Golf for Life
One medical expert and three lifelong golfers share their advice on how to keep getting out there year after year
Golf is one of the most popular sports in the United States. According to the National Golf Foundation, over 25 million Americans played at least one round of golf outside on a course in 2021. And 10.6 million, or 42% of them, were over 50 - a share that has been steadily increasing over the past five years.
Golf has long been known as a lifetime sport — one you can keep playing well into your older years — but we wondered how golfers over 50 might not just keep playing, but keep playing well. So we asked some longtime golfers and a sports doctor for their best tips and advice. Here's what they had to say.
Injuries Do Happen in Golf
If your aim is to continue golfing for the rest of your life, the biggest obstacle you face is injury. While golf is generally regarded as a safe sport well-suited to all age groups, injuries can be fairly common, especially for those over 50.
If your aim is to continue golfing for the rest of your life, the biggest obstacle you face is injury.
"I work with a lot of golfers, and that's the main age group," Dr. Geoffrey Van Thiel, a sports doctor and orthopedic surgeon with Ortho Illinois in Rockford, Ill., told us. In people over 50, Van Thiel often sees injuries in one of three areas: "The shoulders, usually the rotator cuff; elbow tendonitis, or medial epicondylitis; and low back pain."
He attributes these injuries to subtle changes in a golfer's swing, which often happens as they lose flexibility and core strength with age.
"They're used to hitting the ball at a certain speed, and when they lose that flexibility in the hips or pelvic area, they tend to compensate with the shoulders and elbows, often straining the low back due to that hip tightness," said Van Thiel.
Staying Fit for the Game
Van Thiel doesn't only see patients once they've injured themselves. He also works with golfers who want to both avoid injury and improve their game. Interestingly, he told us that the same few areas of focus can simultaneously do both.
"I counsel my golfers to do three things," he said. "First is to work on core stability. Men especially don't tend to focus on the core. They focus too much on what I call the 'beach muscles' rather than their functional stabilizers."
Next, he advises his patients to work on flexibility of the hamstrings, shoulders, and the pelvic or hip area. "Yoga is perfect for this," he added, "but again, men aren't doing a lot of yoga."
Finally, Van Thiel recommends regular strength training for the shoulders and elbow, but stressed that, "The muscles in golf are small, high-endurance muscles," so he suggests using lighter weights for higher reps.
"Get away from the idea of weights and move more to the idea of bands, similar to rehab exercises for a rotator cuff injury," he said.
A key exercise he recommends is raising a band to the front, sides and all angles in between, first using a grip with the thumb pointed down, then parallel to the ground, and finally up toward the ceiling.
"Do that for a total of five minutes per shoulder each day, in sets as long as you can tolerate with 15 seconds of rest in between," Van Thiel said.
The golfers we interviewed have all managed to avoid the types of injuries the doctor described, and they had some other tips on how to keep playing well.
Become a Student of the Game
Victor Ohno, 57, of Minneapolis, has been golfing since college, but started taking his game more seriously about 10 years ago.
"I've never taken a lesson or worked with a coach, but I watch a lot of videos and try to study other peoples' swings and listen to what they recommend," Ohno said. He also shoots video of his own swing, analyzing it side-by-side against footage of great golfers to see where he might improve.
"I also don't drink on the course," he said. "I really want to try and improve every time I go out. For most people, it's a social thing and you go out and drink with your friends. I wait until after."
Gladys "Corky" Nienaber, a 76 year-old retired school teacher who splits her time between Lake Havasu, Ariz. and the Carefree Country Club in Big Lake, Minn., says her game is much better now than when she started golfing 54 years ago.
"Back then it was a nightmare!" she chuckled. "I almost quit after fifteen years, but then I started improving and now I'm about the same if not even better."
Nienaber also learned by watching better golfers play, but really credits her improvement to learning to relax. "I was intimidated and tried far too hard in the beginning," she recalled. "But then I started going out with women and people who weren't so serious about it, and then I started to love it."
Turn Passion Into Practice
Loving the game made Nienaber play more, and all of that practice has paid off. She currently golfs two to three times per week and her husband, Ron Nienaber, age 78, says he hits the links almost every day.
"Last year, after fifty years of golfing, I got my first hole-in-one. Then three weeks later, I got my second!"
"Sometimes I'm going out there twice a day," he said. And all of that play has paid off. "Last year, after fifty years of golfing, I got my first hole-in-one. Then, three weeks later, I got my second!"
Ohno only golfs outdoors about once every two weeks during Minnesota's notoriously short summertime. "But I live in a condo with a golf simulator, so I golf all the time," he said.
We asked him how that compares to golfing outdoors. "It's very realistic, actually! The only thing that isn't is [that] you have a perfect lie every time and there's no wind," Ohno explained.
All three of our golfers said their game improved markedly once they were able to play more often. "I maybe can't hit the ball as far now, but my technique is so much better," Corky said.
Love of the Game
The Nienabers recently joined a league with around 70 members in Arizona, which not only keeps them playing well, but also makes it a more fun.
"It's a scramble, so who you're golfing with always changes," Corky said. "It's just extremely a lot of fun."
It's clear that for Corky, the love of the game is about connecting with others. "The neat thing about our family is we all like to golf. We have a lot of family — on both sides — come together and golf."
Whatever your reasons for loving the sport, with a smart training regimen, focus on good technique and consistent play, you can not only keep golfing, but keep golfing well for many years to come.