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Anything Goes With Green : Think golf. Now banish all images of tam-o'-shanters and polyester. Today's players have lost touch with their inner harlequin. Really.

July 21, 1994|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I laid down my golf clubs 18 years ago.

Actually, I threw them down and kicked them while my golfing buddies, Frank Rudloff and Byron Graham, laughed mercilessly.

I had lost 13 of my father's new Top Flights that muggy summer day at the Frankfort (Ky.) Country Club. About half were swallowed by the muddy pond off the ninth hole. The others were sacrificed to the primeval underbrush of the rough. I had burrowed through brambles looking for the balls, and my forearms later tingled with an intimation of poison ivy. It would take my weekly earnings from mowing Mrs. Rogers' hilly and rock-spiked half-acre to replace the balls.

After that, I never played again. I joined a garage band called U Jive Turkey and became anti-competitive. Still, I look back on those days with a perverse fondness. The frustration has faded, and my impressions are mostly sensual: the smell of freshly mowed grass; Maryann, the golf pro's daughter, on a mission for her father to sweet talk us boys into shoveling gravel on the back nine for $1.50 an hour; 7-Ups and cheeseburgers from the grill.

And who could forget Frank? A model of ungainly dishevelment in the rest of his fashion life, he somehow struck upon what was then a credible ensemble for the golf course: green and blue plaid pants (polyester, of course), powder-blue Izod shirt, canary yellow cap with fuzzy ball. He had an extra spring in his step on the days when, whether by permission or stealth, he wore his dad's kilted imitation-alligator cleats. (Like the older men, he would tuck his ball markers into the kilts' furrows.) He also had argyle socks, and on blustery days, a rumply but fashionable pullover Windbreaker.

Frank wore these things with such a regal air that no one seemed to notice that his slice was as bad as mine. (We kept Frank's regal air in check with therapeutic shoves into mudholes.) I had a similar outfit, all of it hand-me-downs, but somehow I always felt like an impostor.

That feeling resurfaced recently when I got a call from my friend Ben, who said he'd laid the groundwork for me to ghostwrite the autobiography (self-published) of his great uncle Ty, which Ben insisted was short for Tycoon. All I had to do was make a decent impression and close the deal.

"Drop what you're doing and get out to the driving range," Ben said.

"Why?"

"He wants to do this over golf."

Obviously, if I were going to make a good impression, it wouldn't be on the basis of athletic prowess. I decided to claim a lower-back ailment after tee-off, then spend the rest of the round as the designated driver, muttering things like "beautiful" and "really fine."

The issue of wardrobe, therefore, became all important.

It occurred to me that golf's sartorial code has long hung on a rack of garish bad taste. Just consider that when people acknowledged our 1970s golf clothes, they used spiffy, or sometimes snazzy . At the time, spiffy seemed like a compliment, but I know now that it's a word applied to clothing worn by the better classes of rodeo clowns.

At any rate, golfwear has sometimes served as one of the better examples of what happens when women throw up their hands and leave men to their own devices. The ancestral instinct to flaunt colorful male plumage takes over, and guys end up looking like goofballs. (Women's golfwear always seemed resolutely frumpy, but devoid of the heroic outlandishness of men's.)

How else to account for those halcyon days of Sansabelt slacks in non-biodegradable fabrics that clung to flesh like oil paint. That's to say nothing of the tooth-gnashing grid patterns that would give a city planner a migraine. And who but men could rally behind a garment that proclaimed the beer belly, gloriously rippling beneath its elastic sheath, as a zone of erogenous promise? And hats! Nylon floppies for that truant sailor look. Blue plaid tam-o'-shanters with crab apple-size fuzzy balls wagging atop.

I know it didn't start out that way. In the 19th Century, golf was an affair of tweeds, starched collars and overcoats. Later, knickers, pullover sweaters and argyle socks came to the fore. The plus-fours, as the short pants were known, gave way between the World Wars to equally subdued pleated slacks and shirts.

And today's players seem to dress in a manner unbecoming to the spirit of golf. Having lost touch with the inner harlequin, their attire is alarmingly respectable. (As if chasing that white ball with a $200 metal stick were a perfectly reasonable thing to do.) Deep-pocketed khakis. Cotton-knit shirts with asymmetrical designs. Jaunty hats. Saddle shoes with spikes. I bought them all, and with a sense of loss. Say what you will about the buffoonish apparel of days' past, it was at least a courageous embrace of the grand and wondrous absurdity that is golf.

In the end, it didn't matter. Uncle Ty faxed from the Bahamas to say he'd have to reschedule.

We're still waiting.

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