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A Lesson from Tom Watson: Golf is a Lifelong Activity

Tom Watson competed successfully against the very best golfers in the world (most of whom are much younger) in the British Open, showing the benefits of maintaining a high level of physical fitness.

Anthony Vandervoort, PhD, University of Western Ontario

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Anthony A. Vandervoort
Anthony A. Vandervoort, PhD, is a professor and associate dean in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada.

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AUGUST 2009 - Despite the fact that he will be celebrating his 60th birthday in September, golfer Tom Watson almost won a playoff for the title of "Champion of the Year" in the British Open men’s golf tournament, held in Turnberry, Scotland, in July. That he could compete successfully against the very best golfers in the world (most of whom are much younger) was a testament to the benefits of maintaining a high level of physical fitness and then combining it with wise experience on a very challenging course.

It was a riveting storyline for both sports fans and gerontologists around the world because Tom had actually won this tournament at the same course in Turnberry a full 32 years ago. This accomplishment involved a marvelous competition with another famous golfer who has shown remarkable longevity in his abilities: Jack Nicklaus. Notable too is that Tom Watson had undergone hip replacement surgery in fall 2008. Obviously, he regained full athletic abilities (and initial pre-surgery level of fitness).

Golf has high potential as a physical activity for healthy and enjoyable participation throughout the lifespan. The sport can also be learned at any age, thereby being an option for encouraging more physically active youth and seniors. Fitness instructors, coaches, and teaching professionals thus need an understanding of both human development and senescence, with quite different implications involved for golfers at the two ends of the age range. Some recent surveys have indicated that seniors comprise only about 25% of the total population who play golf but they actually participate at a much higher overall rate of the total games played each year - due to more available leisure time and high interest. With current trends toward aging in those countries where golf is popular, we can expect to see an increasing number of senior golfers in the future, as the "baby boom" generation continues its advance into the third stage of life.The activity of playing a round of golf can be viewed as a valuable exercise opportunity for seniors, usually undertaken over a period of several hours that involve intermittent bursts of walking activity. The pace is of moderate intensity that does not usually induce breathlessness, although climbing hills is sometimes involved. Gerontologists realize, however, that as the golfer ages, his or her physiological capacity undergoes a normal decline over time, thereby affecting the relative intensity of any such exercise.

The golf shot is begun optimally with the body "set up" in an athletic postural stance (almost upright) with a slight flex at the hips and knees. (Note: The capacity to obtain this ideal posture may be limited by either the golfer’s physical characteristics or the environmental circumstances of the stance.) An important aspect of this particular sport for the older athlete is that the ball is at rest for the beginning of each golf swing, thereby decreasing demands for peripheral vision and movement timing that exist in other activities such as tennis, soccer, or baseball. Nonetheless, adequate flexibility, muscle strength, and balance are needed to maintain proper body mechanics during and after forcefully accelerating the club through the striking zone with the ball.

Surprising to know as well is that cardiorespiratory endurance can be an influential factor in helping the golfer throughout her or his game, especially while walking the entire course while also physically transporting the bag of clubs in some manner (carrying them or pulling the bag on a wheeled cart). Indeed, heart rates in senior golfers can approach 70% to 80% of maximum heart rate while walking some of the uphill fairways, and thus players perform adequate amounts and intensity of exercise for improving cardiovascular fitness. Thus there is also a significant metabolic cost to golf, with estimations of the order that the average male golfer burns about 1,000 calories per typical round of walking a course with 18 holes, while females metabolize about 800 calories.

Anthony Vandervoort, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity; a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada; and an avid middle-aged golfer in his limited spare time. He presented some of the above information about golf for seniors at the World Scientific Congress of Golf held in Phoenix, AZ, March 2008.

Vandervoort, A.A., Versteegh, T.H., Lindsay, D.M. & Lynn, S.K. (2008). Performance optimization for the senior golfer. In: Science and Golf V. Proceedings of the Fifth World Scientific Congress of Golf. Lutz, R.S. & Crews, D.S. (Eds.) Phoenix, USA, March 24-28, 2008, pp. 188-194.

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