Anyone who has even a passing interest in darts will know that the teenager Luke Littler became an overnight sporting sensation when he reached the final of the 2024 World Championships in London.
Chants of ‘you’ve got school in the morning’ filled the Alexandra Palace arena in London whenever he made his entrance and he had 7.8-million social media views of opening a Christmas present from his parents. His Instagram following went from 400 to 4,800 in a fortnight and he was promised ‘kebabs for a year’ if he went all the way.
Not that Littler looks like an elite athlete. But if you believe that darts is a sport then he is one. At the age of 16 in fact, he’s one of the world’s best. Many observers believe he looks twice his age, and it’s hard to disagree. Then again, one doesn’t have to be a gym bunny to be a world champion darts thrower.
When it comes to cricket you do, and former Proteas opener Herschelle Gibbs went on the front foot on his social media platform to criticise current Test cricket captain Temba Bavuma during the Boxing Day Test against India in Centurion: ‘Ironic that the coach allows some players who are clearly unfit and overweight to play when he started off as Proteas trainer in 2009.’ Basically, he accused Bavuma of opening himself up to the hamstring injury that forced him off the field.
So, on one side you have an elite darts player and on the other you have an international cricketer and the levels of required fitness are up for interpretation.
What of golf? Well, if Gibbs was a player on the Champions Tour – he turns 51 this month – he’d be one of the fittest around. He’s in tremendous physical shape, as he’s been throughout his life. He’s around a 2-handicap, despite not playing enough, and no doubt his high fitness levels play a part in his success.
This very magazine has carried a fitness column for a couple of decades; physical and mental fitness are so important in maintaining concentration and hitting consistency over 18 holes, especially in the harsh South African summer.
It was Gary Player, the nine-time Major champion who is routinely referred to as the fittest 88-year-old on the planet, who first made the link between fitness and golfing excellence. ‘I am in the gym 90 minutes a day. I push 300 pounds with my legs, I run on the treadmill, do 200 sit-ups and exercise my fingers. I walk the course and walk up flights of stairs.’ That is no exaggeration.
However, many of his contemporaries weren’t as health conscious. ‘The only exercise some of them got was to get
up to take the olive out of a martini glass,’ the South African says.
It’s not to say that overweight, and unfit (?) golfers didn’t hit the heights. Craig Stadler was called ‘The Walrus’, Jack Nicklaus was called ‘Fat Jack’ in his early days, Tim Herron was ‘Lumpy’, Angel Cabrera was known for his penchant for food and drink, while Carl Pettersson was hardly Twiggy. Then there was John Daly, who needs no introduction, and even Miguel Angel Jimenez, who prefers to spend a few hours with a malt whisky and fat cigar to going to the gym.
All of which suggests that to be a winning golfer you don’t need to be too fit. But it helps.
And it was Tiger Woods who kick-started the modern era of fitness when he arrived on the scene in the late ’90s and looked to be playing a different sport. Impressively ripped, with muscles in all the right places, there’s no doubt his hours spent in the gym and watching his diet helped mould him into the player many regard as the GOAT. I certainly do.
And so many have followed, and so many are benefiting from that kind of lifestyle. Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland are renowned for their work ethic, as are DJ Johnson and Brooks Koepka. So too Bryson de Chambeau, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.
In fact, you’re likely to be the odd one out – Jon Rahm – if you don’t have a chiseled torso.
How times have changed.
– This column first appeared in the February 2024 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine.
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images