One of the golfers to give me great job satisfaction over the past couple of years is Melbourne-based professional Andrew McKenzie. The 26-year-old won twice on the Korean PGA Tour in 2008, elevating him alongside Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy and Jarrod Lyle as our only multiple winners last year.
In 2008, McKenzie finished seventh on the Korean moneylist (with earnings of about $260,000) from just 11 of 21 events on the schedule. McKenzie’s recent success is due to a different approach to a golf-specific fitness program, helping him to manage a career-threatening injury.
It’s been an interesting journey for the Canberra-raised amateur. McKenzie was never an exceptionally talented junior when he was growing up in Cooma near the New South Wales Snowy Mountains. His game evolved in his late teens, earning selection in the NSW colts and state teams. During his early 20s when he forced his way into the national squad, McKenzie was overshadowed by contemporaries in his age bracket such as Lyle, Nick Flanagan, James Nitties, Michael Sim, Kurt Barnes and Gavin Flint. Then after impressive results locally and overseas, McKenzie turned pro in late 2004 and finished fourth at the Australasian Tour’s qualifying school.
However, like a lot of top golfers, McKenzie suffered a major injury early in his pro career. In his case, it was a serious lower back problem in late 2005 that prevented him from playing golf, initially for a couple of weeks but eventually sidelining him for 11 months. The injury surfaced at an inappropriate time, about October, just before the seven big Australasian Tour events. McKenzie reckoned he couldn’t afford to stop playing, fearing he would lose status on the Order Of Merit. So he managed the injury to the best of his ability with rest, physiotherapy and pain-killing injections.
“When you wait all year and hurt your back in October, at the time you don’t think you have any decision,” McKenzie explains. “You think, I’ve just got to go play. But when I look back I think, Had I not done that I might have been better off.”
McKenzie’s injury worsened progressively and sports medicine experts in Canberra diagnosed the injury as degeneration of a disc in his spine. The sharpest pain came when the area was most inflamed and the disc was pressing on his nerves, kind of like sciatica.
Whenever he triggered it, McKenzie couldn’t stand to putt, nor put any pressure on the left side of his body. Only rest would release the pressure. However, the sharp pain in the lower left of his back would return eventually once he resumed playing.
I started working with McKenzie about mid-2006, having treated him previously when he was involved in programs conducted by the NSW Institute of Sport. He had a good foundation of rehabilitation from his physiotherapist in Canberra and was ready to move onto golf-specific training. However, he hadn’t played golf for 11 months and says it “was borderline whether I was going to bother to do it again”.
McKenzie recalls he was suffering depression. I would say his condition was stable, but he was lacking self-belief and wanted to move on from rehabilitation exercises. So it was very important to encourage him and provide his own blueprint to return to tournament life.
Coincidentally, at that time I was training Michael Sim (recuperating from a pelvic injury) and David Lutterus. So as a group of young golfers, it allowed them to feed off each other and drive themselves further. This was especially true of our sand dune and beach training. McKenzie was methodical and not phased by the others when I pitted them against one another.
In our first meeting, McKenzie said that part of his motivation to go through this training came from seeing his peers playing on the US PGA Tour. He felt that he was just as capable of the same achievement. I then took what I call a ‘seven-step blueprint’ for his GUR (Golfer Under Repair) program.
The main focus on McKenzie’s GUR program was to get control of his bad golf motor patterns. He had a common pattern called ‘reverse upper spine’. I’ve seen this movement in the swings of many leading players and it causes a lot of spinal pressure. It is not a reverse pivot, but a movement by the upper part of the spine, moving in the opposite direction of the backswing.
The Melbourne Golf Injury Clinic has identified this golf-specific motor pattern as one of 14 different movement patterns directly related to golfers. It resulted in McKenzie’s trunk and lower back getting tight and there was a lot of unneeded pressure on those areas due to the way he was standing and setting up. Simply put, his lower back injury was caused by poor swing mechanics and bad postural control.
I gave him golf-specific drills to correct his posture into a more neutral position. Other drills were designed to strengthen certain muscle types. We did a lot of spiky ball and posture-bar drills as well as Pilates-based exercises. We moved into standing positions as soon as possible as this is more golf-specific. The uniqueness is that these drills ‘talk’ to the golf swing. That is, the brain picks up the feels and there is an association to the person’s actual golf swing. Another key was getting a three-dimensional biomechanical assessment so that McKenzie could feel and see his swing breakdowns.
Fortunately, McKenzie’s golf game never left him and he started to get good results almost immediately. During his most recent visit it was encouraging to see how much improvement there was in his body and posture. Most of his other problems have been rectified, e.g. scoliosis.
He was no longer a patient seeking rehab but a successful player with a proactive program of performance enhancement. Although McKenzie has great motor pattern control and the reverse spine is fully under control, he’s also been virtually pain-free for a couple of years.
He monitors the way he practises, eliminating the repetitious golf, for instance long putting sessions that could trigger the back pain because the body is hunched over in a fixed position. Often he’ll hit balls for 10-15 minutes to warm up and then spend time playing the course. He uses ‘circuit breakers’ – physical exercises to keep the mind and body fresh. He also tends to have more days off.
McKenzie will play a full schedule this year in Korea, about 15 events from April to early November. With a high profile plus a five-year exemption (courtesy of the Korean PGA victory), McKenzie’s committed to playing there for at least two years.
However, McKenzie’s ordeal begs the question: could he have avoided such a major injury?
He says probably not, even though he’d been exposed to golf-specific fitness through the national programs and the knowledge that “golf is a wear and tear sport”. Elite amateurs have other priorities. Basically, he had felt that you’re wasting time with fitness work when you’ve never had anything wrong with your body.
“You’re focusing more on ball flight, scores and results,” McKenzie says now. “You’re young and you just want to practise. Everyone tells you about that stuff [golf-specific exercises]. And you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself because you have all the avenues of advice. But I don’t know anyone who’s ever done a back exercise who hasn’t had a back problem.”