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Tiger Woods Vs Usain Bolt: It may be closer than you think!
By Steven Adams, Blackburn Golf Advisory Board Member

Forget about the scandal, injury and current re-working of his swing for just a moment, and take yourself back to a time (not that long ago) when Tiger ruled the fairways. The titles, records and time spent as World number 1 have been well documented, within a game that may have one of the deepest pools of talent in all of sport. Tiger’s dominance within Golf is often compared to many of the great males from other sports such as Muhammad Ali, Paavo Nurmi, Michael Jordan, Sir Donald Bradman, Roger Federer, Wayne Gretsky, Pele, Michael Schumacher, Lance Armstrong and more recently the achievements of sprint king Usain Bolt. Most sports change considerably with the arrival and continued presence of a dominant force. Perhaps the ascendancy of Tiger provided a reminder to the sports loving public that golfers are true athletes and that golf itself is a highly athletic pursuit, much in the way that Greg Norman did and Gary Player before him.

It is a familiar debate: the question of who is the greatest male athlete of all time? Common things to consider are titles won, career statistics, rankings, records set and length of career. The problem is that a definitive answer is impossible, not only because of the difference between the highly specialised skills required to perform at the elite level, but also because some sports receive greater coverage and are therefore more popular. Even when comparing athletes from the same sport across different eras (the Nicklaus v Woods discussion), the performance comparisons are blurred by the interference of technology, playing surface, training methods, dietary habits, strength of competitors, etc.

However, let’s indulge briefly and take two of the most dominant male athletes of the modern era from different sports, Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt, and assume that both are at their physical best. Rather than have the same well-worn discussion on who is the best, let’s put them in direct competition against each other. Who would come out on top? The obvious answer is that Bolt would beat Woods over 100 metres by a good 15-20 metres, while Woods would most likely have Bolt covered by 30-40 shots over 18 holes of golf. Obviously, while a direct contest is of no use in deciding who is the best athlete, the differences between the two are less than what you may think.

The Golf swing and 100-metre sprint are broken down into phases that both Woods and Bolt will aim to perfect throughout their careers. For them, the phases are the focal point with which all training programs are designed around. In the Golf swing the terminology most commonly used to describe the phases are:

  • Address or set-up.
  • Backswing.
  • Transition.
  • Downswing.
  • Follow through.

Rather than isolate a single stride in sprinting, as golf coaches do with the golf swing, a track coach will analyse distinct phases that occur over the 100-metre distance:

  • Start – Reaction time & block clearance.
  • Drive or acceleration phase (0-30m).
  • Stride phase & maximum speed (30-60m).
  • Lift phase or maintenance (60-90m).
  • Deceleration (90-100m).

Woods will often be heard talking about the quest for the unblemished round of golf. Never will every shot be hit with exact precision, even during those record-breaking rounds or major victories. Bolt will also be preoccupied with every part of his performance: the start of the race, the finish, and every step taken in between. To safeguard against the loss of any valuable data that may assist future execution, both men display a remarkable ability to recall a single stroke or stride with complete clarity. However, further insurance is provided in the way of regular sessions devoted to detailed Biomechanical analysis of the golf swing and sprinting action. Motion is captured on video camera and then transferred to a digital format for computer analysis. Each movement is effectively placed ‘under the microscope’ to determine the essential elements of performance and provide a platform for positive change to occur. In Tiger’s case, for the ball to go further he must swing the club at a certain speed and launch the ball at a specified angle. So the Biomechanist will work backwards to ensure that the maximum is achieved, e.g. for the club head to have the necessary speed then the hand must have that speed, for the hand to have the necessary speed then the forearm must have that speed, etc. This form of analysis illustrates objectively how power may be leaking away or lost completely. Bolt will have his action placed under the same level of scrutiny. His team will use this type of analysis to ensure that power is efficiently transferred from one body segment to another, and then finally into the track surface in much the same way that Woods will hope to transfer maximum power into the club or golf ball.

