The Changing Body of Golf

How improved fitness levels and better nutrition have changed the way the game is played.

FIRST PUBLISHED Winter 2020 North Carolina Living Magazine

If there’s one sport that hasn’t changed much over the years, it’s golf. Yes, yes, there were multiple rule changes implemented this last year and technology has turned the weekend golfer’s drive from so-so to impressive. But, from the outside looking in, other than the fact that very few still don knickers or a tam o’ shanter, golf looks pretty much the same as it did when the Old Course started welcoming guests many centuries ago.

The participants, however, well, that’s another story. 

Gone are the days of beer bellies and out of shape (at least for the most part) golfers. Nowadays players at all levels be it  junior, high school, college, pro, let alone recreational golfers … they’re all considerably fitter than in years past. An interesting trend considering the fact that at least here in America, the number of obese people has nearly doubled in the past forty years.

Case in point: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka. Not only are they on top of their game (literally and figuratively) but they’re in pretty darn good shape too. Like jaw-dropping, muscle-popping, kind of good shape. Oh, I know … they’re young. What’s the big deal? The big deal, as it turns out, is that it’s not just the young guys who are seriously hitting the gym and pounding the pavement. It’s the (sorry Greg), but it’s the “old” guys too. Have you seen ESPN’s June 2018 “Body Issue?” Arguably, the now 64 year old Greg Norman’s spread is beyond impressive and he’s just one of the quote-unquote old guys showing the world what a steady fitness routine and good nutrition can do for your body, and for the game of golf. 

The Tiger Effect

“Golf certainly has changed a bunch through the years and nutrition and physical fitness has been a large part of the change,” says University of Oregon men’s head golf coach, Casey Martin. And he ought to know. Not only did he lead his team to an NCAA win (2016) but he was a member of Stanford’s 1994 NCAA championship team, and briefly, a teammate of Tiger Woods.

“The best competitive golfers are in the gym a lot and lifting a lot of weights. It used to be that you did some cardio and a lot of stretching, but now it’s evolved into a legit lifting-type sport. You still need to be flexible,” he says, “but players are finding a good balance.”

And the shift, Martin believes──as do a number of others──can largely be attributed to something known as The Tiger Effect. 

“He was really the first elite player to lift weights like they do in other sports,” says Martin. “His power and physical dominance led other players to do the same,” and consequently the game, he says, has shifted to a more powerful style. 

PGA Tour player Ben Crane agrees.

“Tiger was one of the first to introduce big lifting, but fitness has continued to grow (in importance) over the years,” says Crane, “and now there’s more and more guys staying in great shape.”

“Just look at Greg Norman and Gary Player … when I first came on tour there were probably two trainers in treatment trailers and now there’s 15 or 20, maybe even 30.” Of course fitness helps get you in shape to consistently strike a 6-iron more than 200 yards, but good nutrition is what fuels the game.

“Golf is so competitive now that every player and team are looking for ways to get an edge,” says Martin. And proper nutrition, he adds, is one of the ways to gain a slight competitive advantage.  

“Nutrition is especially important when you consider the length of our season. To be fresh at the end of the year your body needs to be a fine tuned machine. Fueling it with the proper nutrition is vital to be at your best,” he says.

And for Crane, eating right is one of the key components that’s helped give him an edge when it comes to competing for hours upon hours.

“There’s been massive changes in the food available,” says Crane on what the PGA’s had ready for tour players over the years.

“It used to be cold cuts and now its fresh produce, smoothies and juice stations. We asked for better food choices and the Tour’s been great at providing it for us,” he says, which, considering the strength and endurance required to be a professional golfer it’s about time … and it’s about time that golfers get recognized and treated like the athletes they are.

But Are Golfers Athletes?

In 2004 ESPN.com set out to discover what the most demanding sports are based on the following 10 criteria: endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, durability, hand-eye coordination and analytic aptitude. The survey polled a group of experts including U.S. Olympic Committee scientists, sports journalists, academicians who study the science of muscles and movement, and former professional baseball and football player Brian Jordan. Of the 60 sports considered, boxing came in first, with hockey, football and basketball following close behind. Last, was fishing. As for golf … it came in behind table tennis and canoeing at 51st. Of course that was 15 years ago and the Tiger Effect was merely beginning to take shape. 

And take shape, it has.

Even the Old Course has tightened its belt a bit. Just look at the 17th fairway … only years ago it was right around 130 yards from the green, but now it’s a short 22 paces from one side to the next making an already incredibly difficult hole, even more so. And no, the Royal and Ancient didn’t make the adjustment(s) as a way to “get in shape” but rather as a way to combat the increasing drive distances seen across the game. Drive distances that can, at least somewhat, be attributed to the rising athleticism of today’s golfer. As for how the “skinnier” fairway will affect players when the 150th Open Championship plays there in 2021, it will undoubtedly pose an even greater challenge than before, even for the fittest of players. As for who will come out on top, it’s hard to say. But one thing’s for certain, it will be someone who hits ‘em well below par on the course, and puts his fitness and nutrition needs well above.

Tips for Fueling Up Before you Play

What to eat before a morning round 

Casey Martin: Some eggs and maybe oatmeal. Probably some breakfast meats or other protein as well. We try and stay away from too much sugar in the morning such as pancakes and syrup. Drink water and pay attention to hydration.

Ben Crane: I like to eat low-sugar oats with almond milk and some sort of healthy protein. When I’m on tour I like to have pasture-raised eggs, and Ezekiel bread with a little coconut oil.

What to eat before or after an evening round

CM: Carbs and protein──pasta, chicken. And hydrate.

BC: I try to have an early dinner with lots of veggies and wild-fish or grass-fed meat of some sort. Eating early is so important because rest is so important. And you rest better when your stomach isn’t busy digesting food. 

Go to snack during play

CM: Depends on the position of the round. Early in the round we try to eat slow-burning things like nuts or some protein or good carbs. Later in the round it’s okay to have quicker carbs such as a bar or dried fruit or an energy drink although we try not to have too many energy drinks early in the round because of the sugar content. There seem to be some better, lower sugar energy drinks that are okay, but basically we want to steer clear of too much sugar. Hydration is mainly water until later in the round when needing a quick boost of Gatorade is okay.   

BC: I don’t like to be hungry so I eat every hour. During play it’s an almond butter, honey and banana sandwich on Ezekiel bread. I drink clean water and coconut water to replenish electrolytes.

“The best things you can eat or drink are one, two or maybe three words … Apple. That’s a good thing. Broccoli. That’s a good thing. Water. Coconut water … those are all good ones. Stay away from ingredients you can’t pronounce and anything that has lots of ingredients, that’s probably not good for you.” ~ PGA Tour Player Ben Crane’s advice for young people on nutrition

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