The Course of Style: High Style on the QT

The Course of Style: High Style on the QT

Stricker wears clothing by Peter Millar but logos reflect his sponsors, Titleist and the New York Stock Exchange.

The Peter Millar company, a maker of luxury golf apparel worn by a number of professionals under an unusual sponsoring agreement, this month entered into a new partnership with an investment firm, Winona Capital Management, ensuring that its classic good looks will continue to be a presence at better pro shops and on tour.

“We are in solid shape going forward,” said Scott Mahoney, the chief executive officer of Peter Millar, who added that his company was showing a year-to-year increase in sales in the first quarter of 2009, despite apocalyptic fears about the effect of the recession on high-end golf business.

Peter Millar, based in Cary, NC, has a somewhat unique strategy when it comes to dressing and sponsoring professional tour players. This year the company formed a partnership with Titleist to dress eight pros—Steve Stricker, Arron Oberholser, Troy Matteson, Charley Hoffman, Bill Haas, Marc Turnesa, Michael Letzig and Webb Simpson—all of whom use Titleist equipment. Since Titleist does not make much golf clothing (except for a few items from its FootJoy division), the hard-goods giant has looked for some smart way to dress its sponsored golfers. But how to do it without promoting the apparel line, that is, having the apparel logo displayed in a way that competes with its own? It becomes a matter of visual clutter.

The way it works is Peter Millar dresses the eight Titleist-sponsored players, but the only Peter Millar logos visible are on the back yokes of the shirts, also known as “between the shoulder blades” placement. This is not considered prime placement, since the logo tends to appear on camera rarely—perhaps while the player is blasting out of a trap or putting. Titleist owns the primary locations: the caps, the chest, and the sleeves. So the Peter Millar look, which tends to be classic, unobtrusive and does not shout at you to begin with—beautiful wool pants, performance shirts with a nice drape and self collars—remains a quiet presence on the tour.

Under this arrangement, the golfer receives no money from the apparel maker but gets free clothes and detailed fashion support he needs. (For example, Peter Millar custom-makes trousers for its players.) For its part, Titleist buys the clothes from Peter Millar, then is free to put its Titleist logo (or the FootJoy) on the left sleeve or wherever it wants. It is a complex partnership that seems to be working out in a period when the flow of apparel sponsorship money clearly has been curtailed. At Harbour Town last week (which, granted, did not include many of the top players), there was a noticeable absence of branding on the players’ clothing.

“There was a time when guys were getting a lot of money” from their apparel sponsorship deals, Mahoney said, “but a lot of that is drying up.”

The company takes special satisfaction in the knowledge that some top pro golfers buy and wear Peter Millar on their own. Vijay Singh still wears Peter Millar shirts, for instance, according to the company. (Phil Mickelson, contrary to industry rumor, does not.)

The fate of the Bobby Jones apparel company and the Jack Nicklaus sportswear collection, two well-known country-club labels, remains in the balance. The two luxury golf apparel units of the Hartmarx Corporation, which declared bankruptcy in January, continue to ship clothing as usual while the bankruptcy judge and Hartmarx’s creditors consider three separate bids on the company. The identity of the bidders is not known. A decision is expected by the end of the month.

“We’re all hoping for some resolution,” said an executive for one of the golf companies, whose employees are understandably nervous about their units being spun off from the giant suitmaker. “From the beginning the intention has been to sell the company as a whole.”