Luke Donald, wearing Polo RLX, at the Old Course at St. Andrews
Andrew Reddington/Getty Images
By Woody Hochswender
Sunday, October 11, 2009

The yin and yang of golf fashion is clearly technical vs. traditional. Of course, opposing forces are often interconnected in unseen ways. So much of traditional-seeming golf clothes are made with modern performance fabrics and processes, whether they come from Dunning, Fairway & Greene, or Polo Ralph Lauren, which showed its two separate collections, to address both needs, last week in its New York headquarters.

Symbolic of the whole enterprise perhaps are the Ralph Lauren showrooms themselves: a sanctuary of masculine style with dark wood-paneling and hunting scenes displayed on the walls, housed in a modern skyscraper with stainless steel mullions and green-glass curtain walls on Madison Avenue. The dichotomy in golf fashion is indicated by the two collections — Polo Golf and RLX — shown in the same room.

The first evokes the classic look of Ben Hogan and the country-club high life of Newport Beach and Coral Gables: cotton knit shirts (un-mercerized to preserve softness and natural drape); linen-silk pinstripe shorts; cabled cardigans; Fair Isle vests; creamy colors; and various old-timey crests, including a new monogram of vintage-looking golfers at play that is said to require 69,000 stitches (not by hand, we hope).

The second line, RLX, is all about performance and cutting-edge gear, featuring stretch polyesters, "airflow" stripes on shirts, bold colors (raspberry, chroma green), and sneaky pockets for holding your tees and stuff. The fit is much closer to the body. Exemplifying this look is Luke Donald, the line's sponsored tour pro.

Which approach is winning? The RLX collection now constitutes 40 percent of golf sales, according to Ralph Lauren executives, up from a mere 8 percent a few years ago (they declined to say exactly when). This would suggest explosive growth in performance clothing (RLX) at the expense of the classic. But has RLX cut into Polo Golf sales? Ralph Lauren executives would not say. As noted before, there is some interplay between the two approaches. The RLX line has classic pieces — a cricket sweater, for instance, or an argyle vest — and Polo Golf has many performance features. So the fashion trajectory is blurred.

More important, it might not be an either/or thing. No matter what his style orientation, a golfer doesn't necessarily wear completely traditional clothing every time he plays golf, just as people don't wear suits in every professional context. The golfer chooses his look according to many factors: who his golf mates are; the prestige level of the club or course he is playing; whether or not he will see his boss or important clients on the course; the weather; and so forth.

The fashion reality is that many guys feel comfortable going traditional in some contexts and more casual or modern in others.

The largest golf shoe maker, FootJoy, has perhaps a similar problem in maintaining a traditional approach while not missing out on the more youthful, performance look. This week FootJoy introduced a new performance golf shoe, FJ Sport, designed for "the player seeking bold, athletic-inspired golf shoes."

Long the leader in classic waterproof golf footwear, FootJoy faces stiff competition from sportswear giants like Nike and Adidas, whose footwear products are almost exclusively athletic in look. However, the parameters here are a little different. All golf shoes have to perform. If your shoes are not waterproof, or are uncomfortable or unstable during the swing, then what good are they? Shoes are more like equipment than fashion pieces.

FootJoy already makes plenty of athletic-inspired golf shoes, but the new model complements its elegant, high-end FJ Icon shoes. The FJ Sport features full-grain leather uppers, mesh linings, and soft, lightweight cushioning. The FJ Icon costs about $250; the FJ Sport will sell for $135.

For Greg Norman at the Presidents Cup, it was kind of like a double eagle: Not only was he captain of the International team, but his players wore clothes from his namesake brand of golf clothing. (The apparel sponsor for the United States team was Ashworth Golf, the longtime apparel sponsor of its captain, Fred Couples.) The Greg Norman Presidents Cup uniforms included lots of argyle patterns and some color-blocked shirts — all in high-performing fabrics, of course.

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