Golf Science: It Depends

by Max Prokopy

I was fortunate enough to recently attend a dinner with a charismatic and knowledgeable TV personality discussing golf instruction.  Being that the audience was full of golf instructors, this was sure to be interesting in a WWE sort of way.  It didn’t start out like that but we eventually got to the male soap opera once technology and “golf science” became part of the conversation.  One comment rang out in my mind:

Real science does not have arrogance.”  

This is clearly a person who hasn’t spent much time in science!  The implication was that those in biomechanics or using Trackman skipped over some important parts of the scientific process and instead began to monetize theories or technology…and the poor hacker is all the worse for it.  I’ll cover some of that, but not before setting the record straight on how utterly wrong it is to think golf science is especially arrogant.  There are many ways to disprove this view but I’ll stick to a concept most of us have heard of: the “heart-healthy” diet.  

As a bit of background: I started collecting experimental data when I was about 5 years old.  My dad had roughly 450 peer-reviewed publications to his name.  I’ve published in fields as diverse as insect behavior, molecular nutrition, exercise physiology, performance training, and imminently on spine rehabilitation.  I’m intellectually promiscuous but in this case will discuss an arrogance far worse than anything in golf: the low-fat diet craze.  

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Figure 1: The heart of science is still beatin...but don’t just take my word for it.  

Anyone who was sentient in the 1980’s will remember the big warnings about eating cholesterol.  It was a widow-maker, Tonya Harding for your heart.  And saturated fat was Jeff Gilooly.  All of a sudden eggs were bad and skinless chicken breast was the only healthy meat.  Well, it turns out to be totally untrue for cholesterol and mostly untrue for saturated fat.  But this inaccuracy infiltrated everything from doctor’s offices to TV sitcoms.  So where and how did it go awry?  

Getting it all wrong

Conspiracy theories abound but the heart of this disaster is two-fold (pardon the pun).  First was erroneous data about the connection between dietary fat and risk of death from heart attack.  The origin of the association was from Dr. Ancel Keys, a noted researcher who produced some famous data associated with The Seven Countries Study.  The study suggested a supposedly close association between estimated fat intake and risk of death by heart disease (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Data from 22 countries that made up the "Seven Countries Study" By Ancel Keys.

The fact that there were originally 22 countries seems fishy given only 7 ended up in the final analysis.  But much worse was assuming each country counted deaths and diet the same.  As an example, death by heart disease in Japan was considered shameful so the vast majority of cases would be classified as stroke or natural causes.  Mexico also had a peculiar method of accounting death records.  In other words, we had bad data and drew worse conclusions from it.  Keys’ work catalyzed what became the USDA food pyramid, low-fat diet recommendations, and people eating a ton of what we now know are far more damaging refined carbohydrates.  Everything from grocery stores to TV commercials was rearranged to promote low-fat eating.  What can we learn?  Be wary of “simple” data; question how it was collected and presented.

The second piece of this misadventure has to do with molecular nutrition.  The cholesterol in your blood can be measured and is in some cases related to risk of disease.  This led authorities to advise or even mandate a reduction in dietary cholesterol.  The logic was that if you eat it, it would show up in your blood.  Simple, right?  Well, simple is incorrect in this case.  The vast majority of blood cholesterol is unesterified and produced endogenously (by your body’s own processes).  Even Ancel Keys himself said “…the cholesterol content of human dietsis unimportant in human atherosclerosis.”  In other words, blood cholesterol is mostly a factor of genetics, even by people who advise against eating it.  Yet high-fat diets were still decried as the culprit for heart disease and Americans were inundated with bad advice.  In golf, bad advice might cause some lost shots; this stuff is billions of dollars and human lives.  Even with such high stakes, lots of people failed to check the fine print.  That’s hubris.  

Now if you’ve ever been to a major nutritional conference the arrogance around this topic would be incredibly obvious.  There have literally been shouting matches between high profile researchers at national meetings.  It would be akin to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck getting in a shouting match about who directed Good Will Hunting.  It’s an easy fact anyone could look up.  Nothing but blind arrogance would lead to such antics.

Keep in mind there are tremendous amounts of research dollars involved in the study of diet, disease risk, and blood test results.  People’s careers are at stake in not only the grants they receive but also in prestige, selling books, marketing, etc.  There were also major discontinuities between the governing bodies and those real-world practitioners getting great results with the opposite advice.  Starting to see the parallels?  Unfortunately, nutrition is not alone.  I’ve seen arguments nearly leading to physical altercations in all kinds of scientific environments.  To think golf is uniquely arrogant is inaccurate at best.  

