Back in the days when carousing pros like Fuzzy Zoeller, Craig Stadler, and John Daly took the nineteenth hole as seriously as the eighteenth—and still managed to chalk up trophy-worthy weekends—Gary Player was the lone wolf in the weight room. “He was lifting weights, doing all kinds of stuff. He just knew that being stronger, more flexible, and more stable was going to help him play better golf,” says Ben Shear, the founder of the elite Athletic Edge performance enhancement training facility in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. “He understood it intuitively: If weight lifting is good for every other sport, why isn’t it good for golf? In the old days, people thought it made you tighter. But I always argue, ‘Have you ever seen men’s gymnastics?’ These guys are the most muscular and the most flexible. To think you can’t have muscles and be flexible is just ridiculous.”
One only has to look at the trajectory of the post-gym career of Tiger Woods to know what Shear is talking about. “Posture is my number one concern,” Ken Kleven, Woods’s trainer, told ESPN a few years ago. “I’ve always tried to maintain a perfect state of posture for both his upper and lower quarters. Power with speed, combined with making sure both sides of his body are balanced and symmetrical.” What Kleven is describing are the two pillars of the perfect golf swing: mobility and stability. Shear says that without these “foundations,” you can’t compete in the PGA anymore. “There are some guys out there who are just freaky talented, and they can have a good week here and there. But none of them are in the top ten or twenty-five in the world.”
Shear should know. Back in 1999, he had just one pro client: Robert Karlsson, now a top twenty-five PGA player who was then on the European Tour. Today Shear’s the head strength and conditioning coach for the pro training group Back 9 Tour Services, and he works with ten PGA players, including the Ralph Lauren pros Webb Simpson and Luke Donald, who’s currently ranked first in the world.
Despite the success, Shear wasn’t always interested in golf. “I had been into weight lifting and played high school football,” he says, until he dove into the low end of a pool headfirst and injured his neck. He would have been paralyzed had it not been for his training. “I’d been in a lot of rehab. That inspired me to do rehab and therapy. It was just something I was interested in.” Born in Edison, New Jersey, Shear went on to study sports medicine at New York University. Through extensive study in his field, he developed a technical love of the links.
“Golf is such a game of precision,” he says.“It’s extremely detailed. It’s not like football, where if I just push you backward, I’m better. It’s: Do I have balance and stability? Can I move at high rates of speed and deliver that club at 120 miles per hour perfectly square? It takes a lot more than people want to acknowledge.” By asserting this at a time when there wasn’t much interest in the technical aspects of the gentleman’s game, Shear, now 42, was able to carve out a unique career for himself. He travels year-round with a dedicated trailer and a mobile gym that follows Back 9’s pros on tour.
“As crazy as it sounds, golf may be the most sophisticated training force sport in the world right now,” he says, noting the prevalence of independent trainers shadowing stars like Dustin Johnson, Camilo Villegas, and Tiger Woods. But don’t think that level of sophistication is exclusive to the moneymakers. Athletic Edge services scores of recreational duffers looking to improve their handicaps, which typically range from eight to eighteen. “Obviously we don’t have forty handicap, true beginners. But the guys shooting ninety have probably shot ninety for the last five years, and they’re looking for that extra piece of the puzzle, that information that says, ‘What am I missing here? I’ve taken lessons. I’ve done all these things. Why aren’t I getting better?’” Shear says. “We’re kind of like the M.R.I.”
"Golf is such a game of precision – it takes a lot more than people want to acknowledge."
— Ben Shear
Just as he did with Donald and Simpson when they came to Athletic Edge last fall, Shear and his team will diagnose any serious amateur swing with 3-D motion-capture analysis, by hooking feet up to pressure plates that measure balance and weight shift, using launch monitors that measure angles of approach, and even diagnosing putting techniques in an ultrasound-rigged putting lab in order to develop customized fitness programs that break the cycle of rusty mechanics. One of the most common problems they correct, says Shear, is sway and slide, or too much lateral motion on the backswing and the downswing.
“Most of the time, when we see that the person has internal hip-rotation problems, that’s not a technical fault—it’s actually a physical limitation causing a technical fault,” says Shear, who helps players find the difference between feel (“what they feel like they’re doing“) and real (“what they’re really doing”) by hooking them up to biofeedback machines that measure the amount, speed, and angle of movement in a swing and trigger alarms every time the player goes one degree too far. He says it takes only about fifteen swings for most players to notice a difference.
“All we need to do is get them to feel where they need to be, and then they start understanding it,” he says. What Shear won’t do is put anyone through grueling strength and conditioning drills—“the icing on the cake”—before they’ve laid the foundation properly. “To overload with speed drills and throwing medicine balls fast when you’re not stable and mobile is really just tedious,” he says. “Why load up on bad mechanics? You’re only going to hit it further into the woods.”
Donald and Simpson concur. “Everyone faults in their swings because of weaknesses in their bodies. Improve the weaknesses and the swing improves too,” says Donald, who brags that he recently got Shear addicted to Twitter. “We’re also both married to Greek women!” That kind of bond with the Back 9 crew has allowed Donald to grow from a player who, according to Sports Illustrated, “symbolized what’s wrong with pro golf” (a money winner who never won trophies) to the ace who’s “closing in on No. 1.” For Donald, that kind of jump can be directly attributed to three types of exercise: general strength training with weights, speed work using medicine balls, and a corrective routine featuring stretches that improve weak spots.
Simpson, a North Carolina native who’s already doubled his earnings from last year and added ten to twelve yards to his game since November, is a similar case study. “I highly recommend strength training to amateur golfers. It’s made a dramatic difference in my power and energy to finish rounds,” he says. To gain the power, Shear focused on opening up and strengthening Simpson’s core, hips, and butt through exercises similar to those mentioned above. Beyond the work, Simpson says he loves Shear’s mentality because “He’s a blue-collar guy from New Jersey.” Despite the love, the golfer’s still anxious about The Barclays tournament in August, which is held just a hundred yards from Athletic Edge. “I’m excited about the play-offs but fearful he will have me working out twice a day!”
Unless you're angling to make the cut, the average duffer at Athletic Edge gets a reprieve from two-a-days. Besides, Shear says he wouldn’t want to start anyone off with that much “information”—even though he can command as much as fifteen hundred dollars for a full day of services. “A lot of guys will do bits and pieces,” he says. “We’ll give them some stuff to work on, and six weeks later they’ll do it again with the next piece of the puzzle.”
Athletic Edge is located at 1718 East Second Street in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. 908.322.2003; www.athleticedge.net.Basic 3-D motion capture, fitness evaluation, and training programs start at $400, with intensive full-day programs including putting lab, biofeedback force plates, launch monitors, fitness programming, and golf pro evaluations available at up to $1500.
Michael Slenske is a writer based in New York. He writes regularly for RL about golf and art.