Vision quest

By Guy Yocom Photos by Gregg Segal
June 24, 2008

Paul Gagne: When Gagne's eye exercises helped Michael Campbell win the U.S. Open, the golf world had a new star instructor.

Paul Gagne is brilliant, he speaks with a French-Canadian accent, and he speaks quickly. The layman who asks him for a sampling of his work as a posturologist and exercise kinesiologist with the David Leadbetter Golf Academy is in for a trial. Gagne [GON-ya] begins by describing the misfortune of golfers cursed with "disharmonic feet," and without pausing segues to the nature of parasympathetic brain function and its bearing on cognitive and limbic brain responses. Scarcely taking a breath, he explains why babies who learn to walk before they reach 14 months might develop strong legs but risk having weak spines. You can't get to the subject of his work with 2005 U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell fast enough.

It's worth the wait. Campbell won that Open at Pinehurst with a dazzling back-nine putting display on Sunday. Five times during the final round he dashed into the various portable toilets that dotted the course, in part to use them for their intended purpose but also to perform a peculiar eye exercise prescribed by Gagne that makes the eyes function better together. After emerging from the Port-O-Lets on the 12th and 17th holes, Campbell drained key putts -- on No. 17, a 25-footer that clinched the victory. He took only 27 putts that day.

"After doing the exercises, I felt focused and relaxed," says Campbell. "I could really focus on the line of the putts, which was critical on the Pinehurst greens. Doing the exercises took me away from the occasion, the stress, the pressure and put me in the present time."

Campbell's potty breaks are the most curious footnote of the championship, and other Leadbetter students (Michelle Wie among them) have joined him in raving about the effect Gagne's eye exercises have had on their putting. Because the exercises can immediately benefit the everyday golfer, there is hope that Gagne's program could lead to a widespread performance breakthrough in putting.

Gagne, who is based in Montreal, explains the need for the vision exercises with great fervor, as though he discovered them yesterday. In fact, vision has been a component of posturology -- Gagne's area of expertise -- for several years. He says a posturologist detects and improves abnormalities in posture.

"We've known for a long time that posture is shaped by what we feel through our feet and what we see with our eyes," says Gagne. "With input from optometrists, we're able to discern the nature of the eye problem that leads to poor posture." The first thing Gagne and his associates tested Campbell for was whether his eyes were converging properly when he got into his putting address position.

Campbell flunked the test. Although he had excellent visual acuity -- the hole looked sharp -- he suffered from poor eye convergence, his eyes not working in concert when he looked down and formed a line to the hole. The phenomenon of poor eye convergence afflicts nine out of 10 people, according to Gagne, and comes into play primarily in putting and chipping because your eyes look straight down at the ball. "When you line up a putt from behind the ball, your eyes level to the horizon, you're fine," he says. "The problem arises when you look down at address and your eyes try to join, in forming a line to the hole. In almost all cases, one eye performs well, but the other eye does not follow the good one."

How does the poor eye convergence lead to poor posture and alignment?

"Naturally, the tendency is to help your weaker eye," says Gagne. "You do that by adjusting your head to bring it more into play. Because Michael's right eye is his weaker eye, his head would turn slightly to the left, and his right hip and shoulder would move out toward the ball, shifting his alignment open." (If your left eye is weaker, you'll tend to set up closed.) As Gagne predicted, Campbell said most of his missed putts went to the left.

The problem is worse late in the day when your eyes begin to tire, and for tour players it's almost always worse on Sunday, after a long week of eye strain. Although Gagne recommends thorough testing by an optometrist to determine the extent of your poor eye convergence, he says there is one test golfers can do at home that will determine if there's a problem.

Have a friend stand across from you and hold a pen about 10 inches from your face, directly between your eyes. It's important you hold it just far enough so you don't see double -- that can strain your eyes, says Gagne. Now, have your friend slowly move the pen toward the bridge of your nose, watching how your eyes track the tip of the pen. Repeat this three times, having your friend monitor how both eyes behave as they follow the pen.

If you're like most people, says Gagne, your head will move downward as the pen moves toward you, an instinctive movement that makes sighting the tip of the pen easier. By the way, this is proof that we adjust our posture to accommodate our eyes. But Gagne says it is important to keep your head absolutely steady as you conduct the test. When the tip of the pen nears your face, one eye is apt to turn slightly inward to follow the pen, and the other will stop moving or even turn outward in a Marty Feldman-like position. That proves your eyes aren't converging properly, and chances are you're misaligning your shoulders when you putt. Gagne suggests that as you repeat the procedure, at some point shift your glance from the pen to your friend's eyes to further reveal if one eye is lagging behind the other.

Now for the exercise Campbell performed inside the Port-O-Lets, which Gagne says will improve your eye convergence immediately. Take the pen (in Campbell's case it was a golf pencil) and position the tip 10 to 12 inches in front of your eyes, opposite the bridge of your nose. Imagine a figure 8 lying on its side, like a pair of big glasses, its length just wider than your face, and draw a figure 8 in the air with the pen. Trace the figure 8 between 20 and 30 times, moving the pen fast enough so you can complete the full set of movements in two to three minutes, never losing sight of the tip of the pen. You don't need to be perfect, says Gagne, but it's important to keep your head still as you do it. If you perform this exercise a few times every day, the convergence condition will improve dramatically.

When Campbell emerged from the Port-O-Lets that day at Pinehurst, he not only holed everything, he exhibited a trancelike calm. "Those exercises got me away from the noise and the intense atmosphere out there on the course, which was key to staying calm." An improved mental state, says Gagne, is a happy side effect of the exercise.

"When you're under stress, as Michael was at the U.S. Open, you experience a limbic brain response," he says. "The fight-or-flight mechanism that results just takes over, and you forget how to execute. The exercise heightens cognitive brain function and calms you down."

A painless exercise with no heavy lifting, the promise of more putts holed and better control over your emotions. Now that's the kind of workout routine golfers have been looking for.

The Application: Perform the figure-8 eye exercise two or three times a round, and you'll make more putts and handle pressure better.