Oh, it may look easy. All you have to do is stand over the ball and take a swing, right? Any new golfer might choke (pun intended) at the thought of hitting a long one down the fairway as being easy. While golf doesn't require any particular athletic ability, a level of fitness can be a real advantage in avoiding the sprains and strains that can result from energetic bending, twisting and swinging.

Oh, it may look easy. All you have to do is stand over the ball and take a swing, right? Any new golfer might choke (pun intended) at the thought of hitting a long one down the fairway as being easy. While golf doesn't require any particular athletic ability, a level of fitness can be a real advantage in avoiding the sprains and strains that can result from energetic bending, twisting and swinging.

If you've decided golf is your next endeavor, there's a smart way to keep yourself out of the bunkers as you learn this challenging game. Before you head out on the "dance floor," a few lessons from a pro will help develop a solid drive, effective putting techniques and reinforce good habits that will likely be a positive influence toward improving your score. More importantly, learning correct technique can prevent being sidelined by an injury.

Playing it safe

Brian Saling knows exactly where it hurts when treating patients with after-game complaints, as he is both a golfer and a physical therapist with Providence Eagle Point Physical Therapy. He advocates lessons as a starting place to avoid common injuries.

"Taking lessons is a huge advantage because it will help you drive the ball further and help you stay in the fairway more, but it will also make your swing more mechanically appropriate for your body so there's much less risk of injuring your shoulder or causing a back problem," he says.

According to Saling, back strains are the most common injury. These strains can occur when golfers try to muscle up and make up for a bad shot or they're standing on uneven ground, he says. "It's usually the recovery shot where they end up hurting themselves. That's why we go for more of an active stretch."

Saling says the more active the stretch, the more effective it is. "We show people how to stretch out their backs and shoulders, things you can do right out on the golf course to loosen up before the game. We start with moves that mimic the activity, and then build with a light swinging of the club. We add some high-stepping and walking lunges and that gets the heart rate up, which pumps a little more blood to the muscles so that they can withstand the stress better."

Flexibility is also an important part of being able to swing a golf club effectively. "It definitely does help the more flexible you are in your hamstrings and your hips, and the degree of mobility in your upper arms and forearms," agrees Vince Domenzain of Medford's Centennial Golf Club, a PGA professional with 20 years in the game. He noted there are fitness programs that include exercises specifically oriented to golf.

Getting started

Beginners can get off to a safer and more effective start with lessons. Most local courses employ or are affiliated with an exerperienced PGA (Professional Golfers' Association of America) professional.

"If you're going to take up golf, you're a lot better off to go to a PGA professional for lessons," advises Rogue Valley native Scott Lusk, who is the head professional with Stone Ridge Golf Course in Eagle Point. "Anybody can say they're a golf instructor, but a PGA professional has to have approximately five years of instruction to be a Class A instructor."

To get the basic fundamentals of the golf swing usually takes about five lessons, Lusk says. "That gives beginners a good foundation. By then, they have a good idea of how much fun the game is going to be what they need to do to get better."

In addition to learning the skills, there is an overwhelming array of equipment to select, each with unique characteristics. For instance, who knew that the dimpling on a golf ball can determine its flight?

Domenzain says the advice of an expert can be invaluable. "If a person is just a raw beginner to the game, a big advantage to working with golf professionals is that we can advise clients about fitting and getting started with the correct equipment. A lot of times people start out with the clubs their dad used or their uncle gave them, and it's probably not the exact clubs they should be using. An instructor can evaluate what set makeup they should have and the type of clubs and the length of shafts."

Once these recommendations are made, Domenzain says there is no shortage of used equipment available which can be a much more economical way to get started. "I know some of the golf shops take trade-ins and do resale and that's a good way to get an inexpensive set and still have decent quality clubs," he says. "Then if people decide they want to be a little more committed to the game, they can get fitted and get the correct set makeup."

Connecting with a teacher

Though many people are very serious about their golf game, and for the more experienced player, it can be highly competitive, Lusk reminds beginners that the most important thing is to relax and enjoy the process. "Find a good instructor, and sometimes, it may not be the first guy you go to," he says. "But find somebody who wants to have fun, because there are lots of different teaching styles and it's important to feel comfortable with someone."