The real culprit is a pattern of over-simplification - the notion that there is some cure-all magic bullet or pill to swallow that will solve major problems with complex origins.  We want an easy tagline like “the glutes are the engine of the swing” because it’s convenient.  Here is where Kelvin’s work stands above so many others.  Rather than a rush to simplify for easy catch phrases or marketing material, we can sink our teeth into the nuance and subtlety that is true of any rigorous scientific process.  A degree doesn’t make a scientist.  The mark of a scientist (genuine curiosity) is being willing to answer questions with “It depends,” or “I don’t know, let’s try to find out.”  

The Cart Before the Horse

Why would golf instructors spend so much time talking about the swing plane which is distorted in 2-D images?  Why would nutrition science and the federal government place such focus on dietary cholesterol?  My opinion is the mindset is the same: we measure what we can and then search for meaningful attachments.  This often leads to one of the worst mistakes in analysis: reverse causation.  Testing for serum cholesterol was used because we could, then we decided to search for correlations.  Most people don’t realize the “bad” LDL cholesterol is estimated…it’s not even measured directly unless you get a special NMR profile.  I think a substantial portion of golf science follows this pattern.  Certain parameters take on a mythical importance but the full context of their meaning is overlooked.  Alternate hypotheses are left untested out of convenience or…

Let’s take a look at one relatively controversial matter: spinal motion.  It’s very hard to improve your game if you’re hurt, so durability has to be considered along with performance.  Many people will be familiar with the ideal “kinematic sequence” where the pelvis changes direction first, then the thorax, then the arms, etc.  This sequence does in fact occur in multiple sports, I am happy to provide references.  However, we need to understand this demonstrated nothing more than the elements that were measured.  In other words, there may be other structures that transition before the pelvis.  But since the pelvis is the one that’s measured, meaning is attached to it.  I would carefully question any inference about the spine itself when all that’s measured is the pelvis and thorax.  Yet, those inferences are heavily relied upon in teaching and rehab.

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Figure 3: Does this really tell you about the spine?  Is it the right data, or just data on the right players?

The lumbar spine may or may not move first.  The lumbar-dorsal fascia may or may not be a primary driver.  Intra-abdominal pressure will spike in transition, but why?  We don’t honestly know and probably won’t.  The testing would require extremely invasive methods (fine-wire EMG, pinning vertebrae, skin lacerations, etc.) .  You’d never be able to get the experiment approved, get any decent volunteers, and it’s incredibly likely the act of measuring a swing like this would change the swing itself.  Dr. Gracovetsky had his spinoscope but it had its own significant shortcomings.  It would do no better than what we have now.  In contrast, measuring bony landmarks on the pelvis is pretty easy.  The problem is that some people have mistaken the best available data for the best possible data.  Extrapolation from there is at best going to cause us to overlook informative outliers.

Figure 4: Anyone feel like swinging a club with these inserted into your vertebrae?

Keep in mind the kinematic sequence evidence is not necessarily wrong, in fact it’s quite accurate.  It’s just incomplete.  Drawing conclusions (deceleration) can be iffy.  Society is always making its best guesses based upon the available information at the time.  In light of incomplete testing, we might want to turn to real-world results to guide our evaluations.  Here again, Kelvin shines with case studies and the ability to communicate complex ideas into practical drills.   

About a year ago, I had a prominent figure in the golf industry visit our lab.  He had back and hip pain for years, swinging a club was not comfortable.  He had several “3-D” lessons from well-known top 100 teachers, all advising him to lead with the hips to the target in transition.  The reason he was given the advice? “That’s what the PGA TOUR players do.”  It was almost unanimous.  He even told a couple teachers that move bothered his hip, the comments went largely unaddressed.  

Now I am sure the hip bump advice has worked for some people, just like eating Ornish’s ultra low-fat diet helped some people.  Take a great athlete or genetic lottery winner and you can make all kinds of progress.  But complexity and humility require nuance, not cookie-cutters.  This person needed more than a catch phrase.  I told him to not worry about any swing thought and we did about 20 minutes of manual exercise intervention.

