The Links To Fashion

The Links To Fashion
Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
While professional golfers like Rory McIlroy are certainly billboards for sporting apparel companies, they also have input on how the clothing fits and feels.
Golf’s long association with splashy apparel goes pro as top players make fashion statements (and big bucks) with technical togs that stretch, wick, cool and warm

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The actor Samuel L. Jackson once explained his affection for golf this way: "I love golf because it's the only sport where you can dress like a pimp and nobody bats an eyelid." And while Jackson's wardrobe makes more of a statement on the course than his swing does, a number of top professionals are making their own fashion statements, taking some bold leaps forward at the same time they are clawing their way up the world rankings.

When you think about today's top players, you might very well imagine the clothing they wear rather than the clubs they play. There's Rickie Fowler, with edgy, fashion-forward bold styles from Puma. There's Billy Horschel, with brightly classic clothing from Ralph Lauren. There is Rory McIlroy, carrying the Nike swoosh banner that for so long was the hallmark of Tiger Woods. There is the precocious Jordan Spieth, who has taken Under Armour sales to a whole new level. Heck, even Jason Day—who admittedly prefers to dress plainly—has ramped up Adidas with his fabulous finish to the 2015 season.

And plaids? Ian Poulter has you covered, with his own clothing line and his own registered tartan.

In the technological age of golf, in the era of titanium and graphite and polymers, today's touring professional doesn't stop at his equipment when taking advantage of every last bit of science and engineering. He makes a career statement with the clothes he wears as well. Dressing for success on the pro tour means being aware of the athletic nature of modern golf clothing and the visibility those clothes bring to a market where billions are to be made.

The mercerized cotton polo shirt? It's as obsolete as the wooden driver. Khaki trousers? How 1980. Say good-bye to gabardine. Say hello to polyester.

"Fashion is another step in my preparation for the game," says Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner who has his own line of clothing, G-Mac by Kartel. Noting the style evolution of the past few years, he describes his own look: "I like to keep mine pretty contemporary classic. I like nice tailored pants, nice hard-colored shirts and good knitwear. Golf fashion is what you want it to be. You've got guys like Gary Woodland who are really athletic and favor a brand like Under Armour, bringing out the inner athlete in the game."

McDowell adds that versatility is key to golf clothes. "I like to feel well- dressed, feel like I could throw a suit jacket on after the round. I focus on the technology of performance fabrics with a nice contemporary classical edge."

Although the most individual of all games, golf has always had its uniform, going all the way back to the Scots playing in tweeds and tams and knickers. The polo shirt, despite its name, had its beginnings in tennis with its introduction by Rene Lacoste. But it's certainly become the team jersey of golf, even while no consensus has been reached on pattern and color. The technological aspects and cuts of that polo shirt, and of the pants and outerwear of the modern golfer, have changed drastically over the last 20 years.

"When you are in clothes that fit you to a T, it makes you feel good, it makes you feel, ‘Man, I look good on the golf course.' I'm a little bit of a bad ass that way," says Billy Horschel, a Ralph Lauren guy who likes bold stripes on his shirts or a subdued top when he's wearing pants with bold patterns. "Anything [that Ralph Lauren makes], I know that nobody is going to out-fashion me that day."

The Links To Fashion
Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Rickie Fowler is known for stretching the fashion envelope.

Davide Mattucci is the designer of Adidas Golf Apparel, and Day, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia are the main standard-bearers. According to Mattucci, golf companies are seeing greater growth in apparel than on the club side of the business.

"Unlike the golf club business, the golf apparel business has continued to grow," says Mattucci. "It hasn't been explosive growth, but the hard goods side of golf—drivers, irons—has stagnated a bit for a few years. The apparel business has continued to climb steadily in high single-digit growth year-on-year. I think that has a lot to do with the transitional nature of golf apparel."

That transition has everything to do with both the performance characteristics of the apparel and the fashion statements they make.

"I think people expect everything they wear today to have some level of technology," says Mattucci. "By that I mean moisture wicking, easy care, no ironing. That has sort of crept into everyday office wear. I think the golf-apparel business has positioned itself well to be able to carry over into that opportunity. The nice thing about modern golf apparel, unlike other sports, there is a level of fashion that allows you to wear it to a restaurant as opposed to a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt. A guy who just played 18 in a collared shirt and a pair of trousers, although they are performance apparel, he has the ability to walk off the golf course and straight into the grill room."

