Game Improvement . . . shoes?

My experiment with “barefoot” style golf shoes Pin It

From the Desk of Robert Yen

Minimalist Shoes Wear Tester – Golf

Robert is a second-generation native of Phoenix, Arizona.  When not practicing law, he can usually be found playing–as he has for the past 44 years–one of the nearly 300 golf courses in and around the Phoenix metropolitan area.

 Robert Yen’s reviews

I play golf.

My brother-in-law is a runner.  He’s a computer engineer by training, but that’s only what he’s trained to do.  At heart, he’s a runner. He’s an avid runner.  He’s a serious runner.  He’s studied various running techniques.  He’s written books and blogs about running techniques. He’s tested and reviewed literally hundreds of running shoes.  He is a running disciple of sorts– a “running savant” if you will.  He’s Forest Gump, but with an IQ of 190.  If you express any interest in running, he will tell you more than your mind is capable of absorbing.

I asked him about running shoes.

For the next few hours, he gave me a tour of rooms in his home filled literally from floor to ceiling with shoes.  Walls of shoes, stacks of shoes, racks of shoes, strange looking shoes fashioned from colorful mesh, rubber, leather and plastics.  Few of them resembled anything I had grown up wearing.  Not a Chuck Taylor in sight, no Michael Jordan’s to be found.  But they all had one thing in common—none had any heels, and the soles, though firm and pliable, were about the thickness of a leather belt.

He explained that the newest style of running was really the oldest style of running—barefoot, or at least as close to it as possible.  He talked about the tribe of Indians in Mexico who were some of the best long distance, and most injury-free runners in the world, who ran only on thin sandals.  He talked about the shock the body is required to absorb when a runner, in a conventional, cushioned shoe, strikes his heel first.  He explained why our toes are made to naturally spread out when we walk or run and how a conventional shoe that entombs our feet doesn’t permit our body to feel the ground and balance itself as it otherwise would on a barefoot.  It was, all of it, fascinating.  And then we came upon a shoe that didn’t look quite so different.  A black shoe, with a black sole, and black, geometric rubber cleats.  He explained that it wasn’t a running shoe at all, but a golf shoe that had been designed in keeping with the theories underlying the minimalist running shoes.  Because he isn’t a golfer, he said he wanted to test it as best he could so he did what a runner does—he ran six miles in it.  He said it was so comfortable, and because it looked more like a traditional shoe than any of his running shoes, he now wears it with suits and slacks for business.  I was intrigued.

Everything he had told me about minimalist shoes made sense.  But this was a golf shoe. This was a shoe I could understand.

If “minimalist, natural or barefoot” running-style shoes liberate a runner’s feet, allowing them to move more naturally and effectively, would it really work for golf?  If a minimalist or natural-style shoe can make a runner more efficient, can it help turn a golfer into “a Player?”

The Friday Baseline

On a sunny, 70 degree, Friday afternoon I left my law office to find an answer to these questions.  Armed with a pedometer, I headed out to a nearby public course where I loaded my clubs onto a push cart and laced on a pair of standard issue, spike-less golf shoes, the kind of shoe I’ve worn on countless golf courses over the past four decades, the kind of shoe every major golf company produces by the tens of thousands—the kind of shoe we’ve all worn.  Three and one-half hours, and 80 strokes later (about right for my 7 handicap), I walked back to my car, packed up my clubs and cart, changed back into my street shoes and sat down to analyze my afternoon.

Some background:   First, I’m 58 years old.  I’ve played golf for 44 years since I was 14.  For nearly 20 years I’ve had a bad lower back.  I have bunions.  I have a bad left knee.  And if you ask my wife, I’m not hesitant to whine about any of it from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night.  Second, maybe it’s because I’m a wuss, or maybe because I’m a conformist, or maybe because I’m a bit of both, but over the past fifteen years I’ve played golf almost exclusively from an electric cart.

My Friday round was the first 18 hole walking round in perhaps five years.

Ok, back to what I learned from my Friday round.  In a sentence:   An out of shape, 58 year-old with a bad back, bad knees and bad feet, should probably work up to walking 18 holes in what are essentially leather dress shoes with rubber cleats on the bottom.

By the 4th  hole I began to think the electric golf cart was the best invention since water.  By the 9th hole, I started to rationalize how continuing to the back side might actually cause my multitude of physical aliments to worsen and that as an act of selflessness, and for the sake of my wife and children, perhaps I should forego the back 9 in favor of a hamburger, chips and a sugary lemonade.  Instead, I soldiered on.

By the 15th hole I began to hallucinate.  In the distance, I could see an electric golf cart. It was beautiful, so quiet, so lovely.  Was that my friend Alan coming to save me?  Ted?  Tom?  Anyone?    No.

By the 18th tee, though, I started to regain some focus, perhaps the way a horse does when it turns toward home.  Along with my renewed focus came the simple realization that I was nearly finished, that I had nearly done it—that I could still do it.  It was actually a satisfying feeling, a really satisfying feeling.

Here’s what else I was feeling:  My feet hurt.  My knees hurt.  My back hurt.  I was tired.  Really tired.  But I had enjoyed the round.  I’ve always thought one got a better sense of a course and a better tempo for the round from walking.  I also think that golf is much more “social” when conversation among playing companions is not limited to teeing areas, greens, and a few seconds driving from shot to shot.

