There used to be a debate about whether golfers were better athletes than racecar drivers.
The implication was clear: You didn’t have to be in shape to stroll around a golf course and occasionally hit a little white ball or cruise around a track and turn the wheel from time to time.
It wasn’t as if you couldn’t be a better golfer if you were in better physical condition, but lifting weights was considered a no-no. I had a roommate who lifted and suddenly lost his swing, and after that I routinely told people that I wanted to keep my muscles lean and flexible – never mind the fact that I didn’t like weight training anyway.
However, it also embarrassed and disappointed me that some golfers — including some pros, such as John Daly — smoked while they played and clearly weren’t missing any meals. No wonder there was that debate. It wasn’t a good look.
But then a guy named Woods came along, turning his body into a mass of muscle and winning just about every tournament in sight. Suddenly, the PGA Tour had on-site workout facilities, and the players’ paunches disappeared.
These days, you don’t see nearly as many pros who aren’t in excellent physical condition, and you don’t hear about that debate anymore — partially because auto racing’s popularity has waned, but mainly because golf has entered a new era.
That was just one of the reasons I found last weekend’s PGA Championship so interesting.
Look at all the athletes who were on the leaderboard, starting with the champion, Brooks Koepka. Is there any doubt that he would look just as impressive in a helmet and shoulder pads as he does when he brutalizes the ball down the fairway?
The talk after the tournament was that Tiger Woods is this close to winning another major, and, yes, how far he has come this year is remarkable. But there’s an important point that I think people are missing: He’s not the only true athlete out there anymore.
Tiger is a victim of his own success and work ethic. Other players saw what he was doing and emulated it, and now he truly has tough competition. They can hit the ball even farther than he ever did. They aren’t worn out by facing an all-time great. In fact, they revel in it.
Is there any doubt that Tiger would have won Sunday if the clock had been turned back 15 years? There wouldn’t have been a Brooks Koepka there to beat him.
But it wasn’t just the way that Koepka won … and Woods didn’t. It was the fact that Koepka seemed to do it so casually. With his strength, he knows that he’s going to have a wedge in his hands on just about every par-4, and he doesn’t seem to get rattled when he has to put a drive in the fairway.
Now it’s Tiger who hits fairways about as often as the rest of us. His Houdini act on the front nine Sunday would have been the stuff of legend, a la Seve Ballesteros, but then he hit another wayward drive on No. 17 and it cost him.
I was proud of our great game as it unfolded Sunday afternoon. I saw a sport that inspires people to strive for greatness no matter how difficult it gets. I saw true athletes competing on a bigger-than-life stage.
No wonder the television ratings skyrocketed. This was riveting stuff. But what makes it even better is that viewers have to respect the physical ability of the players they’re watching – and wouldn’t it be great if more amateur golfers tried to match the physical condition of the pros by regularly working out and walking the course? This would be a better, healthier place, and so would the golf course.
So the next time you hear someone question whether golfers are athletes, just point to Brooks Koepka, a guy who has won three majors in a little more than a year. That’s what golfers look like now. That’s how the pros hit 210-yard 7-irons. That’s the result of high-intensity workouts.
The debate is over.