- Words by Mr Dan Davies
For a sport that has been decried as a graveyard of style, golf has a long and rich sartorial tradition. Early paintings show the game's pioneers, men such as Mr Allan Robertson of St Andrews taking to the sandy links land, in the rough narrow spaces between ploughed fields and the beach, wearing tightly fitting red coats, cocked hats and buckled shoes. Members of the Scottish nobility, meanwhile, strode out onto the firm turf of Fife, Musselburgh, North Berwick and Prestwick in tall hats and swallow-tailed frock coats.
In the second half of the 19th century, the first generation of British professionals were modest, working-class men - club and ball makers and keepers of the greens - whose competitive attire consisted of jackets and trousers in thick tweeds, waistcoats and heavy boots; in other words clothing that allowed them to swing their hickory-shafted clubs while also protecting them from the elements. Messrs Harry Vardon, John Henry Taylor and James Braid, known as the Great Triumvirate for their all-conquering exploits at the turn of the century, were the last of this conservatively dressed breed.
Golf's booming popularity among the upper classes in the interwar period gave rise to a new freedom of expression and individuality on the fairways. Plus fours, or knickerbockers, became the norm, paired with increasingly snazzy socks and saddle or correspondent-style spiked shoes. By 1924, one writer felt moved to comment on how "golf jackets have almost now become a universal fashion. Tens of thousands wear this jacket who never hit a golf ball." Ties were still worn but the desire for utility and comfort saw starched butterfly collars replaced by more roomy starched folding collars on shirts.
Golf's booming popularity among the upper classes in the interwar period gave rise to a new freedom of expression on the fairways
It was a period that produced the game's first style icons, men such as Messrs Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. The former was the first of the modern professionals, a man who played for money, mixed in high society and dressed in a way that reflected his success. The latter was a gentleman rather than a player, an Atlanta lawyer who remained an amateur but nevertheless took the game by storm. He also appeared in magazine spreads that celebrated his classic "Southern gentleman" look.
In the post-war period, these Gatsby-style figures were succeeded by a generation of professionals who capitalised on technical advancements in playing equipment. Cashmere, cottons and gabardine became the order of the day, with sports shirts, cardigans and tailored slacks replacing the billowing shirts, ties and knickers of yore. The apogee of the new style was Mr Ben Hogan. Arguably the finest ball striker in the history of golf, he made an impression on everyone he met. "The first thing that struck me about Hogan when I saw him in person for the first time was his perfect clothes," said Mr Tom Weiskopf, who went on to win the Open Championship in 1973. "I'd never seen shirts that fit so beautifully on a human being before. His shoes were immaculate, his belt always looked brand-new? the creases in his trousers looked as if they'd just been pressed. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Nobody ever looked the way Hogan did."
Shirt collars wide enough to require hangars rather than hangers characterised a period in which golf acquired its unwanted reputaion
This style was taken on and modified by Mr Arnold Palmer, arguably the sport's most charismatic player and the first star of the television era. In the 1960s he established the blueprint for much of what we see today, albeit worn with an élan that few have subsequently matched. "It seemed like the guys that were really good always had a neat style for dressing," Mr Palmer said of his predecessors. His emphasis, he maintained, was on neatness because "golf is about precision".
As colour television then brought golf into households across the world, the sport began its dramatic descent into the sartorial abyss, thanks to gaudy explosions in man-made fibres. Flared trousers in loud tartans, yellows and vivid reds, and shirt collars wide enough to require hangars rather than hangers, characterised a period in which golf acquired its unwanted reputation.
Contemporary trends appear to be more technical than stylish, with the game's leading exponents now wearing shoes that resemble runners or lightweight football boots, and apparel that more closely mirrors gym wear than something appropriate for post-round reflection from the comfort of a high-backed leather armchair in the clubhouse.
With a few notable exceptions, modern golf has yet to witness a return to its more tailored traditions. So maybe it's time to explore the past - and the timeless elegance championed by the likes of Messrs Hagen, Jones, Hogan and Palmer.