By dinner that evening, I was beat.  After a few Advil it was off to bed. Oh, and that pedometer?  More than 10,000 paces, nearly 7 miles of walking in 18 holes.

The Saturday Shoe Shopping

The next morning I went online to choose among all the minimalist golf shoes that were surely on the market.  In contrast to my brother-in-law’s racks and stacks of minimalist running shoes, I discovered there were very few true minimalist golf shoes. There were, of course, the usual, classic style golf shoes, and there were a handful of casual golf shoes with “tennis shoe-like” uppers, but there really weren’t any companies making counter-parts to the minimalist running shoe—except one.  And that one company was True Linkswear, the manufacturer of the black golf shoe I had seen in my brother-in-law’s house.

From the company’s website I found a local retailer that carried them and dropped in to try them on.  The shoes felt immediately different from all my other golf shoes.  My actual shoe size is 12.5, but to accommodate the width of my feet (and my bunions) I generally have to go up to a 13.  The “True” golf shoes, however, felt instantly right.  The “Tour” model I tried on had a very wide toe box that comfortably fit my wide feet.  This shoe had foam cushioning, but instead of being under the foot as we’ve grown accustomed to, virtually all cushioning is devoted to creating comfort around the heel and the upper part of the foot.  The result is a shoe into which your heel fits snugly, comfortably and with much less lateral movement than a “sneaker.”  (I’ve tried sneakers or cross-training shoes on a golf course, and there’s way too much lateral movement).

The most noticeable difference in the True Linkswear shoe, is the absence of any heel whatsoever.  Nor is there a rigid-as-steel sole as we’ve grown accustomed to in traditional golf shoes.  In the store the sole felt tough enough to repel stickers, twigs or sharp rocks, but pliable enough to feel even the slightest change in the carpet.

True Linkswear has a variety of styles to choose from including white-on-black or black-on-white saddle, and new for 2012 all kinds of colorful combinations. The all black Tour models, with red stitching, are appealing because even though they have a wider appearance across the toe box, one could get away with wearing them to the office.

The Sunday Test

I woke, dressed, and laced up my True Linkswear shoes.  I wore them downstairs for breakfast;wore them out to the backyard to inspect the vegetable garden and the swimming pool;wore them down the driveway to pick up the newspaper. I wore them into my car and drove to the golf course.

Same golf course as Friday, same golf cart, same swing, different shoes.  As different as they felt in the store, they felt even more different on the golf course.  I noticed it the moment I stepped on the driving range.  I could feel the turf, its firmness, its softness, its subtle undulations.  And when I stood up to the ball, my address position felt slightly different, better, more centered and less on my toes.  The shoes have no raised heel to cant your body forward.

After a few balls on the practice range, it was off to the first tee.  By then I had forgotten my shoes were even different.  The shoes are very stable laterally.  If anything I felt more stable than in my conventional golf shoes, and better able to hit against my back foot, against my right side.

Strolling down the fairway I noticed how my foot seemed better able to simply roll over the heel instead of pounding against it.  After a few holes I noticed that my feet felt comfortable and even though I had been walking quite a bit and have a fairly flat instep, my feet didn’t feel tired at all.

On the putting greens the shoes allowed amazing feed back.  When we were kids, my brother and friends and I would play all summer long.  Often we’d take off our shoes to go hunting for balls in the ponds.  I remember how my bare feet were able to feel the firmness of the greens and their subtle undulations.  The greens felt the same way in these shoes. It was almost as if I could read a green by just walking the line.  And after walking on a few of the greens, I had an intuitive sense for how firm they were and how a pitch shot would react to them.

On the 5th hole I found my first green-side bunker.  On addressing the ball, I could feel with my feet the depth of the sand and its firmness, and it allowed my body to instinctively guage how the wedge would bounce and how the ball would react.

By the 9th hole, I wasn’t thinking of hamburgers and chips, I was thinking of making the turn in 38 strokes.

By the 15th hole, my legs were becoming a little weary, but my hips weren’t burning as they did two days earlier.  And by the 18th  I felt fine.  I felt good.  I felt like a guy would who just shot a 76, like a guy who just beat his handicap by 3 strokes.  I felt like a guy who should groove on the driving range, what he found on the course.  So I went to the range.

My Conclusions

Minimalist shoes work just as well for golf as my brother-in-law believes they do for running.  They create a more stable platform than traditional golf shoe.  They allow better feel and sense for the turf, greens and bunkers which in turn leads to more athletic, intuitive shot making.  Equally important, they’re more comfortable.  Apparently, allowing the feet to function naturally, allows the knees, and hips and back to work more naturally, too, all of which results in less strain, less pain . . . less Advil.

Golf is a game designed to be enjoyed on foot.  To the extent our golf courses recognize this and allow us to walk, minimalist golf shoes are what I’ll be wearing as long as I can still hoof it.

I ordered my second pair of True Linkswear shoes online and received them in three days.  This pair, though, is grey and “electric blue.”  No sense hiding my epiphany.   In 20 minutes I’ll be leaving my office.  What a difference a shoe makes—I’m looking forward to a nice 7 mile walk.

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