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The New Swingers

With Tiger Woods and the Younger Set as Their Inspiration, Upstart Companies Are Putting a Snazzier Look on the Links

March 13, 1997|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I'm Tiger Woods," says the young boy.

"I'm Tiger Woods," says another. And another, and another.

Of course, all of the youngsters featured in this TV commercial--designed to tell the world that the golfer cool enough to have groupies wears the Nike "swoosh"--are juvenile impostors.

The idea, says a Nike representative, is that we all want to be as good-looking, talented and successful as Woods is.

And if we can't, then we'll settle just for looking good.

With young people taking up the game in record numbers, Nike and Fila are seeing dollar signs. But they've got increasing competition in the form of small labels like Subpar, Tommy Bahama, Golf Punk, In Golf We Trust, Level 7 and Skins Game, among others. These upstarts are addressing the sport as a fashion opportunity.

"I think the golf industry really found us," says Lucio Dalla Gasperina, executive vice president for Tommy Bahama, a 4-year-old Seattle sportswear company now doing 10% to 15% of its $20-million business in pro shops.

"Tiger Woods is a big part of it. This image of him wearing a long-sleeve mock [turtleneck] under a polo shirt might seem simple, but those are benchmarks that create an awareness to take apparel beyond basic golfwear. And this has created a great opportunity for companies like ours who are putting a whole new spin on the ball."

Rob Bruce, design director at Subpar in Palo Alto, agrees.

"What's the typical stereotype of a golfer? This fat, roly-poly white guy who is not an athlete. And that's a hard image for kids to rally around. But Tiger has brought youth, color with his ethnicity, and athleticism to the sport. He crosses color barriers and stereotypes and a lot of kids can idolize that. So suddenly there is a new audience hitting the golf course."

This youthful audience, says Judy Thompson of the National Golf Assn., falls primarily between the ages of 18 and 39; it makes up 48% of the 25 million men and women who play annually. "Junior players, ages of 12 and 15, are the fastest-growing segment, but they are still a relatively small percentage, about 2 million golfers," she says.

Golf industry insiders say Woods' clean-cut appearance--a departure from the baggy urban street wear that now dominates many retail stores--has influenced young golfers.

"A few years ago it was all the same polo shirts and Dockers [on the course], and I noticed this whole new mix of golfers coming up who had nothing to wear," says designer Kimberleigh Wood. She and husband Steven Wood responded to the void with a retail store, Chubby Wood of Sherman Oaks, and a wholesale collection of alternative golfwear under the same label.

"Our concept was to create a golf line that had a kind of retro, 1960s feel to it. I was thinking Frank Sinatra in the '60s or Sean Connery as James Bond--that real tailored, slim look. But we also have to constantly keep in mind the fashion regulations: Golf shirts must have collars and be tucked in."

Bruce, of Subpar, says his line was motivated in part by his experience with other popular kids sports.

"I started playing golf at the same time I started skateboarding and snowboarding, and there was nothing out there as cool in golf as there was to wear for those other sports," says Bruce, now 30 and still a golfer. "Up until now there really hasn't been a brand that young golfers could rally around that they felt was cool enough."

Dennis Del Rey, co-owner of the 3-year-old Irvine label Skins Game, translates "cool" as short-sleeve sweater knits, enzyme-washed corduroy shorts and "classic-with-a-flair" striped or floral knit shirts featuring underarm gussets for better swing movement.

"The older guys call the younger golfers 'flat bellies' because of the way they dress," Del Rey says. "The younger guys wear hats that are a little flatter; some of the shirts have T-shirts underneath. In terms of pants, they're wearing washed-down khakis instead of nice dress slacks. And their belts have more silver, a little more flash."

Del Rey says the initial response from pro shops was lukewarm. "They looked at us like, 'This isn't right.' And it wasn't," he says. "They were used to a very traditional golf look and we were offering something different--washed fabrics and different collar treatments. Something to jazz up the course a little."

If golf shops were put off by Skins Game, which is relatively tame, they must have been floored by Golf Punk, a collection of funky golfwear with traces of surf and skate.

"It's not your typical golfwear," says Nicole LeMaitre, who started the label with surf pals Chip and Pepper Foster. "We do fun things like put golf ball buttons on a shirt or do some kind of crazy print."

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