Compared with other sports, professional golf is a relative newcomer to the world of fitness innovations. That's not to say many of the greats weren't strong and athletic—they were—but often their physical prowess came from a background of other sports. The burly Jack Nicklaus, a multisport athlete growing up, was perhaps the best example.
That changed, as did countless other areas of the game as we had previously known it, with Tiger Woods. Working out became mainstream among tour pros, although it was a drawn-out battle in some corners. Old habits die hard, and many weren't convinced hitting the gym was good for pro golfers' game.
It's beyond all doubt now, in large part because of a conveyor belt of success stories. Now, an industry whose athletes were once lagging behind are pushing the forefront. One of the key ways players are doing this is by tracking every element of their health data using, in most cases, a WHOOP band.
WHOOP is a wearable health tracking technology that monitors your activity, both day and night. Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas—both investors in the company—wear one on their wrist and arm. World No. 2 Scottie Scheffler does, too, along with countless other players. The more you look, the less you'll be able to ignore it.
Quantifying your health
If you think about it, the broader trend of players tracking and quantifying data about their own bodies isn't much different than what they do with other aspects of their golf games. Just as pros use launch monitors to keep a close eye on what's going on with their swing, for many players, WHOOP has become the avenue by which players monitor what's going on inside. It's a language the modern tour players speak and are primed to understand. Rather than operating on guesswork, they can spot what's happening in real time, and adapt accordingly.
"The data has gotten to a place where it can be super accurate, but also super actionable," says WHOOP CEO Will Ahmed. "It's a great way to a/b test what's the best diet for you, for instance. The reason why there's a million diets is because it's different for everyone. This allows players to try different things, and see what foods aid their recovery the best."
Needless to say, McIlroy is a believer.
"It tells you what you need. It's not a generalization. It's not like it's looking at the overall population and just sort of going on an average. Literally, it's specific to you, which is very, very important," he tells Golf Digest. "When you speak to tour players and they're trying to get stronger, faster, whatever it is, people aren't just sort of making these decisions willy-nilly. There's a lot of analytics and data that goes into these decisions."
To that end, McIlroy says there are a number of metrics he tracks daily that help him stay at peak performance …
1. HRV (Heart Rate Variability)
The basis for WHOOP's technology is its ability to track its users' heart rate. Explained simply, your heart beats continuously throughout the day (hopefully). When you're exercising or nervous, it beats faster. When you're relaxing, it beats slower. Your Heart Rate Variability measures the fluctuations between the two.
Your body is primed for peak performance when your HRV is high—because it means you're resting well and then ramping up efficiently when you need to be. Different things can affect your HRV, especially within your diet, as McIlroy has come to learn over the years.
"I enjoy a glass of wine. I've sort of learnt through WHOOP that for me, one glass of wine for me is totally fine, but if I go above one glass, that's when I start to struggle. My heart rate goes up, and my HRV starts to go down," he says. "Some people say that they don't like eating red meat, because it affects their recovery, but I haven't really found that. The one big thing for me is gluten. I wouldn't say I've got a gluten tolerance, but my stomach just doesn't do great with gluten. So I try to avoid that."
Sleep is your body's literal time to recover. How well you sleep has a direct effect on how well you recovered from the previous day's strain — and therefore, how well you'll be able to tackle the following day's activity.
The things you eat can affect the quality of your sleep, but there's a sheer amount of quantity that plays a key role, too. And once again, everyone's different.
"To be at peak performance, I need nine and a half hours of sleep. The way life is, that's not going to happen every night," McIlroy says. "There might be nights where you get eight and a half hours sleep, which is a great night's sleep. But it might be a quick turnaround so you're only getting six hours sleep. I think the one thing that I've learned is it's very hard to have a perfect day, so you just have to take your wins where you can get them."
Though you can't always plan for a perfect night's sleep—or you give into the temptation of a meal that won't sit quite right—there are certain things golfers like McIlroy have found they can do, physically, to aid in their recovery anyway. After a physically taxing day he'll often lean on various Hyperice muscle-recovery products, he says. Specifically, the Normatec Legs System (a set of sleeves that go on each leg to massage the muscles after a long day) which he'll do from home, or the company's Hypervolt Go 2 massage guns which he'll use if he feels pain on the course.
"There's a ton that goes into it. But again, as long as I get everything in, I'm not really caught up in the whole timing and structure of things," he says. "As I get my stuff in and I'm happy with the quality of the work rather than the quantity, then I know that it's been a good day."
The end goal, McIlroy says, isn't just to leave his body in a position to perform, but to give him a deeper understanding of how it got that. That, says WHOOP CEO Ahmed, is the future of the 21st century professional athlete.
"It will increase the longevity of players' careers. Rather than having a career that's 10 years, you can have a career that's 15 years," he says. "Imagine if you take every world class athlete and just extend their careers by even just two or three years. That would change everything, for players and fans."