LOS ANGELES – The problem with social media spats is the level of vitriol rarely matches the intended narrative.
Take for example Brandel Chamblee’s comments during a news conference this week setting up the Florida swing regarding Rory McIlroy’s extracurricular gym work.
“The only thing that gives me concern with regard to Rory going forward, [and] I say it with a lot of trepidation, because it's a different era for sure,” Chamblee said. “When I see the things he's doing in the gym, I think of what happened to Tiger Woods and I think more than anything as much as what Tiger Woods did early in his career with his game was just an example of how good a human being can be, what he did towards the middle and end of his career is an example to be wary of.
“That's just my opinion. And it does give me a little concern when I see the extensive weightlifting that Rory is doing in the gym.”
Never mind that virtually the same concerns have been voiced by Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo in the past and that the comment gained momentum largely because McIlroy responded with a video post on Twitter of the world No. 3 doing squats.
On Wednesday at the Northern Trust Open where he is making his 2016 PGA Tour debut McIlroy was jokingly asked if he’d done any squats?
“Not yet. I'm planning to, though. Maybe with Brandel on my back,” he said.
The media laughed at McIlroy’s comment. Rory didn’t.
McIlroy and the current generation of players take fitness seriously, and however innocent or measured Chamblee’s comments may have been, they clearly struck a social media nerve largely because there is a misconception over why the vast majority of top players have turned to the gym and what exactly they are trying to accomplish.
Chamblee conceded as much, telling the media during Tuesday’s conference call, “I don't know the full extent of what he’s doing.”
Not surprisingly, McIlroy was more than happy to explain in impressive detail exactly what he’s trying to accomplish with his workout program.
“Stay injury-free. That's really it,” he said, simply. “Obviously I'm trying to be strong but the whole reason I started this is because I was injured.”
McIlroy explained that toward the end of his rookie year on the PGA Tour in 2010 he started experiencing back problems and was diagnosed with a degenerative disc.
“You think of the golf swing and the torque and the load that you're putting on your spine. The spine does two things: It flexes and it rotates. And it doesn't like to flex and rotate at the same time, which is what a golf swing does,” he said. “If anything, the golf swing is way worse for your back than anything I do in the gym.”
While pictures of McIlroy in a gym squatting 265 pounds (which really isn’t outrageous for a person of his size) often prompt a generally negative reaction from those who have traditionally viewed golf fitness as an oxymoron, taken as part of a larger, more detailed program, they are hardly a red flag.
“There’s nothing wrong with doing squats and deadlifts and push-ups,” said Sean Cochran, Phil Mickelson’s longtime trainer. “I have Phil do very similar things and they are conducive to the conditioning of an athlete. Along with that you have to do mobility training and core stabilization. I’ve seen [McIlroy] in the gym and don’t think he’s doing anything to hurt his golf swing.”
Comparisons to Woods, be they on the golf course or in the gym, are always dangerous. The greatest player of his generation did things with his game that are simply incomparable and the same can be said of how Tiger embraced fitness.
Whether all that time in the gym had a detrimental impact on Woods’ career only he can say, but the assumption that modern fitness programs should come with some sort of “warning label” ignores how specialized workout regimens have become for the top players.
“[Gary] Player said it best, most of those who don’t understand the value of an exercise component to golf often make the misconception that it’s going to do damage,” said Randy Myers, who trains dozens of Tour players including Brandt Snedeker and Davis Love III. “The reality is through today’s checks and balances through functional assessment there should be no player that doesn’t benefit from training and weightlifting.”
Perhaps McIlroy would have been better served if he’d tweeted a video of his stretching or mobility routines and not 265 pounds anchored across his back, but his point is valid nonetheless.
To think a player can compete for 25 or 30 years at the highest level with the modern swing and not have some sort of fitness program is unrealistic.
“I'm trying to make my back as strong as I possibly can so that when I come out here and swing a golf club at 120 mph, I'm robust enough to take that 200 times a day when I hit shots and when I practice and when I play golf,” McIlroy said.
When properly explained, McIlroy’s fitness program is a necessary and nuanced part of his greatness, but then social media doesn’t really leave a lot of room for that level of detail.