The game that's trendy to a tee

What do they wear out on the green? Orange. Diamond-patterned tank tops. But now the snappy Tiger Woods is bringing style to the golf course.
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The Independent Online

Golfing fashion is widely considered to be an oxymoron. And it is true that there is nothing remotely fashionable about what you see most weekends on the average golf course. However, the sport does have some sartorial distinction, for as somebody once said, controversially but with, if you like, pinstripe accuracy, it is the one pursuit that entitles a middle-class white man from Gerrards Cross to dress like a black pimp from Harlem.

Golfing fashion is widely considered to be an oxymoron. And it is true that there is nothing remotely fashionable about what you see most weekends on the average golf course. However, the sport does have some sartorial distinction, for as somebody once said, controversially but with, if you like, pinstripe accuracy, it is the one pursuit that entitles a middle-class white man from Gerrards Cross to dress like a black pimp from Harlem.

On and around golf courses I have seen the gravest of solicitors and bank managers wearing, without a jot of self-consciousness, diamond-patterned tank-tops, orange shirts, red trousers and white shoes. I am told that in trendy metropolitan circles, black is the new grey, at least until grey becomes the new black. Well, I can tell you that in non-trendy golfing circles, orange is very much the new turquoise.

There is, though, a cool wind of change blowing through golf. For Tiger Woods - the world number one and red-hot favourite to win this week's Open Championship at St Andrews - is, by most standards, an impressively snappy dresser. Like the trendy metropolitans, Woods favours black and grey over orange and turquoise.

Moreover, he has the physique of a male model and a megawatt smile. The world number three, Britain's Colin Montgomerie, has a lovely smile too, but his breasts jiggle when he walks. You would not want to emulate Monty in either dress or deportment.

Nor do other top British players, such as Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, set much of an example, fashion-wise. Tiger, by contrast, conveys a radical new message: that it is possible to look hip on the golf course. And one should not underestimate the Tiger effect, even among non-golfers. The dashing young multi-millionaire already transcends the world of sport, and when we see young people in nightclubs wearing all-weather gloves on their left hands only, as is the convention in golf, we will know that the process is complete.

In the meantime, even Tiger is compelled to obey some of the restraints imposed by the golf swing itself. His shirts and jumpers are always tucked neatly into his trousers, for example, whereas the prevailing off-course fashion is to let it all hang out. And he must also abide by the guidelines that for decades have dogged those who love golf but who love fashion equally. I am glad to say that I am not one of them, being reasonably comfortable in a tank-top, but over the years I have witnessed their pain.

Because at most golf clubs, players are expected not to step onto the course in T-shirts or jeans. Shirts are required to have collars. Shorts must be "tailored" and can only be worn with knee-length socks. My fashion-conscious friend Stephen "Pussy" Baxter once fell foul of the members at Royal Lytham & St Annes, who literally, and to his enormous indignation, told him to pull his socks up.

And that is merely on the course. The dress code in the clubhouse is usually even more restrictive. One lunchtime last summer I wandered into the bar at Aldeburgh Golf Club in Suffolk wearing a perfectly presentable pale blue polo shirt. I was politely ejected. The secretary then told me that I had to wear a jacket and tie, and that if necessary he could provide me with them. When I stepped back into the bar I sported, over my pale blue polo shirt, a nasty acrylic tie and a brown tweed jacket several sizes too small. I have seen more sensibly-dressed clowns.

The forces of stuffy conservatism are not what they were in golf, but they still wield considerable influence. Many golf clubs still practise a gender-based apartheid, nowhere more so than at a certain club in Scotland, a land where golf is supposed to be democratic, yet where there stands a large sign declaring: "No dogs or women." In that order. So what chance a Calvin Klein ribbed vest and baggy jeans?

Still, some top players over the years have brazenly challenged the status quo. One of the first to do so was Walter Hagen, a charismatic American who won our Open Championship four times. He first played in the Open at Deal, Kent, in 1920, and was shocked to find that professionals were not permitted in the clubhouse. So he promptly hired a Daimler, a chauffeur and a footman, had the Daimler parked directly outside the clubhouse, and changed there instead.

His customary outfit on the golf course - tie, cardigan, plus-fours, patterned socks and two-tone shoes - was similarly ostentatious. Indeed, the late Payne Stewart, who died last year in a plane crash, modelled himself on Hagen. It could be said that Stewart set golfing fashion back 70 years, and certainly did little to dissuade those who firmly believe that golfers look like berks. Still, Stewart not only dared to dress differently from his peers, but cleverly turned it into a marketing opportunity. He was sponsored by America's National Football League and used to turn out each week in the colours of a different NFL team.

It was hard not to admire Stewart, so spectacularly did he stand out from the crowd. Others have tried to be different with considerably less success. The Irish golfer John O'Leary, for example, used to wear trousers with one leg coloured red and the other white. Admittedly it was the 1970s, but even so.

And when it came to bad taste, O'Leary was eclipsed by the American Doug Sanders. In 1970, when he famously missed a titchy putt to win the Open at St Andrews, Sanders sported a purple ensemble garish even by the psychedelic standards of the day. One wonders whether he is more embarrassed, looking back, by the putt or the outfit.

These days, the player who strives hardest to stand out from the crowd is the Swede, Jesper Parnevik, who inexplicably chooses to wear a cap with an upturned brim. Parnevik - the son, perhaps significantly, of a well-known Swedish comedian - is a golfer of considerable talent. He too is among the favourites to win the Open at St Andrews. Yet it remains impossible to take seriously a sportsman who so powerfully evokes the young Norman Wisdom. His female compatriots, Catrin Nilsmark and Helen Alfredsson, at least go some way towards recovering national pride.

They, together with the French pair Marie-Laure de Lorenzi and Sandrine Mendiburu, have, like Tiger Woods in the men's game, managed to make women's golf look stylish verging on sexy. For those of us who spent our childhoods caddying for women in several acres of tweed skirt, and have uncomfortable memories of their varicose veins, that is no mean feat.

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