By Sridhar Narayanan 

I thought my son had played reasonably well in a Junior World Golf qualifier in Sacramento, shooting a 77 (+5) on a par-72 course.

As I sauntered over to check out the scores, I saw that the winning score was a 64 (-8) by a kid whose parents I knew. “What did you feed him today?” I asked in congratulating them.

Without skipping a beat, since that is what they were chowing down at that time, they said “Cheeseburgers”.

A food item my son has never experienced in his 13 years of existence.

Can a vegetarian ever aspire to the top echelons of golf on a diet devoid of meat? And are we, as parents, failing in our duty by not cooking and plowing burgers and hot dogs into our son?

Both my wife and I were brought up as vegetarians for religious reasons.

We come from a family lineage in South India whose most cherished dish is ‘thair-sadam’ (curd and rice). I, however, did stray during my college years to experience being a meat-eater. Not satisfied with just having ‘Intel Inside’ my computers, I wanted to see what it felt like to have ‘Meat Inside’ my digestive tract.

I still recall the sensation of my first bite into a Whopper and that oh-so-succulent taste of spicy tandoori chicken. Why could my son not feel the same sensations in his palate?

When he was three, my wife carefully orchestrated a switcheroo — replacing potato with chicken nuggets. He chomped at it for a few seconds, gave me a smile that I felt so excited by (I now realise it might have been gas) and then promptly vomited it to let me experience ‘Meat Outside’.

In all the years since, he has never once expressed a desire to eat anything that has meat in it. And he has a stubborn streak that does not relent easily.

So why is this relevant to how he plays the game of golf at the age of 13?

Because he is figuratively (and literally) dwarfed in size and strength compared to boys that he plays with of a similar age. It has no bearing on the short game around the greens. But what a difference it makes on those drives from the tee box.

Contrast a booming drive of 280 yards on a long par-4 of say 400 yards to enable a short wedge to the green, to eking out 200 yards on the drive and needing an accurate 3-wood to just get close to the green. That shot disparity on one hole accumulates over the long par-4 and par-5 holes to a final differential of at least 7 strokes. Game over, finito, checkmate, acabado in Spanish — or maybe avocado in my son’s mind.

Conventional wisdom stresses how essential meat is as a source of protein and bulk to world-class athletes. Can you imagine Usain Bolt, Peyton Manning or even Jordan Spieth performing their best on a belly full of salad and lentils?

In my quest to better understand the impact of meat on world-class athletes, I Googled vegetarian world-class athletes. And I was quite inspired reading about Carl Lewis, Bode Miller, Edwin Moses, Joe Namath, Martina Navratilova, Murray Rose, Robert Parrish, Billie Jean King, Venus Williams, Tony Gonzalez and a host of other athletes who have and continue to excel with a vegetarian/vegan diet.

But the skeptical side of me asks if any of them started their first 13 years on this diet, or was it a lifestyle they adopted later in their success?

It is said that vegetarian foods have less caloric density than their meaty alternatives and hence athletes need to be aware of their caloric intake and expenditure to accommodate this.

My son sparingly bites into his peanut-butter sandwiches in the middle of his rounds and has absolutely no gauge of his caloric expenditure. Maybe similar bites into a tuna sandwich might give him more calories but I am reasonably sure that will not make any difference to his overall performance during his rounds.

This is ultimately a lifestyle choice — does he need to consume meat-based foods to give him the muscle, strength and endurance to elevate his game? What does he need to do to bring home the bacon (pun oh-so-intended)?

Can a combination of a vegetarian diet with an emphasis on physical fitness — something he is lax about — give him an equal or potentially greater advantage?

It is uneasy being the parent of a vegetarian child aspiring to golf greatness. As parents we want to give our children the best advantage in every aspect of their lives. Maybe we are being unnecessarily paranoid in our thinking. We wait with bated breath for that growth spurt to kick in since height is such a great advantage in golf. And hope he quickly understands the value of physical fitness.

Imagine our joy down the road (or maybe that should be down the fairway) in seeing him out-drive his meat-eating competitors. But ‘lettuce’ see how all this plays out – we really do want to avoid a ‘Vegexit’ option for our son.

(Sridhar Narayanan is an engineer and lives in Cupertino, California.)

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