Nearly two months post Ryder Cup, I’m still waiting on broad public acknowledgement of the striking sea change we witnessed at Whistling Straits. No, not the fourth U.S. victory since 1993. I’m talking about the addition of hoodies to the official American team kit.
The advent of this landmark bit or golf couture was in fact noted on both sides of the pond, but mainly as a means to tell readers where they might order their own commemorative hoodies. This, too, is a pretty telling development: The idea that golf’s famously staid, hidebound fan base might consider wearing something so fashion forward flies in the face of history, short and long term.
Could it be that golf is actually changing with the times?
Let’s review: What golfers tend to wear has been the butt of jokes and snide commentary for more than a century. The game’s inherent conservatism was initially the source of such derision. How else to explain the extraordinary staying power of kilties? Cultural pushback focused not merely on the tweed, the coats and ties in clubhouses, but the perceived exclusivity that spawned these fashion dictates.
More recently, the game was taken to task for a slew of obvious fashion don’ts: white belts, for example — something that emerged during the 1970s, when the spirit of Greg Brady was loose in the land. Sadly, this fad has made a comeback of late. Traditionally, golf cannot help itself in this regard. Despite its “best efforts”, it seemed golf would never shake its reputation an activity for old white guys in bad pants.
I’ve been in the golf business since 1992, and one of the first things I noticed was the game’s preoccupation with dispelling not just adverse couture tropes, but others: Golf’s inability to effectively welcome new players, for example. This was code for the game’s inability to attract female and minority players — a problem for a sport that wanted to grow, and yet another vestige of golf’s conservative and exclusive history.
The problem was, most of the new player development programs — and there have been dozens trotted out over the last 30 years — were exercises in lip service. Golf wanted to sound progressive and inclusive. But when push came to shove, the establishment was happy to welcome women, minorities and juniors into the game so long as they wore collared shirts and no one was obliged to play behind them.
Enter COVID-19, which has scrambled the assumptions of institutions far bigger and more ensconced that golf. As it happened, the pandemic resulted in a wholly unexpected boom in golf participation. Just one problem: A lot of these new players, attracted by the outdoor exercise, didn’t know how to play the game exactly. They certainly didn’t know what to wear either. Or rather, they didn’t care so much what they wore. These new converts showed up in sneakers, gym shorts and hoodies — and pearls were clutched across golfdom at the mere thought of such a transgression.
Twenty-twenty proved a watershed moment for golf apparel. A pretty quiet watershed, it must be said. When a hoodie-clad Tyrell Hatton won the European Tour’s flagship BMW Championship that fall, folks took some notice. The powers that be at Wearside GC in Sunderland, UK tweeted: In light of Tyrell Hatton’s recent success and fashion statement and following discussions on this, can I draw your attention to the Clubs [sic] dress code and re emphasise that “hoodies” are not acceptable golf attire for Wearside Golf Club, no more so in fact than designer ripped jeans… Orthodox till they die up there in Northumberland, apparently.
Since that moment, however, the tide has turned. U.S. PGA Tour player Kevin Kisner was spotted wearing a hoodie in June 2021. Then the Ryder Cup was conducted, a year late, on the shores of Lake Michigan: If pervasive silence is any indication, this particular fashion statement has been completely normalized.
White America’s ability to absorb and appropriate formerly transgressive bits of culture knows no bounds apparently. As recently as 2013, the hoodie worn by young Trayvon Martin pegged him as a thug and resulted in his shooting death. Now Justin Thomas is wearing on, as part of official Ryder Cup team attire, and no one bats an eye!
One wonders whether such precipitous change would have been possible without COVID-19, the broader effects of which continue to show themselves inside and outside of golf. Were you aware Seattle-based rapper Benjamin Hammond Haggerty, known by his stage name Macklemore, has launched his own golf apparel line? He fell in love with golf during COVID, apparently, and claims an 11 handicap. His new venture, Bogey Boys, does not appear to include any hoodies, just a bunch of bowling shirts and retro designs that seem ironically garish. Nevertheless, it would appear the pandemic didn’t just reinvigorate golfer participation in the U.S. It had rendered the game a notch or two more cool.
In researching a story for Golf Course Management magazine this past summer, I chatted with an Oklahoma public course operator who saw this change happening first hand, in real time. He noted that hoodies had been THE lightening-rod issue stemming from the COVID-occasioned participation bump.
“All these things we used to take as religious convictions are now being questioned,” Jeff Wagner told me. “Like music on the golf course and the appearance of all these hoodies. Now that has ruffled some features. That’s new, but the sentiment isn’t. I saw a guy cry once because he was so offended that someone wore jeans in his clubhouse.
“I really hope that, post COVID, we’re acknowledging that adhering to snobby traditionalism comes with a cost, especially in public golf. I’m 40 years old, a tail-end Millennial, and I think these points of concern transcend the caliber of your club. On the spectrum of industries that stand to benefit from the redefining of things, golf is top of the list. If we really want to grow the game, this sort of adaptation is part of it.”
I don’t own a proper hoodie, but I have been known to keep a red, hooded, rain-proof pullover in my golf bag. A stiff wind, I’ve found, frankly wreaks havoc with any sort of hooded golf attire. It’s a pain in the ass standing over putts with that thing flapping around back there. I had assumed this was the price I paid to keep dry. Now I realize that all along I’d been answering the musical question, “What price fashion?”