April 27, 2009

Studies - Golf can be good and bad for you

Regrettably, it's getting complicated out there again. Just when an old-fashioned Masters featuring three throwbacks in a playoff seemingly restored order to golf, science and technology invade the scene with studies about life expectancy of players, their ability to hear and other stocking stuffers. Perhaps my most stunning discovery is that a number of PGA Tour players wear mouthguards. I understand the need for mouthguards in contact sports such as football, hockey, free media buffets and boxing. Mike Tyson wore one, even when he had Evander Holyfield's ear for a snack. But mouthguards for golfers perplex me, so I contacted Steve Elkington, another guy I classify as a throwback, and a dear friend whom I knew would be only too happy to enlighten me.

"What do you want now?" he said, warmly. "Do you live under a rock? Athletes all over use them for strength, flexibility, balance. A mouthguard, or mouthpiece, realigns your jaw. Manny Ramirez, Shaquille O'Neal, a few guys out here get them from a Canadian firm, PPM. Some play with them. I just wear mine to bed. Helps me sleep. I wake up alert, without those aches around my head and shoulders. Been doing it for months. You should try one. Maybe it will help you … oh, never mind."

As Elkington prepared to hang up—he said he had some ironing to do—I advanced my premise about how sudden death at a rousing Masters was enhanced by three individuals, Angel Cabrera, Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, who exemplified golf at its basic best. True, they have coaches and modern equipment, but they are also unlikely to suffer paralysis through analysis. They trust their swings, step up and hit it, and possess natural power without fretting how they look at the beach. Why, Cabrera, the eventual champion, won a U.S. Open chain-smoking, just like the old days, and if he watches what he eats, he can't have much time to watch video.

"That theory is way out of your IQ range," Elkington said. "Someone must have given you that on a platter because it makes sense. I don't think Cabrera grew up poor in Argentina, then got up in the morning and went to Gold's Gym."

Admittedly, my brainstorm took a beating at the Verizon Heritage, where Brian Gay won by 10 shots. He works out feverishly with trainer Chris Noss and fits the current vogue of annoying flatbellies. Still, after posting 20 under par, Gay reached for a beer, so he's absolved. Another check mark for simple pleasures in simpler times.

Gay will savor that victory for the rest of his life, which will be a long life indeed, according to the Karolinska Institute, a Swedish med school that determined the death rate for golfers is 40 percent lower than nongolfers. That translates to about five years, and the better your handicap, the better your chances of hanging around. (I read about this in a fitness magazine and if you ask why I went there for no apparent reason, I also read money magazines.) Now, I realize that when the Karolinska Institute speaks, we should all shut our mouthguards and listen. Still I wonder, who commissions these studies? Who pays for them? Saab, a Swedish icon, is hurting, and the Karolinska Institute pokes around graveyards looking for golfers? What was its second greatest revelation? Tell me something important, like why are fish fat? Seriously, fish is a health food, but did you ever see fish that's starving? Why don't fish bones show up until dinner? Also, why are so many men who list fishing as their favorite hobby fat?

Our next bombshell comes from Scotland where experts advise that golfers who swing from the heels with titanium drivers create a sonic boom so emphatic as to affect one's hearing. Dr. Malcolm Buchanan, an Edinburgh specialist, declared the distinctive noise from a pure strike against a thin-faced club could "induce temporary or even permanent cochlear damage" and recommends earplugs, or else. So now you need a mouthguard and earplugs if you can somehow remember to bring all those things along while, according to the Karolinska Institute, you play until you're 109.

Before Elkington bid me a fond adieu, I mentioned I might take him up on his mouthguard accoutrement because I too awaken each day suffering from assorted spasms. "You mean," he said, "you've also managed to become a pain in the neck to yourself?" I replied, warmly, "I've been launching a lot of sonic booms off the tee lately and have some cochlear damage. Could you please speak up a little louder?"