One day before he was set to tee off at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass last month, reigning U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka aggravated a left-wrist injury while out on the practice range.
The world’s No. 9 ranked professional golfer threw his club down in frustration and made a beeline out of the practice area.
“I was in excruciating pain,” the 28-year-old Floridian said in a telephone interview last week. “And I couldn’t get the feeling in my hand to come back at all. I thought, ‘Oh man, here we go.’ ”
Mr. Koepka made his way to a golf cart and headed out of the practice area.
“I needed to get to Marc,” he said.
This is the world in which Cutchogue physical therapist Marc Wahl operates. A high-stakes sports environment where athletes at the very top of their game — men with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line every weekend — turn to him when something isn’t quite right with the bodies they use to earn a living.
Mr. Wahl, a 1983 graduate of Mattituck High School and the former owner of North Fork Physical Therapy, spends about 30 weeks of the year on the PGA tour, working full time with seven professional golfers who rely on him for physical therapy services while out on the road.
For players like Mr. Koepka, who will attempt to defend his U.S. Open title at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton next week, Mr. Wahl is the person whose input keeps him off the sidelines and at the top of his game.
“He’s a part of every decision that goes into my body,” Mr. Koepka said. “He’s on the phone and texting with my doctors. I actually speak with him more than anybody else.”
The fruits of Mr. Wahl’s labor can be spectacular for both him and the athletes he works with, a list that also includes 2016 PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker and tour pros J.B. Holmes, Sean O’Hair, Branden Grace and Brandt Snedeker.
So when he saw Mr. Koepka headed for him at the Players last month, Mr. Wahl could see the concern but he didn’t panic.
“My niche has become, ‘I’ll get you to the tee,’ ” he said. “I don’t have an explanation for that. There is some place I go between art and science.”
In this instance, the science involved snapping a bone back into place where Mr. Koepka has been dealing with a tendon issue that caused him to miss this year’s Masters tournament.
The art was on display over the next four days. Mr. Koepka finished the tournament tied for 11th at 11-under-par. He went from “excruciating pain” Wednesday to a course-record 63 on Sunday.
It’s been a long journey for Mr. Wahl, 52, from local physical therapist to a commodity on the tour.
A fan of the sport, he took some courses on golf exercise as he worked to develop a new focus for himself, a process that took about a decade to develop. In the early 2000s he took a specific course with Titleist where he learned about kinematic sequence.
The best way to describe it, he explains, is when you see videos of athletes hooked up to machines that trace their movement for animation in video games. Except he’s using such a machine to help golfers guard against and navigate through injuries.
He doesn’t want to change their swing, that’s not his area of expertise, nor something he’d advise. Instead, he’s measuring through graphs a golfer’s movements and working to help them get the most out of their bodies.
“If someone has an inefficient golf swing, but they’re making money doing it, they want to keep that,” Mr. Wahl said. “My job is basically changing the oil and changing the tires, not trying to pull the motor out and put a new transmission in. I’m just trying to keep it bright and shiny.”
In 2006, Mr. Wahl made an initial investment of $30,000 to obtain the machine he uses for kinematic sequencing.
As a physical therapist with four offices on the East End — including Cutchogue and Riverhead — he tried incorporating some of what he learned about golf on a local scale. He quickly learned though that most golfers do so for recreation and aren’t necessarily willing to put in the time and money to follow a program developed for them by a physical therapist.
Mr. Wahl said he did, however, have some believers in the local golf pro ranks and he credits Laurel Links professional Steve Haggerty with encouraging him to keep up with what he was trying to do.
“I certainly would not have done what I’ve gone out and done without somebody like him saying to me, ‘This is really special what you’re doing, don’t quit.’ ” Mr. Wahl said.
His first opportunity to work with a tour regular came with Irish golfer Graeme McDowell in 2008. The pair met up in Los Angeles, where Mr. Wahl shared with the golfer what he had been working on.
“I showed the correlation between this graph and their lack of strength or range of motion of an area and I could quickly correct it because I was a manual therapist,” he said of his early work with Mr. McDowell and others. “They could see a change right away. It struck a chord with a lot of people and I started coming out more to make my manual skills useful.”
A decade later, this is entirely how Mr. Wahl makes a living, trading in the rates insurance companies reimburse health care providers for the type of compensation some of the world’s most famous athletes are willing to pay to make sure their bodies run right. This includes non-traditional practices like cupping.
Mr. Wahl focuses most of his attention on the seven pros he tours with, but also helps when other golfers have an issue. World Top 25 players Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar have all come to him when dealing with physical issues.
Mr. Koepka said the personal attention he’s able to get from Mr. Wahl — because he’s choosy about his clients — sets him apart on the tour.
“He could [work for] 15 to 20 guys if he wanted to,” Mr. Koepka said. “He likes it to be more personal though, so he can be more thorough.”
Since he went to full time on the tour, Mr. Wahl has seen dramatic changes in his lifestyle. He learned after some time he didn’t like the grind of flying, renting a car and staying in hotels. He now travels along with his partner — Mattituck native Hanna Senesac — in an RV.
The couple, who is expecting a child together this summer, stay at campgrounds along the way and spend their downtime foraging for wild food and spring water, making friends who enjoy nature as they make their way to and from the towns and cities along the PGA highway.
“There is a circus kind of rat race out here — it’s a traveling circus — and I try to divorce myself from that so I stay healthy enough to stay out here,” he said. “We collect about 120 gallons [of natural water] every couple of weeks from different places throughout the country. It’s a little different.”
Coming back to Long Island for the U.S. Open, where Koepka, Walker, Grace and Snedeker will all play (two more of his players were aiming to qualify this week), provides a bit of a break from the road for Mr. Wahl. It also gives him a chance to see family. His mother, Irene, still lives in Cutchogue and he said he misses his children, Sarah, 16, and Sam, 10, dearly.
But after taking this week off, he’ll be to Shinnecock bright and early each day next week. On the week of a tournament where he’s on site, his days can often start at 5 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. It’s a grind he says is worth it, and he’s made memories that would be impossible to forget, like Mr. Koepka’s win at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, Wis., last year and at the 2016 Ryder Cup.
The 2016 season also brought Mr. Wahl his favorite moment on the tour as he watched Mr. Walker win his first major, edging Jason Day on the final hole at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., for the PGA Championship.
In a Golf Channel interview after the victory, Mr. Walker was asked about how he’s resurrected his career after several peaks and valleys early on, including injuries. He gave Mr. Wahl, with whom he’s worked since 2010, the credit.
“He really helped keep my body feeling really good,” the now 39-year-old golfer said. “He worked on my neck, which is where my problem area was and he’s kept all that feeling really, really solid. It’s allowed me to go work and work hard.”
When Mr. Walker walked away from the 18th hole at Baltusrol, he found Mr. Wahl and the two shared an embrace. Looking back on a video Titleist shot of that moment, Mr. Wahl said it still gets him every time.
“That brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “That one ran pretty deep.”
The quest to create more great memories and build on a career that has enabled him to travel the country working with people at the top of their profession continues this week at Shinnecock, a 25-mile drive around the Peconic Bay from where it all began in Cutchogue.
Top Caption: Marc Wahl at home in Cutchogue with the motorcycle he uses along with an RV to travel the country while on the PGA Tour. (David Benthal photo)