Figure 5: Professor Kolar is the man.  Don’t go expecting a 2-day course will certify you as an expert in his world.  He knows it’s way more complicated.  

The foundations are from the Prague School of Rehabilitation and Professor Pavel Kolar.  Much like Kelvin’s work, the principles are not simple or catchy.  It takes years of investment to understand and apply.  Few people are fully certified, only 6 in the whole US are allowed to instruct.  It’s just not a simple rubber stamp where you pass a test and that’s it.  Just like spinal motion theories, formal testing of the principles are difficult.  So rather than harp on what is quantified, let’s look at results after three DNS-based exercises.  

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Figure 6: Before intervention, the de-stabilized left hip, excessive pelvic tilt, and head drop are evident.

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Figure 7: After intervention.  No swing thoughts!  The left hip is more centrated, rotation improved, level pelvis, less head drop.

Happily, this person has not had hip or back pain in almost a year after this single visit.  He can play if he wants.  He doesn’t have to get up every hour to walk around and stretch.  I could show you 3-D before and after, but why?  In this case, your eyes are plenty sufficient.

Tech: What is it Good For?

So if we’re to focus on results and question “golf science”, what is the technology and gadgetry good for?  What is all the kerfuffle about?  Or is it just marketing?  First, it’s always good to engage a rigorous scientific process with transparent methodology.  This is fundamental to human progress.  The bottom line is 3-D and other stuff can improve the accuracy of observations.  In my case, the fancy technology is a BS meter.  I tell this to my athletes all the time.  My eyes may see one thing, do the data back me up?  If I trust my methods, then I have no reason to have ego in this matter – it becomes a very simple matter of how best to help the person in front of me.  Another huge bonus of technology is the ability to convince the skeptical students that they have indeed improved.  Some people just don’t like to believe a feel or a video – hard numbers can help.  

Yes, there are times when I’m wrong and the data set me straight.  There are also times when the data capture was suspect.  Either way I get new ideas or plot an improved course of action.  Fancy isn’t always better, but it can be extremely helpful if you engage in the timeless process of:

  • Hypothesize;

  • observe;

  • evaluate; and

  • re-hypothesize.  

Any economic system inevitably complicates this with monetization and prestige, golf is once again no different.  We can still add value in the right context.  I would say priority #1 is to understand how you got the data you got (or read about).  If Trackman is back-calculating club parameters from an assumed club geometry, knowing that is worth way more than knowing the number it spits out.  

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Figure 8: Working hard or hardly working?  It's all up to the user.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The beauty of modern technology is more people are allowed to think critically and question any issue.  Thanks to that, nutrition science has improved a bit.  The cholesterol and low-fat failures have produced better tests and advice.  Blood sugar control, exercise, and inflammation are gaining their rightful place at the center of chronic disease risk.  Paleo is gaining traction.  (It has also suffered copycats butchering it with over-simplification.)  Rather than a cholesterol test determining your life’s prognosis, we have genotyping and more useful metrics.  (Everyone should get their hemoglobin A1C tested – it’s a 3-month view of your blood sugar control. High-sensitivity c-reactive protein is a good marker for inflammation.)  The early mistakes led to something better.  Yes, many doctors still love to see your cholesterol numbers…but even the monolithic USDA has removed dietary cholesterol from their list of major concerns.  That’s progress, folks.  

Every science needs people to question, people willing to be the canary in the coal mine.  Golf is no different and most certainly not unusually arrogant.  If that same canary gets results, then stand up and take notice.  If your stuff is right, you should welcome critique and you shouldn’t charge someone $1000 just to see your data in the first place.  

Millions of people were once convinced the sun revolved around the earth.  History is littered with the mistake of focusing on what we can measure and trying to extract meaning.  Does it measure what it says it measures?  Does a tagline or magic bullet leave out critical elements?  Are there ulterior motives to over-simplification?  Is there someone out there doing the “unconventional” but getting great results?  Shouldn’t we try to design technology around the most important parameters?  Golf and science can be a great marriage as long as we’re willing and able to question.  In my experience, golf science is in a better place than most because it is more nimble; it’s not mired in long grant-funding processes and omnibus legislation.  As long as we accept nuance and seek the best possible data, the mistakes we’re guaranteed to make will still lead to progress.

Max Prokopy is a sports performance coach and researcher who directs the UVA SPEED Clinic, a performance laboratory at The University of Virginia.  He can be reached at (434) 243-5605 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.