I'm not exactly sure when the idea of barefoot golfing first occurred to me. I do recall a new pair of golf shoes causing so much pain that I took them off around the 12th hole and finished the round just fine sans-shoes. Seeing David Gunas Jr on the Golf Channel play on "The Big Break" reality show barefoot was also part of the inspiration.
You would think a sport having a history of loud fashions would be open to barefoot golfing. Following the evolution of Golf fashion and attire is much like following the evolution of Klingon foreheads. There are fads, phases, and styles that all Golfers would just as soon forget ever existed.
But barefoot golfing is not about fashion. In fact, it's a minimalist approach to golfing that removes yet another obstacle to understanding true swing mechanics and the Kinesiology of how the feet are used.
I started experimenting on the driving range barefoot a few years to get a feel for how the body transitions from my back swing to follow-through. This worked great except for the fact that putting the shoes back on for actual rounds was like playing a different game. The old adage of "practice like you're competing and compete like you practiced" holds true. If barefoot golfing worked on the range then I'd have to play barefoot on the course to reap the benefits.
I played a few rounds without shoes (mostly as a single) at some public courses in Oregon and today play quite regularly in Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) KSOs. Some days, if the conditions are right or if I'm feeling a sand pebble in the KSOs, I'll go without the VFFs.
"How do you play without spikes?" I wondered this myself. The sport of Golf has almost universally transitioned from steel to soft rubber spikes in the past 2 decades without impacting player performance. But do you really need spikes at all?
In reality golf is a sport of 3 distinctly different "sub-games", only one of which benefits from spikes. If you think about it, golf spikes make no sense at all and in fact do more damage to your game. I've seen more players slip or lose their footing because of a) worn spikes or b) spikes catching the ground while turning.
It's taken me over 20 years, but I've finally discovered that true power comes from turning the hips and using the abs to whip through the ball. Both feet are going through all sorts of transitions throughout this type of swing, from providing a base for coiling the body to raising the right heel and pivoting on the toe to follow-through.
There are really only 2-3 places on the feet that can benefit from having spikes. The rest of the foot needs to move freely to be effective. The short game and putting really don't need spikes at all (in fact, spikes on greens are the bane of the game, but that's a whole different discussion).
In wearing my VFF KSOs, it's often crossed my mind how cool it would be to inject 2-3 strategically placed spikes onto the soles. It would be the perfect golf shoe! Then lo and behold Vibram releases the Bikila running shoe with extra traction in most of the places that could benefit a Golfer, so now I have some experimenting lined up for Summer 2010.
An interesting thing happens when exposing the toes and bare foot to the ground during a swing. All 52 bones (26 in each foot) make lots of small adjustments throughout the golf swing in response to each minor transition of weight. The toes will subtly move in ways that have a gripping effect.
In fact, it is much easier to maintain a center of balance while barefoot, thus ensuring impact is nearly identical to how the ball was addressed.
Ah, the dreaded sand trap. With or without shoes the traps are the worst part of my game. Barefoot is not so bad, but I was worried that getting sand in the KSOs would cause some discomfort. That turned out not to be the case. The KSOs actually do a pretty good job of living up to their name and "Keep Stuff Out".
It's a violation to ground your club in a sand trap to get a sense of what lies beneath, so Golfers commonly dig in with their feet to get a feel for sand texture and depth. +1 to barefoot golfers in this situation as you get an immediate feel for the sand.
A lot of benefits come into play on the green when putting barefoot. Walking around the putting surface and feeling every contour feels like I'm getting an extra 10% in information about the greens. I'm a big fan of the Dave Pelz school of putting and establishing a strong pendulum base is quite easy to do barefoot or in KSOs.
Simply put, golf shoe spikes ruin greens. No Golfer would argue against that. Spikes provide no value on the greens and only do damage to the most important part of the course where the real money is made.
The heels on golf shoes shift the pelvis into an unnatural position, so 99% of putting strokes are already compensating for bad posture. Dropping the heels to the ground allows your body to correctly and naturally form a strong base from which to build a consistent stroke.
Golf courses use chemicals on the greens and fairways to keep them lush and green. I won't lie, it concerns me. One school of thought says the feet will absorb just about anything, so they should be pampered. Another school of thought says the feet evolved from persistence hunting and can take just about any kind of abuse.
My thinking is somewhere in between. The gains have far outweighed the losses (so far).
Common sense says don't walk through ground under repair with obvious heaps of fertilizer, don't directly touch the feet, make sure to clean/scrub afterwards, etc....
I'm probably far more likely to catch a cold or flu from the customary handshaking before and after rounds than I am to get sick from absorbing some fertilizer (man, I hope I'm right about this!).
Posture and Pain
Last but not least is the benefit of posture and playing pain free. In recent years I always awoke to considerable back and shoulder pain the day after playing a round of golf. Was I not stretching enough? Should I stop carrying my golf bag? Am I swinging too hard? Nothing seemed to work. But this year, since I've started golfing in KSOs and barefoot, the pains have pretty much gone away. Walking the course with a pull cart has become an enjoyable experience.
As alluded to in Putting above, the heels on golf shoes thrust the pelvis forward into an unnatural position causing a cascade of skeleton adjustments and problems. Golf is basically 4 hours of walking and standing with an occasional swing. Are golf shoes designed for that 5% activity of swinging or the other 95%? Both? Adjusted posture is where I've experienced the biggest gains and derive more enjoyment from golf by going barefoot.
What most people consider pain when walking barefoot is actually just a sudden change in sensation. There are a lot of nerve endings in the feet, so "yes", when you transition from grass to dirt, the brain definitely knows it. It takes awhile (2-3 months) to adjust and relax. You will never adjust for gravel... that's just frakkin painful; hence my preference for KSOs on courses with lots of cart paths.
If anyone from Vibram is reading this and wants to tackle a niche market, give me a shout. I think the Bikilas are on to something. It would be awesome to have several pre-fabricated holes on VFFs for strategically inserting spikes in just the right places for golf.