The physical ramifications of winter are far more significant for the hibernating hacker. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but abstinence makes the body grow weak and the golf swing grow weeds. The residual bill of inactivity reaches accounts payable in the spring, when the average golfer readies to resume his or her all-too-average game.

“For the average person, the middle-age guys or gals who are pretty much inactive all winter, it’s a lot to ask of your body,” said Dr. Pat Feder of Comprehensive Chiropractic in Eureka, Mo. “They want to get out there and start playing again as soon as the weather gets good.

“But if they’ve been inactive, the potential for injury is much higher, and their flexibility and endurance are going to seem nonexistent. They’re probably going to find they’re not swinging the same and not hitting the ball as far, and then they wonder why.”

Peggy Heisel, a physical therapist for HealthSouth Rehabilitation, said the rust gets more difficult to shake the older the lethargic linkster gets.

“You tend to lose flexibility and strength,” Heisel said. “People will complain to me about losing distance. If they’re not doing things to stay flexible and fit, it affects their mechanics, and that affects their performance, including how far they hit the ball.”

Heisel and Feder have worked extensively with PGA and LPGA players. Pros never experience as much down time as the average duffer – they continue to play and practice throughout the year. But amateurs operate on a different, less reliable level. What’s more, the inefficiency of the average amateur’s swing requires his or her body to work harder and pay a heavier price.

“The average amateur uses 80 percent muscle energy to complete a golf swing,” Feder said. “The average pro makes the same movement using just 40 percent muscle energy. A proper golf swing is not very hard at all on the muscles. You’re going to have some repetitive issues if you swing a lot, which obviously pros do.

“But the thing I notice is when amateurs take the club away, and when they finish the swing, they put a lot of pressure on their lower back. If you swing with the proper spine angle, if you flex at the knees and bend at the waist, it puts a lot less strain and pressure on the back.”

The key to being able to pick up where you left off from last season, or improve on that performance, is to prepare for the season before it begins. For those who will be emerging from their couch cocoons as April begins, there is no time like the present.

“Even if it’s just a couple of weeks before you go out and start playing, you’ll be better prepared and you’ll perform better,” Heisel said. “If you don’t do anything to get ready, you’ll get out there and it’ll probably be pretty frustrating.”

Let’s face it, the elusive pursuit of par needs no help in the “pretty frustrating” department. The first step to first-time-out nirvana is to embrace some type of cardiovascular routine, one more strenuous than lifting a fork, but not quite as taxing as officer training school. Feder said something “friendly to the joints” works best – and we’re not talking about a stool at the neighborhood joint.

A regimen of walking, jogging, bike riding or exercising on elliptical equipment will do the trick.

“It all depends on the size of the person and what their weight is,” Feder said. “Certain things are OK for certain people, not good for others. But the main thing is, using the muscles will help loosen them up. If you don’t do some kind of cardiovascular work before you start stretching, you’re kind of treading water.”

Follow the cardiovascular with a stretching program that focuses on the lower back and stomach, shoulders, legs and buttocks. One of the most important muscles in the golf swing is the iliopsoas, the primary hip-flexor muscle that attaches at the lumbar spine and stretches across the pelvic joints. It’s the muscle that performs the subtle hip turn that is crucial in the golf swing.

One of the hottest self-improvement applications in golf is yoga.

Barbara Michael is a health-improvement instructor and an avid golfer. She teaches “Yoga For Golfers” at Golf Headquarters in Kirkwood, Mo., and finds the two disciplines ideally suited for each other.

“The benefits of yoga are very subtle,” said Michael. Besides balance and strengthening, Michael also emphasizes nutrition and stress management. Some of the techniques you learn in yoga can be implemented before, after and during a round.

“Yoga enhances your flexibility, balance, endurance, your alignment and your range of motion,” she said. “One of the techniques we use a lot is breathing. When you breathe a certain way, one of the things you’re able to do is relax the body. You alleviate the muscle tightness you might have and you’re able to really focus mentally.”

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