In a year of golf marked by questionable decisions – Tiger Woods on the Presidents Cup team? – and debatable theories – Ban the belly putter! – there have remained two inarguable constants.
Flying directly and seamlessly through the heavy winds of parity, it has gotten to the point where it’s a surprise when either of these guys tees it up in competition and doesn’t finish the week near the top of the leaderboard. The season-ending Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic featured a victory from Donald and T-6 result from Simpson, concluding their PGA Tour campaigns with a combined 26 top-10s in 45 appearances.
If those numbers prove their season-long efficacy, these numbers explain it: Donald and Simpson were two of the top three players in birdie average and the top two in lowest bogey average. Translation: They each capitalized on opportunity and avoided mistakes.
Those are characteristics every other player envies, but it isn’t easy to crack that code of consistency. Eat more Wheaties? Help old ladies across the street in attempt to win the karma battle? Maybe even – hey, it’s worked before – spend more time practicing?
While none of those would hurt the cause, Donald and Simpson have one major commonality in their regular preparations and routines. Late last year, within days of each other, they both started working with the team from Back 9 Tour Services on their off-course conditioning.
The three-man team of strength and conditioning trainer Ben Shear, physical therapist Jeff Banaszak and massage therapist Craig Knight quickly developed unique programs for each player – two of the nine in their stable that also includes Jason Day, Rory Sabbatini, Chad Campbell, Bo Van Pelt, Tim Clark, Jason Bohn and Troy Matteson.
“For them to put their trust in us and have faith in what we’re doing, it’s an amazing feeling,” Shear said. “You become so attached and emotionally involved with their success and failure. We have great guys who are willing to do the work and understand the importance of it. They allow us to lead them down the path that has proven to be successful.”
We can talk about increased flexibility or how physical fitness promotes mental fitness inside the ropes. But once again, the proof is in the numbers for these players.
Last year, Donald averaged 277.0 yards per drive; this year, that number surged to 284.1. Simpson’s increase was even more pronounced, rocketing from 285.4 to 296.2. Those quick to credit technology for such gains should note that the PGA Tour average drive increased at a much slower rate since last season, going only from 287.3 to 290.9.
“I think the game has really changed since Tiger [Woods] really came on board with all the fitness,” Donald explained. “I think it improves your swing. A lot people's faults in their swing [are] due to a weakness in your body. If you can improve those weaknesses, it's going to help your swing.”
Donald has never been a stranger to the gym. During the season, he works out about four or five times per week and on off weeks that number increases to at least six, if not every day. For a player who competes on a global schedule – he won the PGA Tour money title and is in position to do the same on the European circuit – it can be contended that conditioning is just as important as the golf swing or short game, though they all go hand-in-hand with each other.
“He’s like the Yankees in baseball,” Shear said. “He’s disciplined, focused, works hard. When I give him something to do, he just does what’s asked of him. Early on, there’d be some weeks I wouldn’t be with him and would text him about his workouts. He’s like, ‘You don’t have to check up on me. If you give me something to do, I’ll get it done.’ He treats it like a professional.”
In another anecdote, Shear tells the recent story of setting up Donald’s conditioning program for next year. After playing tournaments in Ireland and Spain, the No. 1-ranked player flew back to Chicago for lengthy testing sessions two weeks ago – and passed with flying colors.
“I was like, ‘Is he going to be any good for this testing?’” Shear asked. “Literally, he showed up and flipped the switch. It was a 2-and-a-half-hour physical test and he just crushed it. I was like, ‘This guy’s a machine.’ We worked out for the next two days straight and he was great.”
Simpson, on the other hand, was a work in progress when he first came to the training team less than a year ago.
Ranked outside of the top 200 in the world after his first two full seasons on Tour, he started to understand the necessity for his first-ever workout regimen in order to make the transition from decent player to one of the game’s elite.
“When we assessed Webb physically, honestly, he wasn’t very good,” Shear admitted. “We knew if we could get him physically better, he would get better. But a lot of times when you see guys who haven’t done a fitness plan before, they do an extreme program and play bad golf and say, ‘Fitness is no good,’ and then they stop doing it.
“Our goal for Webb was, we’re going to peel this kid like an onion – one layer at a time. A little bit more strength, a little more stability, a little more mobility, so we don’t alter the way his body feels and we don’t alter his swing too much.”
It worked. After posting six top-10s in his first two seasons, he doubled that number this year, including his first two victories and three other runner-up finishes. He now realizes that conditioning is crucial to consistency.
“Yeah, I think so when you're playing as much as we are,” Simpson said. “You've got to be in pretty good shape. If the physical breaks down, then the mental will break down as well.”
Ask any instructor, trainer or confidante whether he was confident that his player could find success at the highest level and you’ll receive a chorus of acknowledgments without hesitation. Deep down, though, none of them knows with a full level of certainty just how good his guy can be, and how quickly.
Such is the case with Back 9 and its two most consistently successful clients. It was less than a year ago when they started working together. Since then, both players have vaulted into the next tier, crediting their new conditioning programs throughout the journey.
“What an amazing thing to be a part of,” Shear said. “At the end of the day, though, they do the work. We just lead them to water.”