Food For Thought

By: Tony Dear


These days, golfers are seeking out every which way to shave another shot from their scorecard. Equipment has certainly helped, as has exercise. Eating and drinking right may not seem as important. But how are you going to swing that shiny new driver at 100 mph if you're loaded up on hot dogs and beer?

Back when V-necked sweaters and checkered flares were part of the game, golfers swung at the ball with pin-headed drivers made from wood, of all things, and cared not a jot about diet. Big name players certainly didn't knock back Samuel Adams and wolf down a couple of corn dogs as they strode up the home hole at the Open Championship, but they weren't exactly fussy about what they put away either.

"When I started, no one cared much about that stuff and we didn't have a fitness trailer at every event," says the ample Craig Stadler. "Hey, we didn't have a fitness trailer at any event. The only place we could go after the round was the beer tent."

Golf, or so everyone at the time believed, was the one sport in which fitness and good eating habits played little or no part in determining a player's level of success. Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player the game has seen, paid little attention to his weight and certainly didn't make a habit of hitting the gym. My, how the world has changed since those dark days. Now, two fitness trailers follow the PGA Tour and most of the players call upon the services of a personal trainer and perhaps even a nutritionist to ensure they are in peak condition when it matters most.

So what Happened?

The evolution of the Champions Tour played a big part. Originally meant as an opportunity for a few good old boys, primarily Arnold Palmer, to get together for a bit of harmless fun, it started life (as the Senior Tour) in 1980 with just two tournaments and a total of $250,000 in prize money. Now, the Champions Tour is worth well over $50 million, a figure that provides players with all the incentive they need to remain fit and healthy for as long as possible. Hale Irwin foresaw the change nearly a decade ago. The senior circuit's all-time victory leader - with 45 wins, wrote a book called "Smart Golf" in 1998 that included a section on proper diet and nutrition. Irwin won the First tee Open and another $300,000 last September, two months after celebrating his 60th birthday.

Then, of course, there's Tiger Woods. Before he arrived on the scene, only Gary Player could boast the body of a genuine athlete. But now, having transformed himself from scrawny geek into a muscle-bound superhero, Woods has got everybody working out and eating right. No official research on the subject of decreasing waistlines on the PGA Tour has been carried out yet, but it's a fair bet the average girth is three or four inches less than what it was 10 or 15 years ago.

In Europe, Lee Westwood, Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke have all benefited from drastic changes in their diets while across the pond. Charles Howell, Jesper Parnevik and new boy Camilo Villegas all look like they could fit into Kate Moss' jeans. And how about that Australian Aaron Baddeley, who likes nothing better than a plate of pan-fried tofu on sesame watercress with soy-orange dressing for his evening meal?

Even "Big Easy" Ernie Els thinks about what he eats. Okay, he doesn't sport the egg-timer waistline of some of his contemporaries. But rather than crack open a beer or unwrap a Snickers after coming off the final green at the 2004 Masters when a playoff with Phil Mickelson was certainly a possibility, Els was seen munching an apple.

"It may seem trivial but that was actually quite significant," says Susan Hill, a sports nutritionist based in Oregon. "You might not have expected Els to go for some fruit, but he knew the importance of maintaining his blood sugar level and not eating something that might have given him a sudden rush of energy followed by a big crash soon after. By keeping your blood sugar level constant you maintain your energy level and mental acuity for longer."

The ability to concentrate until the last putt drops and improving your stamina are, more often than not, the reasons touring professionals cite for adopting a new diet. And there's a bit more to it than chomping on the odd apple, says Hill.

"I wouldn't expect amateur golfers to go to the lengths that some of the pros do, but if you're serious about seeing some improvement you've got to make a concerted effort to change your eating patterns," she says. "For a start, most people don't really sit down to a proper breakfast. It's usually something small and on the run to tide them over. That really isn't the best way to prepare for anything, let alone a round of golf. Today people are so busy they need a lot of energy so you need to eat consistently and often - five or six small meals a day. People wouldn't believe how much better they felt and the effect it would have on their energy levels if they got into a routine of eating smaller portions more often."

LPGA Tour stars Paula Creamer and Christie Kerr would certainly testify to that. After shedding 50 pounds in 2001, Kerr jumped 16 spots to No. 12 on the money list and won her first tournament, the Longs Drugs Challenge. Since then she has won five more titles and last year finished the year third on the money list. "Losing that weight helped me become a much better player, no doubt about it," Kerr says. "And it wasn't about eating less or different things necessarily, just eating smaller portions more often each day."

