Golf’s growth has been stagnant for the better part of the 21st century. After the huge Tiger-inspired boost of the late ‘90s, the sport failed to continue attracting new demographics in the decades that followed, a process no doubt aided by Tiger’s precipitous decline in the wake of highly publicized marital issues, a string of injuries and a stint in rehab.
Then the pandemic happened, and for the first time in a long time the sport of golf saw a rise in popularity. The fact that it’s an inherently socially distant activity allowed courses to remain open even when nearly every other recreational activity was on hiatus, and a spike in participation followed. If you stay open when everything else is closed, they will come, apparently.
While there are many fair criticisms of the sport’s persistent diversity problem, the game of golf is getting younger. Accordingly, the aesthetics of the game are changing, and nowhere is that more evident than in the sport’s growing love affair with the world of streetwear.
Nothing is more telling of this than the fact that Nike and Drake’s collaborative effort, Nocta, just launched a golf line. The offering was small, but it sold out almost immediately. There’s no telling whether it was young golfers or golf-curious streetwear heads doing the buying, but the mere existence of the collection speaks to a greater trend in the sport.
But it’s not just the big boys that are expanding their offerings. In fact, one might argue that Nike is a bit late to the party, capitalizing on a movement that was started by newer brands with younger, more diverse founders.
Earl Cooper, the co-founder of Eastside Golf, tells InsideHook “this movement isn’t a situation where the leaders in golf finally figured out what golf was missing. This was something that needed to happen a long time ago.”
Brands like Eastside combine classic golf functionality with motifs from any number of subcultures: Golf and prep. Golf and hip-hop. Golf and surf. Golf and cannabis.
This rebranding project makes sense as the sport’s fan base expands. The DIY ethos of streetwear’s early days led creators to make bootleg, small-run editions of tees and hoodies for friends and others in their circles. It was as much about breaking from sartorial norms and building a community of like-minded outsiders as it was simply producing and selling cool clothes.
That impulse to contradict trends and norms is probably why there has been an influx of preppy influences — think Rowing Blazers, Aime Leon Dore, Noah, etc. — into the world of streetwear in more recent years. Golf, meanwhile, is moving in the opposite direction, with golfers caring less about super technical or proper attire and more about separating themselves from the old stuffy reputation of the sport.
“Golf benefited tremendously from the pandemic, and you had a lot of brands like ourselves, that had already been in love with golf and were in a prime position and timed it the right way to be able to take advantage of this momentum.” says Cooper. “There was no marketing out there previously that resonated with a non-golfer.”
Jojo Regan started Manors Golf after golfing regularly with his co-founder Luke Davies in the summer of 2018. “I dabbled in and out of wearing non-technical clothing and Luke would religiously wear more streetwear brands. He came to the game later than me and as such, hadn’t been preconditioned into wearing what pro-shops had been selling.”
That clash of styles inspired the pair to start a new kind of golf apparel brand. “Between the two of us we started to ask the question about why there wasn’t a golf brand out there that focused less on dressing a tour pro, and more on dressing the everyday golfer who didn’t care about performance-enhancing gear, and just wanted to feel comfortable and look good.”
Erica Malbon says she got quite a bit of pushback when she launched a similarly raffish brand, Malbon Golf, with her husband in 2017. “When we started, people could not understand why we would start a fashion brand inspired by golf, but now the community we have created has really proven that there are people like us who love golf but also have interests outside of golf that can be expressed while playing the sport.”
Golf has long been an exclusionist sport. Part of that is simply that it’s expensive, but another part is that it has long marketed itself as catering to a very specific breed of white-collar-employed, country-club-enlisted American. Golf is for doctors, lawyers, bankers, businessmen; it’s not just a sport, but a place to close deals, impress clients and nurture relationships. Folks that didn’t have a traditionally “good” job were seen as outsiders. Players of color were long seen as outsiders as well — Tiger Woods was always the exception that proved the rule. Hell, Augusta National, perhaps the most hallowed ground in the entire golf universe, didn’t allow Black members until 1990.
An Esquire article from June 2021 proclaimed that “golf is finally cool again,” but also that to keep it that way, the powers that be need to realize that “golf has no future if it is to lean on the wealthy, white privilege on which it was built; the only way forward is through accessibility, hospitality, and investment that benefits disenfranchised communities.”
