The pain was in his back, but it sowed fear in his heart.
Marina Alex had been training twice a day during the 2020 Covid lockdown – “I just didn’t really know what else to do,” she says. She came out of confinement feeling in the best shape of her life. But as soon as she came back to the reality of being a tour pro, she felt her body start to fail.
“I didn’t know any better, but I was definitely out of shape for golf,” she said. “I put myself in a very vulnerable place because once I started walking again, playing golf a lot, traveling, my body was like, whoa, what are you doing?”
It was his back. He felt stiffer than before, sometimes stuck, and often hurt when she swayed. Back injuries are deadly for golfers. They can linger, and unlike other body parts, you can’t alter your swing to avoid them.
“Bend, twist, twist, move,” Tiger Woods once said, describing what triggers his back pain during his swing. “Other than that, I’m fine.”
Alex made four starts in four events until August when his body started to shut down. She spent September recovering, working through the pain with an eye on the KMPG Women’s PGA and US Women’s Open – a “mistake”, she says, that would cost her the rest of the season.
“Finally, another doctor said, ‘You really need to take another seven weeks off,'” she said.
It wasn’t until March of the following year that Alex started playing a full program again, and even since then she still trains less than before. Yet she accomplished the rare feat of getting better anyway. She has finished in the top 10 three times this season and capped it off with a championship victory in Palos Verdes last week.
Specific objectives, structured practice
Alex says she used to approach the practice in a relatively simplistic way: putting together a vague idea of what she needed to do and putting hours into it. But with back pain providing a hard stop to all the problems that overexertion can solve, she turned to ultra-structured workouts. Alex structured his practice according to specific goals: what was the goal of his practice? What was she trying to improve? How was she trying to improve it? Why?
“I would put myself on a ball count of, say, 30 range swings a day. I could maybe go up to 50 and be really disciplined in those extra shots,” she says. “When you’re limited to 30 balls a day, there’s not much you can do. You’re just trying to get through the bag. You hit a few pitching wedges, a couple 7-irons, a couple 5s, a wood and a driver. The next thing you know is you’re 30 bucks.
Ultimately, says Alex, each practice session meant answering a question.
“What am I trying to accomplish here?” Alex said she wondered that every time she went to the range.
Often, she added, that meant picking and choosing her spots. In the past, she was constantly working on her swing. Now she divides this process. She avoids making technical changes for stretches with fewer tournaments, and bookends the busier stretches with the practice of “maintenance.”
“I just wanted to do enough reps to feel like I could at least have some kind of control over that swing,” she said.
Gradually, it crumbled. Some days she progressed more than others.
“You do what you can when I felt good. When I didn’t feel well, I did everything I could,” she says.
But the numbers don’t lie. She made 15 out of 20 cuts last year and hasn’t missed a weekend this year. She is in the top 15 on tour with the Greens in Regulation – her highest ranking in that statistic in more than four years – and her points average is the lowest she has ever been in her career. The injury may not have been something she wanted, but it still helped her become a smarter and better golfer.