he golf world used to be so simple: There were rich people--primarily men of a certain color and religious preference--who belonged to country clubs that welcomed only members just like themselves. (Lore has it that Henry Kissinger, while he was secretary of State and probably the most powerful man in the world, was rejected by a suburban Washington, D.C., country club because of his religion.)
And there were the rest of us, who slogged around scruffy public courses in equally scruffy duds: jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. I grew up playing a public course in Brookline, Mass., that actually abutted a club so pretentious it called itself simply "The Country Club" (granted, it has been the scene of several U.S. Open championships). We were the quintessential happy-go-lucky have-nots, making fun of the snobs at the perfectly manicured course next door.
In particular, it was their de rigueur golf clothing that provided us lower-class golfers with endless hours of laughter. Red and yellow plaid pants; loud striped pants; loud solid pants--all paired with the standard La Coste alligator golf shirt. One professional golfer named Doug Sanders had to be viewed with sunglasses, lest you risked permanent eye damage.
How times have changed. There are still the exclusive clubs that won't let me near the front gate, but many--in the name of revenue--have opened their doors to those of us who choose to spend our paychecks on golfing at these formerly inaccessible temples, rather than, say, on our kids' college educations. There has also emerged a class of public golf course that costs nearly as much and looks nearly as good as a private club.
According to National Golf Foundation figures, 40% of golfers are currently from middle-class or blue-collar backgrounds, and nearly 70% of golf courses are open to the public.
The end result is that many of the vast, unwashed masses of public golfers are now washed and, in some cases, playing right alongside those who would have banned them from their private clubs in the past.
Setting aside, for the moment, all the moral and ethical questions surrounding this transformation, perhaps the most notable ramification is that we're all now expected to adhere to the same dress code.
Potentially, we can all be Doug Sanders!
And we (especially yours truly) need all the help we can get.
Enter Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and a small bucketful of their colleagues on the Professional Golf Assn. and Senior PGA tours. They all either have their own clothing lines or at least are paid to strut around in the get-ups of particular manufacturers, as well as strike one brand of ball and, of course, swing only a certain line of golf clubs. (Switching to another brand of golf club for big bucks, incidentally, has been blamed for the sudden downturns in the performances of a number of golfers, including Corey Pavin.)
It's hard to imagine former British Open champion Tom Lehman, for instance, loping around San Francisco's Olympic Club at the U.S. Open this week without that goofy Dockers cap. Today's caps in particular--many of which are shaped like yarmulkes with visors attached--seem to have boosted, rather than shrunk, the nerd factor in some cases. Justin Leonard, one of the top young golfers in the world, is actually a nice-looking guy off the course. But in that cap, he looks, well, dumb. And Scott Hoch--another world-class ball striker--is the spitting image of "The Beaver" on his way to a baseball game.
Nevertheless, golf fashions--an oxymoron before the last few years--are light-years more tasteful than ever before.
Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss, for example, have all come out with golf apparel in the last couple of years to raise the bar for staples such as Cross Creek, Reebok Golf and others.
I'm partial to the Arnold Palmer line of shirts, counting two of them hanging in my closet: One was a gift and the other I purchased (on sale) as a reward for shooting par on the back nine of a Palmer-designed course in Palm Springs.
Since I can afford to carry only ancient Ping Eye clubs, my comparatively modest wardrobe is secondary to my desire to someday purchase a set of irons made after the invention of the flush toilet. To some of the golfers I hook up with on the course, however, money obviously is no object when it comes to clothes.
Golfers spend an estimated $775 million each year on golf clothes. Nongolfers spend an additional $140 million, mostly on gifts.
They're out there in Mickelson's Hugo Boss line, Paul Azinger's Haggars, Payne Stewart's Dayton Hudson / Marshall Fields, Nicklaus Golf Apparel, Palmer's and the Bobby Jones line. And they all look good: shirts in tasteful, muted colors with sleeves down to the elbows; pants with simple, clean lines and no plaids!
By now, even the least golf-literate of readers should realize that I'm leaving someone out. I mean, of course, Tiger Woods.
Projected already at the age of 22 to become the best golfer ever, Woods may be the best thing that's ever happened to golf. He has inspired numerous inner-city kids to take up the game, and by the time he's done, his overall impact on the sport in relation to society may be incalculable.
But . . . there's that swoosh, as Times golf writer Thomas Bonk has referred to it in print. Since Woods signed a reported $40-million contract with Nike, that swoosh is becoming as sickeningly omnipresent on the golf course as it is on the basketball court.
It's not that the clothes look bad--they look terrific, especially on the handsome, perfectly proportioned Woods. In fact, the Nike line is probably the most adventurously designed golf outfit on the market today.
But in addition to my knee-jerk dislike of any company making that much money, there is a real downside to Nike and the other cool golf clothes in today's market. They are attracting those who know or care little about the game but simply want to exhibit its trappings: the styles, the cigars, the drinks at the 19th hole (or before).
This is all fine if the person also carries a respect for the game of golf that, to most of us who play, is the unspoken prerequisite for carrying clubs. It matters not how horrible a player's game is, as long as that reverence is there for the game's integrity, its place in the hearts and minds of those who play.
I will cringe this summer when I see a Gen-Xer, wearing a "Tahama for Clint" (as in Eastwood) shirt, chomping on a cigar, laughing during someone else's swing, and thinking he's a golfer. Eastwood, as far as I can tell, has a genuine love for the game (even though watching him swing a club is one of life's most disappointing sights). But the person wearing his new golf clothes line will most likely be doing so to be like the "tall, thin and handsome" Clint, as the Tahama press release says.
"Even if he can't play good, the guy wants to look good," Dean Williams, vice president of operations for One Up Golf Shops, told another newspaper.
If that's not bad enough, Fore-Play Sports Threads of Fontana, which touts itself as "an alternative sportswear line," offers "moderately priced sportswear with a Generation X attitude."
Come back, Doug Sanders!