It should also be noted that there is a difference between streetwear and sportswear, which — as a GQ article about The New American Sportswear correctly points out — is getting harder and harder to see. The genres are blurring together to the degree that there are very few pure streetwear brands or sportswear brands left. And that grey area is precisely where brands catering to long (or newly) neglected golf fans fit in.
As these new, less conventional golf brands cultivate their own communities, they’ll also drive adoption of the game by new demographics. Regan says “there are musicians, directors of photography, fashion industry leaders … more people are seeing golf in a light that makes a challenge to this stifled misconception that it is stuffy and reserved for old men.”
Existing and well-respected streetwear brands are also leaning into golf’s newfound popularity by reviving some legendary pop-culture references involving the sport. Extra Butter, a heavy hitter in New York’s most beloved streetwear boutiques, put out a huge 25th Anniversary collection for Happy Gilmore. As co-Founder and CEO Ankur Amin said of the collection, “The game is getting younger, inclusive and more diverse. Our consumers are seeing athletes and artists take up the game and they are starting to get interested. Golf fashion on the other hand has been at a standstill. It has lacked inspiration and good story-telling. We love that the sport continues to evolve and be more approachable and accessible and we wanted to be a part of that movement.”
The places where people golf are even changing. Look at the likes of Inness, a newly opened Hudson Valley resort that features a golf course but doesn’t take the sport too seriously. The owners of the property don’t even play golf, but they see it as an activity that goes hand in hand with their design-focused, rustic aesthetic. The pro shop is stocked by Williamsburg sportswear label Adsum and other new brands conquering the crossover space between athletics and streetwear.
Another latter-day golf-apparel founder I talked to — Maxton Reinland of Muni Kids, so named for the municipal courses Reinland grew up playing on — says he “didn’t quite identify with the traditional golf culture and what all the brands were pushing at the time.” The municipal course is viewed as the black sheep of the golf world, ungated and funded by the government rather than private interests, meaning they are oftentimes neglected — and cheaper to play.
Reinland sees golf evolving away from its reputation almost out of necessity. “Some of the ‘traditions’ have been hurting the growth or perception of golf for years, so it’s exciting to see this boom that is opening golf up to more people and making them consider picking up a club” he says. “It’s undoubtedly becoming a cooler sport.”
Cooper speaks of longevity, as any brain behind any great brand will do: “What’s going to make us stand the test of time is because it isn’t just a trendy brand, it’s a deep love and passion for the game, but we also have a deep love and passion for non-golfers as well, and I think that’s where golf has always struggled. They have shunned non-golfers and just tried to get golfers to play more golf, but that’s not how you grow the game.”
Ultimately, it’s targeting that last group — new golfers, different golfers — that will fix the sport’s biggest problem, as outlined at the top of this story: its conspicuous lack of diversity. “We don’t want to be around a lot of [traditional] golfers,” Cooper says. “We want to be around a lot of non-golfers and then evangelize, and tell them how cool golf is and then bring them into the game.”
It’s starting to work.
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Started by a pair of Morehouse Golf alumni, the brand makes golf staples like polos and hats along with other accessories like headcovers. But it also embraces the streetwear side with sweatshirts, tees and even an Eastside Golf x Air Jordan IV golf shoe collab that saw more than 250,000 people enter into the lottery to be able to purchase the shoes.
A British brand melding old-school ‘50s golfing aesthetics with present-day high-end sportswear. Imagine if Bagger Vance also wore a hoodie and a thick tee from time to time.
Random Golf Club
This brand is probably closest to a traditional golf brand of all those featured here, except without anything traditional about it. They are also a media brand featuring a journal and podcast, and in addition to apparel, sell a host of golf accessories, from a rangefinder to a bag.
In the true spirit of streetwear, Malbon, started by creative couple and golf enthusiasts Erica and Stephen Malbon, has done a number of collabs with bigger name brands like Nike and Budweiser.
Started by Mossimo founder Mossimo Gianulli, this brand is fully on the technical side of the spectrum but takes some cues from elevated Euro brands. Look out for their golf shoes, which look traditional but feature a number of cheeky design flourishes.
Inspired by the unpretentious golf culture of municipal courses, Muni Kids aims to make golf more inclusive. Muni Kids feels more like a streetwear brand inspired by golf rather than the other way around. True to their nature of inclusivity, they also turn the limited-run drop model on its head by keeping drops open for a set period of time rather than a set number of items, allowing anyone who wants a product the opportunity to get one.