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Par Excellence

Once upon a time golfwear meant nerdwear. But today, the links look is on a stylish upswing (well, except those goofy caps).

June 18, 1998|JOEL GREENBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

he golf world used to be so simple: There were rich people--primarily men of a certain color and religious preference--who belonged to country clubs that welcomed only members just like themselves. (Lore has it that Henry Kissinger, while he was secretary of State and probably the most powerful man in the world, was rejected by a suburban Washington, D.C., country club because of his religion.)

And there were the rest of us, who slogged around scruffy public courses in equally scruffy duds: jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. I grew up playing a public course in Brookline, Mass., that actually abutted a club so pretentious it called itself simply "The Country Club" (granted, it has been the scene of several U.S. Open championships). We were the quintessential happy-go-lucky have-nots, making fun of the snobs at the perfectly manicured course next door.

In particular, it was their de rigueur golf clothing that provided us lower-class golfers with endless hours of laughter. Red and yellow plaid pants; loud striped pants; loud solid pants--all paired with the standard La Coste alligator golf shirt. One professional golfer named Doug Sanders had to be viewed with sunglasses, lest you risked permanent eye damage.

How times have changed. There are still the exclusive clubs that won't let me near the front gate, but many--in the name of revenue--have opened their doors to those of us who choose to spend our paychecks on golfing at these formerly inaccessible temples, rather than, say, on our kids' college educations. There has also emerged a class of public golf course that costs nearly as much and looks nearly as good as a private club.

According to National Golf Foundation figures, 40% of golfers are currently from middle-class or blue-collar backgrounds, and nearly 70% of golf courses are open to the public.

The end result is that many of the vast, unwashed masses of public golfers are now washed and, in some cases, playing right alongside those who would have banned them from their private clubs in the past.

Setting aside, for the moment, all the moral and ethical questions surrounding this transformation, perhaps the most notable ramification is that we're all now expected to adhere to the same dress code.

Potentially, we can all be Doug Sanders!

And we (especially yours truly) need all the help we can get.

Enter Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and a small bucketful of their colleagues on the Professional Golf Assn. and Senior PGA tours. They all either have their own clothing lines or at least are paid to strut around in the get-ups of particular manufacturers, as well as strike one brand of ball and, of course, swing only a certain line of golf clubs. (Switching to another brand of golf club for big bucks, incidentally, has been blamed for the sudden downturns in the performances of a number of golfers, including Corey Pavin.)

It's hard to imagine former British Open champion Tom Lehman, for instance, loping around San Francisco's Olympic Club at the U.S. Open this week without that goofy Dockers cap. Today's caps in particular--many of which are shaped like yarmulkes with visors attached--seem to have boosted, rather than shrunk, the nerd factor in some cases. Justin Leonard, one of the top young golfers in the world, is actually a nice-looking guy off the course. But in that cap, he looks, well, dumb. And Scott Hoch--another world-class ball striker--is the spitting image of "The Beaver" on his way to a baseball game.

Nevertheless, golf fashions--an oxymoron before the last few years--are light-years more tasteful than ever before.

Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss, for example, have all come out with golf apparel in the last couple of years to raise the bar for staples such as Cross Creek, Reebok Golf and others.

I'm partial to the Arnold Palmer line of shirts, counting two of them hanging in my closet: One was a gift and the other I purchased (on sale) as a reward for shooting par on the back nine of a Palmer-designed course in Palm Springs.

Since I can afford to carry only ancient Ping Eye clubs, my comparatively modest wardrobe is secondary to my desire to someday purchase a set of irons made after the invention of the flush toilet. To some of the golfers I hook up with on the course, however, money obviously is no object when it comes to clothes.

*

Golfers spend an estimated $775 million each year on golf clothes. Nongolfers spend an additional $140 million, mostly on gifts.

They're out there in Mickelson's Hugo Boss line, Paul Azinger's Haggars, Payne Stewart's Dayton Hudson / Marshall Fields, Nicklaus Golf Apparel, Palmer's and the Bobby Jones line. And they all look good: shirts in tasteful, muted colors with sleeves down to the elbows; pants with simple, clean lines and no plaids!

By now, even the least golf-literate of readers should realize that I'm leaving someone out. I mean, of course, Tiger Woods.

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