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Fairway Finery

Golf is the game for those who want to show off their fashion sense
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

It is a curiosity of modern life that inside the stuffy confines of what may be our most class-conscious institution -- the country club -- resides one of the most democratic of attitudes -- as regards apparel at any rate. Look on the golf course and you'll see the largest array of garments and colors that you'll encounter anywhere. Yes, dress codes abound -- no jeans or tank tops, slacks must be tailored, shorts a certain length, no cleats in the dining room -- but get past that and anything goes. No other sport has treated us with such a wide array of attire. The game is virtually unencumbered by restrictions in form or color. No tradition is so strict that it can't be easily broken.

That style, a no-button tunic is a huge fashion statement, and one team is known by choice of pinstripes over solid white. Football uniforms are hardly distinguishable from era to era except in the amount and kind of padding available. Basketball players have always played in the same tank top and shorts (varying lengths and degrees of bagginess notwithstanding). Tennis has departed from its tradition of all whites only in the last few decades. Yes, we have Andre Agassi and the Williams sisters, but no one is really rushing out to emulate them.

A few things weigh in golf's favor in terms of freedom of garment choice. First, it's seldom played as a team sport, so professionals need not conform to a uniform. The golfers that we watch most closely and try to copy in attire, even if we can't manage to duplicate their ability, wear something different every day and often compete in terms of style as well as ability. Basketball players have similar competition, but it goes on only off the court. Also golf, as a much less energetic sport, allows for more clothing options. Nonrestrictive gear isn't the be-all and end-all. You make your choices according to the weather because you can carry much more weight in terms of jackets and sweaters. Furthermore, a change of clothes isn't always necessary after a round, so you might dress with your next event in mind.

A look at what golfers have worn historically bears out this lack of structure. Early depictions of the game, with competitors wearing tricornered hats, long vests, cutaway frock coats and wigs, suggest that they played in whatever they happened to have on at the time. The first written rules of golf, formulated in 1744, didn't mention any sort of dress code. By the late nineteenth century, when tournaments became prevalent, the uniform for golfers seemed to be based on the sort of tweedy things a gentleman might wear on a hunt or a tramp through the fields: a redoubtable jacket and pants (sometimes matching as a suit), knee boots or heavy shoes with knickers and long socks, and a billed cap.

As golf progressed into the modern era, a look emerged that identified players as nothing other than golfers. The basic elements were plus-four pants and two-tone shoes. The first great stylist of golf was Walter Hagen, who with Bobby Jones dominated golf from the late teens into the early '30s. Everyone wore baggy knickers, but none were as glorious as Hagen's. Tailored jackets and long coats were part of his on-course demeanor. What would be considered heavy sweaters today seemed not to encumber the dapper golfer in the least. And always there was a necktie. It was as much through his style as his ability that he changed the lot of touring professionals forever. Previously, they were considered club employees expected to enter through the back door. Hagen, the poor boy made good who once said, "I never wanted to be a millionaire, I just wanted to live like one," would arrive by limousine at the front door and do his wardrobe change in the vehicle. Eventually, he gained access to the locker room.

The postwar era brought a more casual, and realistic, approach to golf wear. Gone were the neckties and heavy coats. Ben Hogan sported light cardigans and streamlined headgear with a driving cap that replaced the bulky newsboy cap of the '30s. Sam Snead cut a rakish figure in short sleeves and his insouciant straw hats. Jimmy Demaret extended the once dull color spectrum of the game. Shoes stopped screaming "golf" with pied patches of leather and became more like everyday footwear that just happened to have cleats on the soles. Clothes, particularly trousers, became formfitting.

The early '60s continued with the normalization of golf attire as Arnold Palmer with his casual style became the preeminent pro. His easy look included V-neck sweaters and polo shirts with prominent collars. It was a style that was as acceptable on and off the course, and his Arnold Palmer Enterprises became a formidable licensing force. Also making hay by putting the clout of his name -- as well as his Golden Bear logo -- behind clothing was Jack Nicklaus. Ironically, the world's greatest player is color-blind, and his bright outfits have to be coordinated by his wife.

Gary Player made a bit of a splash by eschewing color with his trademark black outfits (apparently growing up in South Africa, he could tolerate their heat absorption), but palette and polymers were the trends of late '60s and '70s. Seemingly a by-product of the pervasiveness of color television, bold primary colors as well as pinks and periwinkles became the norm. And everyone seemed to show up in double-knit polyester. The trouser form became the opposite of what it had been 40 years earlier. Pants now hugged the hips and instead of tightening at the hem as knickers did, flared there. The close cut let up-and-comers like Johnny Miller and Tom Watson wear those ludicrous Sansabelt pants with impunity.

But the most memorable dresser of that and probably any golfing era was Doug Sanders, "the peacock of the fairways." For a time in the late '60s, two questions surrounded any golf tournament: who would win and what would Sanders wear. With his neon duds -- I once saw him play the Thunderbird Classic tailored shirt to shoes in rose pink -- he certainly was as well known for what he wore as for how he played. It is tempting to think of him as the Anna Kournikova of golf. But Sanders won tour events -- 20 over his professional career -- something that his tennis-playing counterpart has failed to do even once on the WTA Tour. If not for his gaudy attire, Sanders might be better remembered as a top member of that unenviable group of the best golfers never to win a major.

Golf wear might have gone on forever, marked only by bad plaids on go-to-hell pants, if not for Payne Stewart. As the '80s closed he stormed in with outrageous retro looks marked by loud plus-four trousers and a driver's cap. However misinformed by color matches that were often driven by endorsement deals ("Your College Colors Here"), he nevertheless freed the genre for more creative takes by golfers everywhere.


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