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The Portfolio

Why Golf Is Loosening Up In 2019

Three Hollywood dads and a former NHL player turned fashion model show us the new face of the fairway

There’s something happening in the sport of golf, and it’s happening at Angeles National Golf Club on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon where Mr Cory Heenan, a 35-year-old Los Angeles entrepreneur, steps up to the first tee and bombs a drive down the centre of the fairway. By most standards, Mr Heenan doesn’t look like a golfer. He’s dressed head to toe in black and has a full sleeve of ink on his left arm. He looks like he should be hanging out on Sunset Boulevard or Silver Lake banging away on a MacBook. He looks cool.

Golf hasn’t been a cool game in the US for most of the past century. It’s been a game for old, monied men in triple-pleated gabardines, whiling away a Sunday behind closed gates, escaping the wives and swilling liquor. The golf course was the place business deals were cemented and big money was wagered. But all that began to change when 21-year-old Mr Eldrick “Tiger” Woods annihilated the field at Augusta National in April 1997.

“I started playing golf when Tiger Woods won the Masters,” says Mr Garrett Leight as he strides towards the tee in crisp white trousers and a navy windbreakersmartphone in hand. He, too, stripes one down the middle. “Me and all my 12-year-old buddies were like, that dude is only a few years older than us. Let’s go play!”

Mr Leight, 34, is the bearded, bespectacled, tattooed founder of Venice Beach-based eyewear brand Garrett Leight California Optical. And, like Mr Heenan, he is part of a new wave of creative types who are championing the sport in Los Angeles.

Thanks to Mr Woods, legions of young golfers such as Mr Leight came to the game in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But since that crescendo, there’s been a distinct dissonance between the old guard and the new. On the mainstream level, golf has attained massive marketability through young and talented ambassadors on the PGA and European Tours, including Messrs Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, but, at the grassroots level, the game has retained much of the formality that puts off many people.

“There’s this slow process of evolution that’s been happening,” says Mr Heenan. “My friends and I are in our thirties and forties, looking at this game we love and saying, ‘Wow, there is some stuff here that really sucks. How can we improve it?’”

Mr Michael Williams, 40, who partnered with Mr Heenan recently on a pop-up golf shop, ACL Golf (named after Mr Williams’ popular menswear-centric blog, A Continuous Lean.), in Culver City’s Platform shopping district, agrees. “There were a lot of things about golf that really frustrated me,” he says. “For instance, golf is the sport with the worst-dressed people who enforce the strictest dress codes.”

The ACL Golf pop-up featured an edited selection of trim-fitting, modern, technical apparel, sleek accessories and golf shoes, many of which were designed to look like sneakers. The shop was decidedly free from the tartan plaids, oversize fits and  logoed gear that have become staples in traditional pro shops.

“I care about design and want nice things in every area of my life,” says Mr Williams. “Why should my golf clothes look different from my regular clothes?”

Indeed, the gear becomes crucial in setting the modern, style-aware player apart from the hordes. Clean, tailored lines and techy touches are the hallmark of the new wave. A full array of MR PORTER’s golf offering allowed the players plenty of room for sartorial improvisation. Archetypes emerged. “I’m representing the preps,” jokes Mr Williams, who sports a striped Under Armour polo shirt and classic chino shorts during the round. Mr Leight looks his most comfortable in wide-leg black trousers and a visvim aloha shirt, worn open in the breeze.

Mr Chris Tschupp, a tall, tanned 47-year-old with the kind of multi-hyphenate CV that’s commonplace in LA – ex-hockey-player-turned-model/actor – could have passed for a touring professional in head-to-toe Under Armour and Nike. As he says, you’ve got to make these outings count. Increasingly, rounds such as this one have become his preferred method of socialising and have replaced long nights out at bars or clubs.

“This is what I did with my buddies growing up in New Jersey in the summers,” he says. “We’d play golf, go canoeing, hit the beach and go surfing. When I moved to Los Angeles, a lot of guys I met were all about the nightlife. I went with it, but inside I was thinking, you’re crazy. The days are why we moved here.”

Mr Tschupp and Mr Leight met on the set of Mr Leight’s recent photoshoot in Palm Springs. They hit it off when they discovered their shared interest in the game.     

“In the creative industry, no one used to admit they played golf,” says Mr Leight. “Now you can find a few guys who do.”

“But there aren’t a lot of us,” says Mr Tschupp.

They banded together, the left brain-leaning men who share a passion for the game. Mr Heenan and Mr Williams, both fathers of young children, find time to sneak out and play nine holes in the mornings before work. Mr Leight, also a dad, uses solo morning rounds as a way to centre himself before the day.

“Golf is my meditation,” says Mr Leight. “I wander around in the canyon at 7.00am with the deer and coyotes.”

The new wave of golf these guys preach is predominantly non-competitive, which is ironic, given that Hollywood, one of the most cut-throat shows in the world, is just a short drive away. For starters, no money changes hands.

“Gambling is the old guard, man,” says Mr Leight. “I think the game is fun enough without it. It doesn’t attract the youth.”

Mr Tschupp has taken it a step further. He stopped keeping score. “I got down to a scratch handicap in my twenties,” he says. “But it was just too much pressure.”

“Who cares what you shoot?” says Mr Leight. He compares golf to rock climbing or surfing, sports you can do outdoors, shoulder to shoulder with your buddies in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie.

That attitude certainly holds true here. The conversation is spirited, the jabs loving. At different turns, topics run the gamut from the news of the recent college admissions scandal to the latest season of Narcos and even the potency of a particular species of cactus. “What level of burn are we talking about here?” says Mr Williams, backing away from the succulent in question.

That’s not to say the gamesmanship and banter have left the building entirely. During a pit stop at the clubhouse snack bar for a round of hot dogs, Mr Leight cracks, “Is this the best dressed foursome that ever lived?”

Mr Williams: “It was until you spilled ketchup on your white pants.”

“Don’t act like you weren’t cleaning Cheetos off of your sweater earlier,” says Mr Heenan, who is dressed like a futuristic Mr Gary Player – all black – in Nike gear and a Saturdays NYC cap.

Actor and activist Mr Will Rogers was famously quoted as saying, “Golf is good for your soul.” And that seems to be the consensus in this crew, with every free-swinging drive, bad joke or quiet moment of reflection doing a little bit to unwind the stigma that golf has to be some stiff, stuffy affair.

“I think my generation is digging past the surface, the superficiality, to the traditions that make this sport so great,” says Mr Williams. He recalls his first trip to St Andrews in Scotland and the different sort of game he found there. “When you go to Scotland, golf isn’t pretentious,” he says. “Whole families play together. It’s this inclusive, community thing.”

“In Japan, it’s mandatory to take a one-hour break between nines just to hang out and have lunch with your friends,” says Mr Leight, twirling a tee between his fingertips. “It’s the littlest things that make me love this game so much.”