Course of Style: Sun Mountain defends its rain gear

Phil Mickelson, Friday morning, 2010 Ryder Cup
Robert Beck/SI

The 2010 Ryder Cup matches saw a kind of consensus between the two teams on the look of modern golf: A main motif for both was the argyle sweater in outline or windowpane style — that is, a basic diamond pattern without the filled-in contrast colors of traditional Scottish argyle. Various playing partners mixed either full sleeved or vest sweaters for a slightly different look on the same team. And both teams wore compression undergarments, often in contrasting colors to their polo shirts and sweaters, giving them a sort of tri-color or triple look. There is an element of complexity in the performance look du jour, and in big-time, cool-weather situations, compression is king.

While the uniforms of both teams made nods to tradition, from the heraldic crests to the classic knitwear, the overriding takeaway was the continuing obsession with performance, as indicated in the big apparel story of the tournament — somewhere between a kerfuffle and a minor scandal — the U.S. team's faulty rain gear (or should we say "fawlty," to capture the Monty Pythonesque moment). Amid the wind and rain at Celtic Manor, the American players complained that their rain gear, supplied by Sun Mountain, a highly regarded U.S. maker of technical golf outerwear, retained water and felt heavy. The rain jackets looked a little weird to begin with — it is somewhat un-golf to have players' names printed on the back of anything but the caddies' apparel — but the problem was essentially technical. Yankee ingenuity took a bit of a hit as Captain Pavin had to go to the merchandise tents and buy up versions of the jackets worn by the European team to keep his team dry.

Executives from Sun Mountain were initially reluctant to comment, but the company's founder and owner, Rick Reimers, now has come forward with some thoughts. He prefaced his comments by stating he fully acknowledges that some players had problems with his rain gear under the conditions.

"I hate to tell these guys they didn't have a problem when they did," he said in an interview. But he doesn't believe that his proprietary "RainFlex" fabric, which meets twice the U.S. government standard for waterproof fabric, actually leaked. "It is highly unlikely that water came through the fabric," he said. He offered three theories for what happened:

1. "In that kind of torrential downpour, with a lot of wind, the garment got what we call 'wetted out.' When it's cold and windy, the jacket gets plastered against your body and you feel wet... At a certain point the outer surface, which has some element of absorbency — any garment does — gets very wet. Not the inside. The golfer then gets the feeling that he is cold and assumes that he is wet when he is not. That's a possibility."

2. "When it rains that hard and you have a golf cap on, the water tends to run down your neck and get you wet. This can happen with any garment." He pointed out that Bubba Watson, who wore a bucket hat, not a cap, was happy with his Sun Mountain jacket. Similarly, Reimers said, in windy rain a degree of moisture enters through the cuffs of almost any jacket during the swing, giving the illusion that one is getting wet through the fabric. "I have to stress this is speculation on my part," he added. "But it is something I have experienced."

3. "If you're getting torrential rain and wind and you take your jacket off to make certain shots, everything gets wet. A number of players did that. They try to stay under the umbrella, but this contributes to the problem."

While Sun Mountain seems to be in a humble, head-scratching mode, certain facts remain fairly clear: the European team's rainsuits did not become "plastered" to their bodies. Once the Americans switched to the European suits (made by ProQuip), their complaints ceased. In addition, many rain jackets have features built into the collars and cuffs to inhibit the passage of rainwater during the swing.

A number of commentators have suggested that the U.S. team should have had in their lockers a more extreme rain suit, perhaps with Gore-Tex, for the tough conditions in Wales. Sun Mountain, based in Missoula, Montana, at one time employed Gore-Tex, a well-known waterproofing technology that tends to be somewhat stiffer and more unyielding on cloth. The company stopped using it in 2006 in favor of its own RainFlex fabric, which, Reimers said, is much more breathable than traditional waterproofs.

The unsympathetic sorts at W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex, released a statement: "It's unfortunate that the U.S. Team at the Ryder Cup was not wearing uniforms with the Gore-Tex brand."

There are all different degrees of waterproofing, and numerous waterproof golf clothes by various manufacturers do not use Gore-Tex. The more highly waterproof a fabric is, typically, the crunchier the texture of the garment. Reimers contended that RainFlex was unique in being the first waterproof, breathable fabric to provide four-way stretch to facilitate a full golf swing. Europe's ProQuip suits, according to its website, have two-way stretch and are made of woven material. RainFlex is knit, not woven. Knits generally move more easily and conform to the wearer's body. Wovens, as the name suggests, have a tight weave and therefore are more amenable to waterproofing. However, there are plenty of water-resistant and waterproof knits around.

"Waterproof is not difficult," Reimers said. "It's easy to do. It's not a big technical accomplishment. If a garment is extremely waterproof, the breathability will be minimal and you'll get condensation inside the jacket."

Reimers dismissed the widely circulated notion that Lisa Pavin, the captain's wife, was to blame for all the potentially porous embroidery that adorned the U.S. team jackets. "The embroidery didn't leak," he said. "It was practically vulcanized onto the fabric." He added that the company is eager to get to the bottom of the problem (he has not yet examined the Ryder rain suits in question). The faulty rain suits will be sent to an independent lab for testing.

In the meantime, if you are thinking of playing in Category 4 hurricane conditions, Sun Mountain is probably not your best bet.

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