Golf togs add a Tiger to the team Fashion: Woods, the young phenom, has turned 'square wear' into a status symbol.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Time was when the term "golf fashion" was an oxymoron.

Golf clothes, those geeky plaid ensembles seemingly designed for old codgers, were about as unfashionable as divots on a putting green.

And who, except those who actually knew how to blast their way out of a sand trap, really wanted to walk around looking like a golfer anyway?

But that was all B.T. -- Before Tiger.

Since the young golf sensation Tiger Woods drove, chipped and putted his way to superstardom, breaking records, drawing huge galleries, winning the Masters, all of sudden, the look of the links is more than just hip. It's what's happening.

"Golf wear is no longer square wear," declared Neal Orman, co-owner of Golf America, a five-city chain of golf boutiques in upper-end malls.

Even company officials are surprised at how many people who wouldn't know a 9-iron from a sand wedge are coming in looking for shirts like those Woods has worn during tournaments, people just wanting the trappings of a golfer -- minus the clubs. There are plans to open 12 Golf America stores a year for the next few years, a plan that crystallized when Woods' wins put a tiger in the tank of golf merchandisers.

"Tiger Woods has exploded the market," said R. Mike Matthews, Golf America's director of marketing. "He's taken it from the typical golfer, an older white male, to everyone."

The company opened its first store in King of Prussia, Pa., outside Philadelphia, two years ago, and in the last few months saw its sales boom beyond all expectation. Golf America is being flooded with customers from all age groups and all walks of life; customers include African-American, Hispanic and white teen-agers, white suburban dads with their teen sons in tow and college students.

Everyone from young hip-hoppers to skater or surfer dudes is hitting the scene all done up in colorful designer golf duds from the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, while sophisticated corporate golfers are donning expensive Arnold Palmer threads.

"It really is all about Tiger Woods. He is the key," said Bud Konheim, president of the Nicole Miller company, which introduced a golf collection this season, advertising it with photographs of leading New York doctors in the printed Miller attire.

Nike obviously believes Woods is key, because the company locked him up for a multiyear endorsement deal.

Woods' popularity comes at an opportune moment for the $830 million golf-apparel market, which has grown by 15 percent since 1992. He broke through just as a number of new, hipper golf clothing companies such as the Skins Game swung into the market. Add to that the dress-down workdays that have brought greater demand for such casual merchandise as golf or polo shirts, and a decade-long boom in athletic apparel.

But unlike basketball shirts, football jerseys or biker shorts, all of which have become fashionable and inexpensive, golf apparel had been exclusively for those with the money and the means to play the sport. In fact, most golf apparel historically has been sold in pro shops of country clubs, golf resorts and other so-called "green grass" locations.

That's changing quickly as department stores are realigning the men's department to give more space to duffers' duds, ordering the new golf collections and advertising them heavily. Macy's recent Father's Day sales catalog featured young golfer models.

'So much buzz'

"Tiger Woods has brought golf and golf wear more into the mainstream," said Erin Gaffney, a spokeswoman for lines named for Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus. Jones was the great amateur golfer who won the Grand Slam in 1930. (At that time the Grand Slam consisted of the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs.) Nicklaus won the Masters a record six times.

The publicity blitz surrounding Woods, 21 -- the youngest man ever to win the Masters, who did so by the largest margin (12 strokes) with a course-record 270 at Augusta National -- has brought new attention from retailers and customers.

"There is so much buzz, so much excitement, particularly since people consider Bobby Jones to be the greatest amateur golfer ever, the only one to win the Grand Slam, and they are watching to see if Tiger will break his record. And Nicklaus has the most wins of the Masters and so they are watching Tiger for that also," Gaffney said. "We're loving it. The free publicity is great for us."

The Bobby Jones collection, with its $150 to $300 sweaters, debuted seven years ago, long after the golfer's death in 1971. It was one of the first of a long list of golf lines named for leading golfers, and remains popular. That, together with the smaller Nicklaus collection, accounted for $50 million in sales for its parent company, Hartmarx.

But previously -- B.T., that is -- even with the popularity of endorsed golf wear and companies teeing up to dress pro golfers, the clothes (short-sleeve knits, cotton shorts, argyle vests and the like) had little currency beyond the exclusive world of the 25 million people who play golf on the 15,900 golf courses in the United States.

Enter Tiger Woods, a California native with a winning smile, a wholesome image, All-American good looks and a killer golf game.

The clothes he wore with such casual elegance -- the baggy pants, the longer, larger shirts with a single-button placard instead of the traditional three buttons, the bright color-blocked shirts, the Nike T-shirt worn so casually over his golf shirt -- all quickly sold out at stores that carried look-alike merchandise or the real thing.

Meanwhile, Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and other designers are giving new loft to golf clothes, making them brighter and more fashionable, adding technological advances such as water- and

mud-resistant fabrics.

Then there are companies such as Chiliwear, which recently introduced colorful golf shirts using the Tabasco hot sauce logo.

"Golfers want to have fun, and they are looking for a new look, and Tabasco is hot and spicy; it's fun," said company president Sidney Copey Pulitzer Jr.

dTC The $45 whimsical golf shirts are sold in 600 outlets in the United States, and the company provides clothes for several professional golfers, such as Scott Hoch and Jimmy Johnston.

"Golf has been somewhat of a closed community," Pulitzer said. "It's got barriers of entry. You cannot go play golf like you can basketball or football because you need acres of green and money. So, like polo, it's a status thing and the clothes also give the wearers status."

The polo shirt elevated to an enduring status symbol by Ralph Lauren is an apt comparison. Not since the very similar style of Lacoste/Izod shirts with the alligator logo crawled into the rarefied world of status sports goods in the late 1970s has so much attention been paid to golf-related apparel.

Ironically, the 21-year-old phenom generating all this demand signed a reported $40 million endorsement contract late last year with Nike, but Tiger Woods Nike merchandise has yet to make its way to most stores.

Just ask Rosemary Thomson, a registered nurse who lives in Philadelphia. When she read that Nike was shipping the first three styles of Tiger Woods golf shirts in his signature red (his lucky color) to stores in May, she decided to buy two for her golfer husband, Ron, as an anniversary present.

"It really fit because the fifth anniversary is the wooden anniversary," Thomson said. "I called all around and nobody had it."

That's because the company, which rushed the styles into production after it realized how many Woods fans wanted to dress like him, was behind in its deliveries.

"It is in hot demand," said Lee Weinstein, a spokesman for Nike.

The complete Tiger Woods golf collection will not arrive in stores until next spring, he said, but three styles of red shirts selling for about $50 should be arriving at stores within the next few weeks.

Go with what you've got

Department stores aren't waiting for the Tiger Woods collection or the Titleist golf bags and gloves to capitalize on the trend. They say the demand exists now and who knows what next year will bring?

"It's been fantastic, and some of the best selling items are the golf logo shirts and golf trousers from Polo; that's really popular, and the Greg Norman stuff is also selling," said Chris Gentry, a fashion director and spokeswoman at Bloomingdale's, where sales of golfer threads are up 80 percent nationally over last last year.

Dennis Del Rey, owner of the California-based Skins Game, formerly ran a surf-apparel company with a partner. When they started the line in 1994, golf retailers didn't exactly embrace the idea of a funky line aimed at young people.

"But now they see that this stuff can be cool, and a lot of young guys are getting into it because golf and golf tournaments are so popular -- but you would have to be crazy to deny that Tiger Woods didn't bring a lot of this to the forefront," Rey said.

Pub Date: 6/19/97

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