Disclaimer – We’re golfers, not doctors. The tips here are a compilation of insights we and our friends have had playing in pain. Some may help you, others won’t. If your back hurts, see your doctor. And… good golf!
First tip… If back pain or any other condition makes it difficult or impossible to play golf, see your physician to get it checked out. If he or she tells you to exercise, rest, medicate yourself, or take a brief break from golf, follow their directions. If they tell you to give up golf, find another doctor.
80% of Americans and 100% of golfers will experience back pain in their lifetime. There will be times to give it a rest so you can play the rest of the time… don’t make it worse. All the tips here assume you and your doctor have agreed that golf is (mentally and/or physically) a required activity.
Warming up before playing is essential. Before you hit that first tee shot (even when you’re late for that tee time), stretch and swing a club. If you can hit practice balls before playing, do it… starting slowly. Don’t start warming up with your driver – make it the last club you practice with. If time is limited, swing 2 clubs together or a weighted club, starting slowly – back and forth – to stretch, warm up and get that tempo before you start. Make your first tee shot the smoothest, easiest swing of the day.
Whatever exercises you do off the course, make those abdominal exercises the most important. Your spine is supported and protected by the strength and tone of your abdominal muscles. If you work out, work to develop overall flexibility and strong support of your back. If you’re a couch potato, do some crunches between trips to the refrigerator.
It’s an amazing fact that the best swings hurt the least. That outside-in, backwards-weight-shift, reverse-C swing is going to hurt you and your game. There’s a PGA Professional nearby who can help. Although the golf swing may not be a natural motion, it is possible to develop a swing that will lighten the load on your back and help you to play better golf for years to come. Call it an investment in your future… take a lesson.
It may not look like it, but most professional Tour players realize that they have to preserve their backs to preserve their livelihood. Watch them… especially when they’re in an awkward stance or a bad lie. Can you swing like that from trouble? Do you think you can make a swing last as long as Fred Couples? Have you ever tried to swing at 70% effort? These guys are good, and fit… and they take care of their backs every day.
Actually, you’re not Tiger Woods. If you have to swing at 110% to reach the fairway, or reaching a par 4 in two is a rarity, then you’re playing from the wrong tees. Ego probably hurts more backs (and slows down more play) than anything else. Let the college boys (who all think they’re indestructible) play from the Gorilla tees. You play from the tees that make the game fun… you know which those are. We promise we won’t be impressed that you shot 100 from the tips! Find the right tees and enjoy the game.
Whether you’re a purist about walking or not, walking the golf course will be better for your conditioning than riding. If carrying the bag is too much, leave some clubs at home or pull (or push – see below) a cart. Ask anyone who walks regularly… it’s how golf should be played. If your club doesn’t allow walking, try to talk them out of it.
If you must ride in a powered cart, here’s a simple and effective tip for sensitive backs… drive the cart yourself. When you’re driving the cart, you naturally anticipate and accommodate for the start, stop, bumps, dips, jogs and jostles of riding. When you’re only a passenger, those shocks are always a surprise – and a pain.
You should push a cart (a trolley in the UK) rather than pull one. “This switch from the old-style two-wheeler pull cart to a modern three-wheeled push cart has made a big difference to my back pains. In my non-expert opinion, pulling causes too much twisting and is not natural.” — Tim Baxter
Lots of professionals have done it. So can you. Putting (particularly repetitive practicing) is a real pain with a putter that’s too short. The typical putter is sold in a one-size-fits-all length of about 32 inches – too short for an upright putting stance and usually too short for anyone over 5'9" tall. Yeah, we’ve heard the stories about control with a shorter club, but a longer putter will help save your back. It’s easy to lengthen a putter – you can do it yourself or have it done at your local golf shop. Try adding 2 inches to it. You may be pleasantly surprised.
For your back, there is no harder shot in golf than a ball below your feet. If you must hit it, use enough club to swing with 50% effort or less. Get it in play and save your back. Swing hard and you’ll pay for it.
For starters… don’t. If your back hurts, how will it feel after 18 holes of this: Bend over to put a tee in the ground (18 times). Bend over to pick up that tee (18 times). Bend over to pick up grass to check the wind (oh… say 24 times). Bend over to identify your ball (10 times). Bend over to move a loose impediment (6 times). Bend over to mark your ball (18 times). Bend over again to replace your ball (18 times). Bend over to get your ball from the cup (18 times). So how are you feeling now, after bending over 130 times? Try this… don’t pick up that tee, putt until you’ve holed it (without marking), forget the wind. Get one of those suction-cup gizmos to pick up your ball from the hole. Learn how to pick up a “gimme” with your putter. It’s hard to believe how many times you bend over to play golf – count ’em the next time you play.
“I do far better on the course than the range. Reason? Us chronics have to step away and walk a little between EVERY shot. Not doing so – and just beating balls on the range – is disastrous, no matter how much we exercise and prepare.” — Don Owen
So… hit fewer balls in practice and take your time… walk a little between every shot.
They’re popular for charity events and outings with non-golfers. But they’re murder on your back. If you must participate, ask to tee off first and take your best picture swing. The all-out bomb-it-across-the-corner rip is gonna hurt. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Check out our alternative views of golf competitions – some styles of play that might just preserve your back.
“Always take shorter back swings. Swing for a hit not a home run.” — Mary McDaniel
Got more good tips on playing with a bad back? Send ’em to us here. We’ll try it, and if we like it, we’ll include it right here.
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