As the Race to Dubai arrives in North Carolina for the fourth and final Major of the season – the USPGA Championship – Sam Price speaks to Dr Andrew Murray, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the European Tour, about the considerable health and fitness benefits of golf spectating
It is widely recognised that the current roster of professional golfers, who this week tee off for the fourth and final Major of the season – the USPGA Championship – are fitter, stronger and healthier than any of their predecessors.
Physical fitness is seen as a prerequisite for success in the modern game, with previous USPGA champions such as Rory McIlroy bringing personal trainers and nutrition support on board in the quest for the extra one per cent required to triumph in such tournaments.
But it is not only the players who will be gaining physical benefit from walking the Quail Hollow course in North Carolina, USA, over the course of the four days.
Recent research published by the University of Edinburgh in conjunction with the Golf & Health Project, and funded by the World Golf Foundation, has suggested that golf fans may be among the fittest of all sporting spectators – and that actively watching tournaments can bring wide-ranging health benefits.
While those spectating at sports such as football, tennis or cricket watch the action unfold from their seats, gaining little or no exercise, many of the 10 million-plus people who attend golf tournaments each year exceed recommended daily step counts by following their golfing heroes all over the 18 holes.
At the 2016 Shenzhen International, for example, anecdotal evidence found that fans collectively walked the equivalent length of the Great Wall of China seven times. In doing so, they were gaining the type of physical activity that policy-makers agree can improve mental health, physical health and life expectancy for people of all ages and backgrounds, but most crucially in older demographics, who form the majority of active golf audiences.
According to Dr Andrew Murray, a researcher who works as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the European Tour, the purpose of the study – which has been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine – is to raise awareness and understanding of the role golf can play in health and well-being, in an effort to increase attendance at tournaments and general participation in the game.
“Golf is a fantastic sport played by 55 million people worldwide, which has terrific health benefits for those who play,” he says. “If you play golf you’ll live on average five years longer, and you’re at a much lower risk of getting illnesses like type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, depression and dementia – because golf is a type of regular physical activity.
“But emerging evidence shows that – even if you’re not competing a tournament like the Dubai Desert Classic or DP World Tour Championship – you can get many of the health benefits that golfers get that day simply by spectating in an active fashion.”
Murray has vast experience of working as a sport and exercise doctor at events from the Olympics to the Commonwealth Games, but he believes it is fans at golf events such as the Ryder Cup who provide the best example of active and healthy spectating.
“If you’re watching a golf event, by all means spend some time in hospitality and enjoy that – but do get out and watch these golfers at close quarters,” advises Murray. “Walk the course, feel the wind and see the beauty of the surroundings, and get health-enhancing physical activity – because there are huge benefits to it.”
Murray is no stranger to physical exertion himself, having become the first person to run seven ultra-marathons in the seven continents – including a sixth leg in Dubai – in under seven days back in 2012. And this year, he will complete a 200-mile run from Wentworth to Paris, to celebrate the one-year-to-go milestone to the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, and to raise money for Golf and Dementia.
Dubai has some of the best [golf] tournaments in the world. Using these to get people engaged in physical activity represents a significant opportunity.
Indeed, the Scotsman – who is involved in the organisation of the inaugural Congress on Golf and Health in 2018 – believes it is vital to promote the health benefits associated with golf in tandem with its flagship events.
“At the European Tour we’re passionate about putting on amazing golf tournaments, but there’s also corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the opportunity to make a difference in communities,” he says.
“The spectator health initiative has worked extremely well in places such as Shenzhen in China, and also on the Challenge Tour and the Ryder Cup, so we want to promote the act of spectating so people can see the beautiful courses that Dubai – or wherever they are in the world – have to offer.”
Activations at recent events like the RICOH Women’s British Open have continued this process, and Murray believes that Dubai – as a burgeoning golf hub, and a city where many professional players spend a considerable amount of time – could in time become a test-bed for projects that look to promote health and well-being alongside tournaments.
“Golf is certainly a force for good, and I think it could have a key role to play in public health in Dubai – and across the Middle East, where rates of physical activity are low and obesity high,” says Murray.
“Dubai is an iconic destination with some world-class golf facilities,” he adds, “but it also has some of the best tournaments in the world. So using these to get people engaged in physical activity – and thinking about their own health while watching great sport – represents a significant opportunity.”
It is not just the players who will be honing their fitness at the USPGA Championship this week, and with the Golf & Health Project’s pioneering research beginning to promote discussion worldwide, this potentially far-reaching growth area should be further developed by the time the Race to Dubai reaches its November climax.
The 99th USPGA Championship takes place on 10-13 August at Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina, USA