That might not always have been the case with Rickie Fowler's style, but then he's making fashion statements that carry far beyond the grill room for Puma, and reaching a younger, more edgy audience. At the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, Fowler showed up with extremely tapered pants that disappeared into hightop buckled golf shoes that looked more suited to a game of basketball than a round of golf. Just as his bold colors and big-brimmed painter's caps drove the brand, the newest offerings caused a buzz, even if some of it was negative.

"I think on the younger side it's more positive," Fowler said right after he debuted the duds. "I think on the traditional side they're not too pumped on it. Some people say, you know, cool—I wouldn't wear them. Or some people are hating them, some people love them. Bubba [Watson] loves them. I've always kind of been who I am out here. I like kind of pushing the limits, having fun and enjoying myself and that's what we're doing. I went to them and said, ‘I want to do joggers and high-tops,' and they were able to do it."

Jennifer Rust, Puma's designer, has been out front with Fowler from the beginning.

"Rickie really made a statement for himself when he first started and he was very much into bold colors and very bold prints," says Rust. "He would wear purple pants with a bold, printed polo. That was very much on trend. He really is a trend leader...Then he started wearing things a little cleaner and more refined, but some rainbow colors he mixes with neutrals, that's a combination of his taste changing, fashion changing."

But those joggers and high-tops?

"The high-tops are really a part of the tapered pants, the tapered pant completes the look," says Rust. "Ricky has always been ahead of his time. I really believe he helps to set trends. I believe you will see tapered pants, although it's very niche as far as it's not for everyone. But it's super fun. I think golf is an amazing sport but it's also important to have fun to enjoy the game and make a statement. We haven't designated a specific date yet to release those pants."

The Links To Fashion
Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
Billy Horschel contrasts bold pants with a subdued top.

In the pants arena, you really can't beat Ian Poulter's tartans, which unlike the plaids of old, are made with significant amounts of technical fabrics that allow them to be worn in hot, sticky climates. Sophie Snowball, from her base outside of London, is the designer for Poulter's IJP Design. From day one, Poulter's brand and Snowball's designs have been keyed to tartan trousers, a concept they call "leading with the legs."

"Ian always loved, if you think about the beginnings of golf in Scotland, having his own tartan and we developed a special palette just for him," says Snowball. "Having a tartan is almost like you are part of a clan, it's your brand, it's your family. Tartan falls in and out of fashion all the time, but on the golf course it's always something you can parade and show off. Since day one Ian's tartan has been registered with the Scottish Tartan Authority."

The properties of Poulter's trousers, as well as shirts, fit in with all contemporary golf clothing—they have to fit closely, stretch adequately, wick moisture, be cooling in warm climes and warm in cooler climes.

"We consider every single detail and how that affects you when you play golf," says Snowball. "We make sure the pockets on our trousers fit tee pegs and are large enough to fit a scorecard in. And they are secured properly and don't start rolling up every time you line up a putt. You are crouching down and when you stand up you don't have your pockets bunched up."

The functionality of golf clothing has been increasingly athletic, as has the styling with closer fits and crisper cuts. That trend started largely with Camilo Villegas, the Colombian player who brought the tight shirts and the tight pants of Swedish designer J. Lindbergh to the tour 10 years ago. Villegas recently moved to a casual clothing line called AG Green Label, heretofore known largely for jeans.

The Links To Fashion
Photo: Matt King/Getty Images
Ian Poulter has his own registered tartan.

"It was a must for me when I got to the University of Florida, being so light and short and needing to be more into fitness and being more flexible, I mixed it with the way I dressed, a little more fit and a little more athletic," says Villegas. "The work I was doing in the gym was sort of translating into how I was dressing myself."

After driving the Lindbergh brand, he's now helping to make the fledging AG Green Label line take flight. "We are going into the third collection," says Villegas. "It's stuff that maybe is more sharp and not as athletic, but performance oriented. Stuff you can sort of walk off the course and go have dinner. I have some input on the performance aspect of it. I love looking sharp and being comfortable."

Being sharp, looking comfortable and being on top of the golf world translates to huge bucks for apparel companies, none more so than Under Armour. The Baltimore-based company was primarily involved in team sports, and decided to expand the brand into golf when it signed Hunter Mahan in 2004. But then along came Jordan Spieth. Impressed with his confidence on and off the course, Under Armour signed Spieth, who has the same agent as Mahan, in 2013. He won in his rookie year and, in 2015, became the No. 1 player in the world after winning the Masters, U.S. Open and the Tour Championship. According to various sources, Spieth's deal could rival Tiger's and Rory's Nike deals at more than $10 million a year.

