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Style: Splendour On The Grass - Australian Golf Digest Style: Splendour On The Grass - Australian Golf Digest

Why golf is as much about the score as it is about the costume

Sartorial elegance is not the sine qua non of an outstanding professional golf career. Indeed, every one of us golfers, amateur or professional, are in some way a prisoner of our era, and that includes the way we dress when wielding our golf clubs. The issue of costume on the course, however, can give rise to a cloud of confusion and distract from the essence of our beloved game. Yet it does matter, and it makes its presence known in unpredictable ways and places and individuals.

Taiwan is much in the news these days, though sadly too few of us in Australia know much about the country or appreciate the small but significant role it played in post-war professional golf: the first Asian player to contend in the final round of a major was Lu Liang-huan (Mister Lu, as he was affectionately known), who narrowly went down to Lee Trevino in the 1971 Open.

Mister Lu was a close friend of my father and looked after me when I was in Taiwan in the late 1970s studying Chinese. He was always beautifully dressed, and wore a certain hat that he tipped to the gallery in a modest, gentlemanly fashion when they applauded his fine play. This gesture earned him many fans, especially in Britain. In Chinese there’s a lovely phrase: a flowering branch attracts the eye. It’s one of those elegant Chinese metaphors for being well dressed: hua zhi zhao zhan.

Over time it’s been a mark of golfers to dress well. Among the early amateurs it was de rigueur to dress well on the links, a snobbish way of distinguishing themselves from lowly caddies or rough-hewn professionals. Superior clothes cost plenty of money back then.

Yet the history of golf attire is not simply a matter of cost. Few people these days realise that from the 1860s onwards – until perhaps the beginning of televised golf in the 1960s – professional players struggled to overcome a perceived stigma, many wealthy amateurs condescending to them as inferior in social status. For a professional, dressing well on the golf course was one way of demonstrating that this condescension was both unfair and misguided.

Norman Von Nida took pains to dress well in clothes that attracted fans. Bobby Locke, son of a haberdashery owner, was always impeccably dressed, following Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and certainly the young Bobby Jones. I never saw my father or Kel Nagle or any of their peers in plus-fours, but neither did I ever witness them wearing shorts (except when at the beach or fishing from a boat).

Fast forward to the present day and the matter of golf attire is, to put it gently, somewhat fluid, along with a lot of other hitherto firm and fast social norms. Collared shirts are still part of the dress code at most golf clubs, as is the rule against denim trousers. The old standard mandating long white socks with shorts has vanished like the cassette recorder, though both were considered necessary in their day.

The PGA Tour has a dress code, as do all the majors. This year Jason Day was the object of a remonstrance from the powers-that-be at Augusta for wearing a jumper on the Friday that offended sensibilities, and he dutifully complied by saving the wretched garment for events of lesser stature. Let’s be frank: clothing that distracts from the beauty of golf is unwelcome on the course. Baron Ridley and his committee were acting sensibly; Jason was not.

If there is a gap between what we club golfers are allowed to wear and the stricter code for the golf tours (LIV excepted) and the majors, it’s a matter of different roles. Images of we everyday hackers are not inflicted on the public via television – no bad thing, I venture to suggest – but the professionals are on display to the world, something underwritten by commercial sponsors with goods or services to sell. The players must dress well in order to burnish the brands paying for their prizemoney. Yet dressing well does not necessarily mean looking old-fashioned.

Change is constant. Stasis is the enemy of joy in sport. What matters is the character of those players pursuing change and the decorum with which they do it. In the end, if you want to go down that path in dress or haircut or with your advocacy, you need to show champion play with your clubs to prove your case. Golf is as much about the score as it is about the costume. 

Getty images, David Cannon