News & Opinion

Modern swing hits golfers where it hurts

Is golf becoming more of a “contact sport”? Recent studies suggest as much. Context is important, mind you, because, let’s be honest, golf always has been a contact sport.

Where you play, how often you play, with whom you play … all based on whom you know, i.e., a contact sport.

That said, a recent article headlined “Golf As a Contact Sport?”, published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, takes a different direction. Doctors from the Barrow Neurological Institute have found repetitive traumatic discopathy, or RTD, from 300-plus swings per golf-playing day may be leading to early lumbar degeneration in modern-era golfers.

Kind of hits you like a surgeon general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes, heh, like a light bulb going on … in a brightly lit room.

Drs. Corey T. Walker, Juan S. Uribe, and Randall W. Porter – who might otherwise be known as Captains Obvious – did the legwork on this. They found that RTD degeneration is occurring in modern professional golfers at far younger ages than the general population. “Among professional and amateur golfers, back disorders remain the most common injury, comprising 55 percent and 35 percent of injuries in these groups, respectively,” the researchers wrote.

The modern golf swing, personified by the power of Tiger Woods, is more likely to lead to back problems, according to researchers.

The modern golf swing, personified by the power of Tiger Woods, is more likely to lead to back problems, according to recent medical research.

The report explains how the swings of present-day professionals such as Tiger Woods and others differ from those used by golf legend Jack Nicklaus and others from previous eras. The explanation is more technical, but let’s just say that if you spend most of your waking hours powerlifting and you build a swing speed to rival the sound barrier, there appear to be ramifications for your violently twisted, compressed and torqued-out spine. Who’d a thunk it?

“We believe Tiger Woods’ experience with spinal disease highlights a real and under-recognized issue amongst modern-era golfers,” Walker said. “Repetitive traumatic discopathy results from years of degenerative ‘hits’ or strains on the spine, resulting in early-onset breakdown, instability, and pain. We hope medical practitioners, and surgeons in particular, will be able to diagnose and treat golfers with RTD in a specialized fashion going forward.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Identifying tangible issues is one thing, and “hope” is quite another. This scribe speaks the matter from personal experience. It turns out that there is another “under-recognized” cause of this same instability and pain, one that doesn’t involve making 300 swings per day but involves counting them.

A different study, otherwise known as a discogram, recently revealed that years spent in a folding chair, bent over coffee-stained laptops, situated on wobbly utility tables delivers equally degenerative hits. At least, that’s the conclusion of this research subject.

By the way, for the uninitiated, a discogram has nothing to do with Gloria Gaynor knocking on the door, singing “Happy Birthday” to the beat of “I Will Survive. A discogram is more like an orthopedic version of a root canal, sans the novocaine. It is performed for the express purpose of seeing where the degeneration is, and how badly it hurts. Once the subject is scraped from the treatment-room ceiling, a diagnosis is made and the medical practitioner makes a recommendation for a specialized treatment. In this particular study, the recommendation was back surgery.

Perhaps it was the RTD ravaging his body, or maybe it was post-discogram delirium, but for a brief moment, the subject imagined an episode of Peabody’s Improbable History. Sure, he thought. Let’s go back. Have Sherman set the controls for Busch Stadium, Oct. 4, 1964, at the precise time Bob Gibson comes out of the bullpen to help the Cardinals clinch a pennant on the last day of the season.

But they weren’t talking WABAC; they were talking his back, as in making a 4-inch incision, as in boldly going where no one had gone before. The technical name for the procedure was two levels of lumbar decompression and transforaminal interbody fusion. If it’s easier, picture a curio cabinet, where the little porcelain figures have fallen against one another, impinging upon the framed tintype photo of grandma. The procedure put them back and super-glued them into place. What was once a flexible straw would become a microphone stand.

Three hours of surgery, two days of morphine and four catheter applications later, the worst is over. The subject's troubles are behind him. He is home now, moving with all the grace and quickness of Uncle Joe Carson on “Petticoat Junction. In the coming weeks, the research subject will continue to hope that the end justified the means.

If nothing else, he has a whole new respect for the aforementioned Woods and the recovery he has made from those RTD-inflicting swings. What’s more, he feels a kinship that he might otherwise not know. After all, like Woods, he’s had back surgery. Like Woods, he hasn’t won a major championship since 2008. Now, if he could just get a date with Lindsey Vonn …

There is hope, heh?

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, and The Memorial magazine. Email:; Twitter: @WWDOD