And it appears that Under Armour's golf revenue will more than triple by the end of 2015, making it second to only Nike. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank saw a seminal moment in his company's history when Spieth won the Masters. "He was challenged by the greatest players in the world on the biggest stage, looked them straight in the eye and never blinked," Plank told ESPN. "He's validated us."

When Spieth was challenging for a third straight major victory at the British Open last July, he was wearing the Under Armour Sweaterfleece, which subsequently was sold out, not at all unusual for the classic-but-fashion-current clothing he wears.

For Zach Johnson, whose shirts have enough logos on them to qualify for NASCAR, apparel is equipment. He may not propel the Oakley brand like Spieth drives Under Armour, but his apparel is just as important as any aspect of his game. "I don't treat it as anything other than that," he says. "I need fabric and clothing that is going to perform under extreme heat and rain and cold. Obviously I want it to look good and fit well, I want the most modern and technical fabrics."

Ray Floyd was always one of the tour's top dressers. His cotton shirts were of the best quality, his gabardine slacks custom made. He thought he owed it to the game to dress well. "You play the way you look or play the way you've eaten," he says. "If you dress well, you look well, you play well."

Golf has always had its fashion plates, and Arnold Palmer, while elevating the game to previously unknown heights, also carried golf fashion on his back. Tommy Bolt was as natty and classic as they come. Gary Player wore black because he felt it made him stronger. Doug Sanders was loud and color coordinated right down to his shoes.

Greg Norman was sharp and bold and eventually put out his own line of clothing that issues nearly four million pieces a year. Jack Nicklaus has a substantial line of clothing through Perry Ellis. Even as contemporary professionals are constantly trying to emulate the duds of those players who make it to the top, the average Joe is eyeing those clothes, as well. And while they want to look good, they don't necessarily want to read the fabric-care labels.

"I think the big part of it is easy care, especially for recreational golfers who are in golf carts and drink a few beers and smoke a couple of cigars," says Andy Bell, who runs the Bobby Jones clothing line. "They might not care so much about performance."

At Peter Millar, performance fabrics are used in a sharp, dress-casual way that translates into many social situations, says Mike Bowers, vice president of the design and merchandising. "In creating this collection one thing stood out in our minds: A gentleman should be able to enjoy all the benefits of this technology, but still be able to look appropriate for any occasion whether it be the boardroom or the locker room."

For McDowell, who is closely involved with the designs of his clothing line, golf apparel is both an individual statement and an homage to the game. "I'm sort of balanced between the elitism of the game of golf—the wealthy aspect of the game—and making the game approachable," he says. "I'm all about shorts and round-neck shirts and music and having some fun on the golf course. There is a time and place for that. We're trying to represent golf at the highest level and it's important to be well-dressed."

And maybe just as important, up to date. Nike, which makes upwards of four million golf apparel pieces a year, is looking to push the edge of golf design with a reinvention of golf's shirt collar this spring and summer.

"We are trying to accelerate the way golf looks," says Eric Schindler, Nike's global product director for apparel. "We listen to our players, and one of the things they have told us is they would like to see a different collar on the traditional golf polo shirt. They tell us they would rather wear one of our fitness tops to play in, but that isn't quite appropriate, yet."

So Nike's solutions are two-fold, and in the first case, no fold at all. Nike is introducing the blade collar, an upright collar that can't flap or fold because there are no flaps or folds. "It was inspired by the soccer world and other sports," says Schindler. "It will be in the Tiger Woods line, and the other lines. Tiger had been challenging us for something like that."

Then there is a hybrid design between the classic pointed polo collar and the blade, which they are calling the shawl collar. It looks classic around the back, but has rounded points that meet just above the placket. There will be a fold, but no flapping.

The challenge of the golf apparel industry has always been to design stylish and athletic clothing that can transition from the green to the grillroom. Now, the task also stresses creating products that set themselves apart in the market place. Nike's Schindler thinks their new collars will do that. "The golf polo is not going to be the golf polo of the future," he says.

Now that's a fashion statement.

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.

Want the look? See how to dress like your favorite golf pro.