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Urology pearls: Learning to hit those golf balls with mercy

Shahar Madjar, MD

Tiger Woods was traveling north on Hawthorne Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was 7:12 a.m., Pacific time. The road was open, the horizon clear. The road was steep and curvy, and the speed limit was 45 mph. Tiger was driving a 2021 Hyundai Genesis GV80, a midsize luxury SUV–a sophisticated machine sold as “a drive that embodies safety and stability,” a vehicle that boasts a 10-airbag system “Engineered for optimum impact reduction.”

The vehicle hit the dividing median, destroying a wooden sign that read “Welcome to Rolling Hill Estates,” crossed two southbound lanes, hit a curb and several trees, and barely missed a telephone pole. Then, it must have lost contact with the road and became airborne, rolled over several times, and landed 30 feet off the road. It landed on its side, its front and back ends completely smashed, the hood open, and the air-bags deployed.

I can only imagine what Tiger was experiencing inside the cabin: the panic that comes with a loss of control; the spinning images out of the windshield; the gunshot-like sound of the deploying airbags; the banging of crashing, bending metal; and the smell of dust released into the air. Then, an incredible silence, his heart–the heart of an athlete–pounding fast and hard, the pain of broken bones, and the terror. Am I going to die? Will I ever play golf again?

Tiger was extricated from the vehicle and brought to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, a level 1 trauma center. He was diagnosed with comminuted open fractures affecting both the upper and the lower portions of his tibia and fibula. In other words, the two bones of his lower leg were broken in more than one place, and exposed to the outside world through an open wound. The orthopedic surgeons stabilized these injuries by inserting a rod into his tibia. Additional injuries to the bones of his foot and ankle were stabilized with a combination of screws and pins. His rehabilitation process is expected to be long and painful.

This wasn’t the first time Tiger has experienced physical trauma. Tiger aims to take the lowest number of shots possible to get the ball into a series of holes in the ground. To achieve this goal, he strikes the golf ball with a club. This motion, the golf swing, is one of the most challenging motions in sport. Golfers may swing intuitively, but physicists describe this motion, using complex mathematical expressions, in terms of forces, torques, velocity, displacement and energy.

A swing is a dramatic transfer of force. During the collision between the golf club and the ball, the peak force applied to the ball can reach 4000 pounds.

What happens to the body during a golf swing, at the moment of impact? I recall my high school Physics teacher quoting Newton’s third law of motion–the law of action and reaction: when two bodies interact, they apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. In other words, when golfers hit the ball with all their might, the same amount of force is applied back. This force then reverberates through the golfer’s body.

Compared to other sports, golf is considered a moderate-risk activity. The most frequent cause of injury is repetitive practice. Because the swing is an asymmetric movement, the lead side (left arm and leg in a right-handed golfer) is injured more frequently than the trail side. The spine and the lower back account for the greatest incidence of injury in golfers (up to 36.4% in amateurs; much higher in professionals). But the swing doesn’t spare the shoulder, elbow, wrist, or hand. And, in the USA, golf is the sport with the highest incidence of lightening strikes.

Tiger woods is a living proof of the impact golf can have on professional players. He sustained injuries to his neck, shoulder, back, knees, and legs. Even before his Genesis accident, he had several surgeries on his knees and several more on his back.

Doctors often refer to the body as an incredible machine. Biologists often describe cells and organs as fine instruments. But when it comes to traumatic events such as motor vehicle accidents, or the repetitive practice of golf, I see the body more as a tool. Walk, run, swim, work–your body is the tool that allows movement. You won’t use a screwdriver to hammer a nail, or a hammer to drive a screw, nor should you use your body in a way for which it wasn’t built. Drive slower, wear a seatbelt, and, please, hit your golf balls with mercy.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.

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