Don’t let neatly tucked polo shirts and tapered pants fool you. This current era of golfers is the fittest and most athletic the game of golf has seen. From CrossFit training to trips with personal chefs, reflexologists and mobile gyms – the game hasn’t changed much, but the players who leave have now evolved.
The PGA Tour season kicks off in full swing this week with The Players Championship. It’s the sport’s premier event that combines the strongest field in one of the tour’s most iconic venues in the Players’ Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Pete Vedra Beach, Florida. With a purse of $25 million, the $4.5 million for the winner is the biggest payout of the tour.
With all the focus on green, a new nutrition-focused player catering concept will also be unveiled. At the forefront of this change are performance dietitian Ryan Harmon and Chief Mohammad Azhar. The tour worked with Harmon to gather feedback from the player last summer to redesign how they are fueled.
Previously working as executive chef and business manager for TPC Sawgrass, Azhar was recently named the first National Culinary Director for the entire TPC network, which includes nine PGA Tour events, including players.
M&F spoke with the pair about their role in helping to ensure gamers are at their best with healthy options without sacrificing great taste.
Not your father’s golf
Ryan Harmon started speaking with players on the tour last summer to get some insight into what the various tournaments were offerings over the season and what they wanted to see. With each athlete having different needs and goals, there was a lot of information to consider. What was consistent in each of these conversations was the desire for high quality foods. And the list of players was long, from grass-fed and grass-finished beef and bison to homemade whole foods, nutrient-dense snacks, freshly baked non-GMO organic sourdough from a local bakery to produce organic and seasonal locals, and even homemade salad dressings – the theme for the pros on the tour centered around getting the best ingredients into their bodies.
“More than ever, players now understand that the foods they choose for training and competition affect their ability to train, recover, compete, and good nutrition gives them a competitive edge,” Harmon said. “The modern golfer travels with a performance chef who prepares and cooks most of their meals. They travel with a full performance crew and it’s a very complex operation. They also use food and nutrition to help prevent injuries and extend their careers.
Harmon previously worked for the Tampa Bay Rays, where she built and led their first-ever performance and nutrition program from 2017-2021. This program extended to Ray’s minor league teams and their baseball academy in Dominican Republic. It took him about a year to fully develop the program and fully implement it, but once it was adopted, it seemed to pay off in the rankings. The Rays were deep in the AL East before she boarded. In its final three years, the team has finished first in the division twice and second once for three straight playoff appearances, including a World Series berth in 2020.
She credited the time spent full-time as the reason the program was able to work. If she had just taken on a consulting role and been someone who came in and out of the clubhouse once in a while, it’s unlikely players would have been able to build the trust to buy into what she was implementing. There would also be no way for a team that doesn’t have the luxury of a big market budget to justify spending a bounty on higher quality food.
Harmon was part of all the ups and downs of his time with the Rays. By speaking Spanish at an intermediate level, she was able to speak with many players in their native language, which further boosted the trust factor within the ball club. She’s also not new to the golf scene, having worked as the Head Sports Dietitian for IMG Academy from 2012 to 2014. She’s worked with athletes in almost every sport and can’t wait to see the results. of this new concept throughout the circuit.
“My goal is to make sure the nutritional needs of every player in this clubhouse are met,” she said. “Whether it’s opportunities, food preferences, help navigating a new diet, struggles with energy levels…I want to make sure all players feel their needs are being met at 100% This nutrition program is designed for that and it’s not getting any better than what we’ve been working on for nine months.
Taking the dining experience to the next level
Azhar came aboard the PGA Tour in 2017 as a senior executive chef at TPC Sawgrass. Given the popularity of the nine PGA Tour events in the TPC network, the catering program needed to be revamped to achieve the same success. Azhar’s goal has been to offer a menu that is cutting-edge, trendy and capable of competing with some of the best restaurants in the local course markets.
With the Players Championship being the showpiece event of the tour, its offerings will take center stage with the action.
“One of the main things I started working on is making the Players Championship one of the best dining experiences in the region,” Azhar said. “In recent years, we have also worked on the innovation of the Players catering concept.”
During Players Week, Azhar will have his hands full overseeing the offerings to the 144 competing players as well as their families and guests visiting TPC Sawgrass looking for a unique Players Club experience. Azhar says those who dine can expect to enjoy a nutritious meal that doesn’t compromise on good taste. This task is carried out from the supply of ingredients.
“Our meat, fish, eggs and produce are all locally sourced,” he says. “If I can’t source it locally, then everything is grass-fed or organic. All fish is wild caught as it has a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids and this is important for anti-inflammatory properties in athletes. Our eggs are sourced from pastured hens as this increases nutrient density, and all of our fruits and vegetables are organic and locally grown.
What is on the menu?
Born and raised in India, Azhar has also worked in various parts of the world and TPC Network’s menus are directly inspired by his culinary journey. Some of her favorites on the menu are the TPC pretzel with roommate queso, the butter chicken with yogurt raita papaya chutney, the tinga nachos, and the superfood bowl which includes a poached egg, crispy brown rice, kale pesto and the possibility of adding the protein of choice.
The menu changes seasonally to use the freshest local ingredients. About 30% of the deals remain because they are the best sellers and the reasons why customers return to dine at the pavilions. Considering the effort and attention put into upgrading the Dining Hall for the Players Championship, Azhar knows it will just be an added bonus for this weekend. But he’s not shy about what he expects from everyone dining at TPC Sawgrass this weekend.
“I want them to say this is one of the best meals I’ve ever had and I want to come back to have that meal again,” he says. “You want to hear this often and I want to make sure the players and their families say it.”