There are a couple of Tiger’s statistics that are frequently recalled. These being the 14 major victories and 71 US PGA Tour titles. Almost anybody will tell you that the person with the lowest score after 72 holes is declared champion, but Woods does it better than most. He has the record for the lowest 72-hole score in relation to par in major championships and regularly the lowest scoring average on tour, reaching an all time low of 68.17 in the year 2000. This is where Woods and Bolt are relatively similar in the advantage they have over their competition. While Woods likes to take fewer strokes than everybody else on the golf course, Bolt also displays an economy in his performance that his opposition cannot match. The top 100-metre sprinters in the world will take roughly 45 steps from starting blocks to finish line. Usain Bolt managed just 41 steps on his way to a world record 9.58 seconds. With fewer strides he is able to hit his maximum speed of 44 kph (27.3 mph) later and hold it for much longer before deceleration takes hold over the remaining metres. This phenomenon explains why Bolt gives the appearance of running away from his competitors over the final 30-metres, much like Woods has done to his opponents on the final day of a golf tournament.

Usain Bolt’s 41 steps over the 100-metre distance are all performed at maximum effort. The sprinting action is of short duration, high speed, high intensity, and one of the most explosive movements in all of sports. These characteristics also provide an accurate description of the golf swing and favour a strong argument for further parallels to be drawn between Woods and Bolt. During an 18-hole round of golf, Woods will hit the ball with near maximal effort between 35-45 times. The exact number of strokes will depend on his success on any given day, the number of times he is required to hit out of rough or putts necessary to complete the round. Therefore, both athletes will be required to produce around 40 explosive movements during competition. It is not surprising then that Woods and Bolt require highly specialised training programs, although, these programs will have many similarities. The key elements that both programs are built around are posture and power production, with an underlying emphasis on muscle imbalance that may result because of the repetitious nature of their sports, i.e. overuse. The ultimate aim is for both athletes to have their skeletal system and joint structures in near perfect alignment so that the larger muscle groups can repeatedly produce the desired movement patterns with the necessary forces applied. Put simply, training programs that promote efficient body function.

During any given year Tiger is given four opportunities to claim a Major title. He builds his year around these four dates and limits additional tournament play accordingly. Usain, on the other hand, will have only one chance for a major title at the London Olympics in 2012 next year. Following these games he must wait another four years to add Olympic medals to his already impressive tally. There will be other competitions of significance in that time, just as there are important championships to win in golf outside of the majors, but none are more coveted than Olympic glory for the track athlete. However, regardless of opportunity, both men will plan ahead using a process known as Periodisation in order to make certain that a physical peak is achieved at the time of the event.  Periodisation involves the progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program to bring about a formulated gain in performance within a specified time frame. It is an exact science that can allow an athlete to be at their physiological best on the day of their performance following years of planning. Most professional golfers only have planned training periods of pre-season, competition season, post-season and off-season. Some believe that Tiger is the first golfer to ever attempt and succeed with the more scientific approach of Periodisation to physically prepare for golf tournaments. Most Exercise Physiologists will tell you that a true physical peak is only possible two or three times a year, yet there are four golf majors. Although, given that the Open Championship and US PGA Championship are separated by only a few weeks, it may indeed be possible and Tiger the first to unlock the potential of such a system structured around major tournaments.

For a long time recovery for a professional golfer meant a round of drinks at the 19th hole before leaving the course. Today, Tiger Woods has a recovery regime that is every bit as scientific as his swing analysis and physical preparation. Many of Tiger’s current recovery practices have been taken directly from some of the leading Sport Science journals and Sports Institutes from around the globe. This fact illustrates how much Golf has closed the gap to other sports in terms of athletic preparation, and how it has been driven by the game’s dominant force. Woods and Bolt will participate in light exercise immediately following competition either on a soft surface, piece of exercise equipment (e.g. stationary bike) or swimming pool. They will follow the light activity with a period of gentle stretching, then 45-50 minutes of massage to ensure that any feeling of tightness is not allowed to lead to muscle imbalance. Occasionally, contrast baths (hot and cold pools) will be used to alleviate muscle soreness and promote recovery at a faster rate. Nutrition will also play a vital role for both men. Food and fluid intake are closely monitored with diets designed to get the most out of training, to enhance performance, and to promote recovery.

Tiger’s impact on the game of golf, and his drive towards attaining performance perfection, is already evident in the next generation of players who now walk the fairways of world golf. This group of players have more information about their golf swings than ever before, have equipment that is designed and fitted to meet their specific needs and mask deficiencies, and are more knowledgeable and organised in their approach towards physical preparation. Usain Bolt is also changing the sprinting landscape. The notion that a sprinter must be of average height and heavily muscled no longer rings true. Not only does Bolt’s body, at a lean 195 cm (6 ft 5 in) not fit the stereotype, but also his training and race execution are becoming the rule rather than the exception. Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt - two wonderful athletes, who aside from their participation in different sports, have much in common regarding athletic performance.

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