To A Better Swing
Leading instructor and fitness expert Lance Gill says walking is an important contributing factor to playing better golf. Here he breaks down how your steps can improve your swing:
• When your lead foot is about to hit the ground, your hip is in a similar position to how it is at your address position. Also, the ankle is in what’s called “dorsiflexion”. Proper dorsiflexion helps you maintain ideal posture during the swing.
• On the forward stride with your left foot, the right arm swings forward in a cross-rotational pattern. That activates the core muscles, extending from the right shoulder through the abdomen and down into the left leg. That rotational movement mimics what happens in the backswing and downswing.
• When the spine gets to a vertical position, your body has to deal with gravity. Every part of the musculoskeletal structure has to work together, or you’ll fall over. This is called axial loading, and it develops the balance needed during the swing.
• On your back leg, the foot is pushing off the big toe. That puts the back leg and hip in extension, activating your glute muscles. As Tiger Woods can tell you, those muscles fire on your downswing.
• As your back foot presses into and off of the ground, it moves into what’s called plantar flexion. That’s a similar action to how the foot works in the transition from backswing to downswing, all the way to impact and into your follow-through.