October 24, 2011

Women Are Making A Stronger Case

The chilling frost of 6 a.m. on a December morning in Oklahoma doesn`t stir thoughts of golf, or anything other than crawling under the sheets for a few weeks until it warms up.

But inside a gym in Norman, Okla., Isabelle Beisiegel is already pushing up 700 pounds on the leg press, just part of her 150 grueling offseason workouts in 100 days that began just a week after Q-school. There is running and flexibility work too, but the emphasis in the program designed by husband Daniel, a former Sooners football player, is on building muscle and strength.

Beiseigel put on 20 pounds of new muscle over the winter to go from 140 to 160 pounds, then dropped almost all of it as part of her training for her rookie season on the LPGA Tour.

“It was kind of like a bodybuilding thing going because you have to bulk up before you can rip down and keep your muscle mass,” Beisiegel said.

Bulk up? Rip down? This is women`s golf?

In the era of longer courses, longer hitters and Annika Sorenstam, it certainly is. The buzzword is strength — in numbers.

Once a taboo idea in the sport, the hot training focus among female golfers is on building muscle and flexibility to meet the demands of competition and travel throughout the season. While most players are not going to the extremes of Beisiegel, fitness experts around the LPGA estimate that at least 80 percent of players are on some form of a customized fitness program.

“Everyone is doing the strength training thing,” said Danielle Ammaccapane, a 16-year tour veteran.

Annika`s Lead

One look at the chiseled arms of Annika Sorenstam — the player considered the gold standard for fitness on tour — is enough to understand that muscle is not just for football and baseball players anymore. Golf-specific programs are designed to target muscles most often used in the swing, involving both building lean muscle and increasing flexibility to incorporate that new strength.

“People are more dedicated,” said Jim Doyle, head physical therapist on the LPGA`s traveling fitness trailer. “This is their occupation. Fitness level is so important now in competing at this level.”

The boom has really taken place over the past few years, as Tiger Woods and Sorenstam have carried the flag for obsessive workout habits for men`s and women`s golfers. Sorenstam was even featured in a Sports Illustrated photo shoot last year wearing only a swimsuit — to show off her muscles.

“Annika is a very fit person,” Doyle said. “She`s kind of legendary.”

Evidence of strength training`s popularity is easy to measure, even beyond the wild success of Sorenstam and Woods. While Annika`s tour-leading driving average of 269.7 yards from last season is only a 2.7-yard increase over the top average from five years ago, the number of golfers averaging more than 250 yards per drive rocketed from 17 in 1998 to 79 in 2003.

The number of eagles is also up, which is a testament to players reaching more par 5s in two shots. In 1998, Laura Davies carded 10 eagles to pace the tour. In 2003, seven players had 10 or more eagles.

While advances in equipment definitely play a big part in those jumps, no one questions the role of bigger muscles — or the newfound need for them — either. While advances in equipment definitely play a big part in that jump, no one questions the role of bigger muscles — or the newfound need for them — either.

“Even if you aren`t in the top 50 or the top 100, you still need to have that strength training,” Doyle said.

Or else, players risk not being able to keep up without adding strength and length.

“If you don`t, they`re going to leave you behind,” Ammacapane said.

Future Preview

Ammaccapane, now seven months pregnant and obviously easing her routine, has worked out consistently for the past decade, including strength work. In fact, when she reached 30 in 1995, Ammaccapane went ahead of the curve in building bigger muscles. At 5-foot-5, she never had the frame to naturally generate great driving distance.

But the muscles did little good without an instruction manual.

“I can remember being almost ripped then, as fit as fit could be, but I couldn`t hit the golf ball,” Ammaccapane said. “It got to the point where I got so strong for me, I tried to hit the ball farther. It felt like I had a new body and I was stronger, but I had an old golf swing.”

Today`s training incorporates strength building into the golf swing, allowing players to learn how to use their developing muscles. It is all part of a new era where even once-slight female players are becoming rock-hard athletes, according to Mark Verstegen, founder of Athletes` Performance, a popular training center in Tempe, Ariz.

“There has definitely been a changing of the guard,” Verstegen said.

Verstegen began developing programs for golfers almost a decade ago, long before Athletes Performance began to attract the likes of Natalie Gulbis, Candie Kung and Maria Hjorth from the LPGA. The Athletes` Performance program advertises that golfers who train with them for six weeks see an average of a 20-yard increase in distance.

Hjorth, a strapping 5-foot-9 Swede, has spent her past two winters training at Athletes` Performance. The program is not cheap — some pro athletes pay up to $50,000 a year to train with Verstegen and his staff of trainers, nutritionists and physical therapists — but the cost is worth it for the results, Hjorth feels. Hjorth ranked 28th in average driving distance in 2003 at 259.5 yards, but felt other benefits of her training.

“It`s helped me especially, I guess, with the setup, not working so hard to get in the right setup,” Hjorth said. “And then, just knowing that you`re fit enough. You feel strong and even if you can`t see a difference or whatever, at least you know that you`re stronger and you feel mentally better prepared for it.”

Moving Forward

Players work hard to keep that offseason training fresh throughout the tour schedule. Doyle sees up to 50 players each day in the fitness trailer for a combination of training and injury rehabilitation. Beisiegel had just finished working on her biceps, triceps and legs Wednesday before heading to the driving range.

“To me, to push yourself physically, to push yourself through pain just makes you tougher,” Beisiegel said.

It doesn`t hurt on the course either.

“I gained about 15 yards on my irons and they`re the same irons from last year. I was really happy with that. I didn`t expect it that fast and I think it`s going to keep growing on itself.”

Beisiegel does her intense training for a number of reasons. In addition to keeping pace as an LPGA rookie, she is also attempting to add distance for a run at qualifying for the PGA Tour this fall through Q-school. She also uses the workouts to combat her fibromyalgia, a disease that causes pain throughout muscles, ligaments and tendons.

She did not swing a club for almost six weeks during her offseason training, allowing her muscles to grow through the 15-week workout schedule. It included five phases of three weeks each, or in other words, way more time than Ammaccapane has to spare with a 4-year-old daughter and another child on the way.

At 38, Ammaccapane and other tour veterans with families are not always able to invest the time and effort into training that younger players do.

“Things change,” Ammaccapane said. “You don`t have time for that.”

She would have dedicated that time and more at a younger age, Ammaccapane said. She said she may even have matched the fanaticism of Sorenstam. Now, she wants little of it, including the trendy “core” workouts that are featured in a book by Verstegen and are so popular with players in building back and abdominal strength.

Her own routines have worked to the tune of $3.5 million in career earnings, so Ammaccapane speaks from a sage position. But for younger golfers like Beisiegel, there is still much to prove.

For Beisiegel, that starts with breaking conventional thinking about muscle mass inhibiting the swing.

“That myth has been broken in almost all sports but this one, it seems,” Beisiegel said. “I tried to take myself out of the box that golf has been in.”

Written by By Adam Candee, Las Vegas Sun, April 15, 2004



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