Creamer, too, is discovering the benefits of small and regular meals. "My diet has got much better the past six months," she says. "Since joining the Tour, I have started eating less food more often. I have eliminated junk food, soda, and most sweets too. My energy is way up and I feel about the same when I finish a round as I did before it started."

A decent breakfast and eating more frequently is a good start, but what else could we be doing to help us play better golf? "You really must eat snacks during your round," says Ingrid Laidlaw-Baker, a clinical naturopath from Canberra, Australia. "If you go four or five hours without eating, your blood sugar levels tend to drop, causing fatigue and a lack of concentration. You should eat some fruit or cereal bars and, of course, drink plenty of water that's ideally cool, not icy cold. If it's really hot out, it might be helpful to dilute a sports drink."

If you do like to swig on a sports drink, make it Powerade, says Hill. "It actually gives a better, more sustained release of energy than Gatorade. Or try electrolyte replacement solutions like Shaklee Performance, which a number of the top women players use. Importantly, don't ever get to the point where you feel thirsty. Even a 1% loss of water in your body will affect your level of performance. So constantly be sipping liquid. A 180-pound man should get through at least a liter during a round of golf."

In addition to what is, let's face it, fairly standard advice, Hill points her clients towards a useful tool, the Glycemic Index (GI), which ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels. According to www.glycemicindex.com, foods with a high GI result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels while low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels and have proven benefits for health such as facilitating weight loss, controlling diabetes, reducing the risk of heart disease, lowering cholesterol and prolonging physical endurance.     

"I focus a lot on the Glycemic Index," says Hill. "It's very useful for working on a diet plan with players who want to lose some weight and increase their stamina. I encourage them to eat low GI foods such as vegetables, brown rice and pasta as much as possible. All fruits are good too, especially citrus fruits, although watermelon is best eaten only after exercise as it raises your blood sugar level quickly. And dates are not a good choice as they actually get absorbed quicker than sugar. Carbohydrates help conserve water, too, in addition to providing the clean fuel you need to start and end your round."

All this can start to sound tediously scientific after a while but, as Hill says, making changes will take some effort on your part. If, like today's tour pros, you're looking for anything legal to help you score better, however, changing your eating habits might definitely be worth a shot . . . or two.

Here are some guidelines:

Alternatives to Water

Powerade - www.powerade.com
Xango - www.xango.com
Swing Juice - www.swingjuice.com  

Alternatives to Bananas
1st and 10th tee bars - www.golfenergybar.com
Mozzarella cheese
Crackers
Tortilla
Peanut butter on pita bread.

Also Worth a Look

Focus Formula - a unique blend of adaptogens (powerful antioxidant plant extracts) originally designed by a team of Russian scientists. This is said to help relieve the effects of stress and focus the mind.

Two Perfect Pre-round, Morning Meals

Susan Hill: oatmeal, banana bread, fruit juice

Ingrid Laidlaw-Baker: porridge, fruit and yoghurt, boiled egg on toast    

Tony Dear has been writing about golf for 11 years. A former assistant club pro from Sussex, England, Tony started out as a freelancer in 1992 before taking a staff writer's job at Fore!, a magazine based in Peterborough. As the magazine's chief instruction writer, it was Tony's job to compose instructional articles aimed at a youngish readership whose letters to the editor suggested they often got confused by technical jargon and theory. Tony brought his simple approach to teaching golf to the magazine, helping boost sales by 10,000 issues. As a result, he was nominated within the company and nationally for Young Writer of the Year awards.

From there, Tony moved 20 yards across the Emap UK office to join Today's Golfer. There, he was soon promoted to a senior editorial position, focusing on equipment, and became a significant part of a team that saw sales figures double within the magazine's first 12 months.

After three years at Emap UK, Tony was dragged kicking and screaming across the Atlantic by his American wife ("not really, I love it over here") and, after short spells in Phoenix and Denver, wound up in Seattle in May 2003. He recently moved to Bellingham in the far northwest corner of the far Northwest of the U.S. and became a father to a son on whom he has already staked �5 for the 2029 Open Championship. At present, he is freelancing for a number of print and online publications back in England including Today's Golfer, Golf World, Bogey, The Open Championship Magazine and Casino.com. He is also a contributing editor for Denver-based Colorado AvidGolfer.

Recent features include a look at Colorado's self proclaimed 'links' courses, an interview with Suzy Whaley, with whom he played nine holes ("and got soundly thrashed") and a 64-page instruction supplement for Today's Golfer.

Tony has authored three books in the last five years and been nominated for several specialist and young writers awards. "Although I've never actually won one," he admits. He is a member of the Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association based in London.

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