On PGA Tour, fashion runs according to script

Viewers of the final round of golf’s U.S. Open two weeks ago might have noticed Billy Horschel’s name near the top of the leader board. They almost certainly noticed his pants, navy blue with a white octopus print.

Reactions ranged from “Where can I get some of those?” to “Who dresses these guys?”

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For apparel sponsors — in Horschel’s case, Polo Ralph Lauren — that’s exactly the point.

In a crowded and competitive marketplace, on-course fashion decisions are more carefully orchestrated than ever before, but they’re not being made by the players themselves. Rather, the companies who supply the clothes tell the pros not just what to wear but when to wear it.

In an effort to increase visibility and spark sales, most companies “script” their sponsored players’ outfits for each day of a major championship (the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship). Horschel, in fact, had been scheduled to don his cephalopod slacks during Saturday’s third round of the Open, but once he played his way into contention, Polo executives switched them to Sunday, when TV viewership would be highest.

Golf companies have been asking players to wear certain clothes for decades. Greg Norman, the game’s most visible star in the late ’80s and early ’90s, said his sponsors “had reports down to the second” of how much airtime he and his apparel were getting.

Scripting outfits, though, traces its roots to April 13, 1997. That day, a 22-year-old in a red sweater with a white swoosh blew away his competition, became the Masters’ youngest-ever winner, and catapulted Nike golf to the head of the golf apparel class.

Nike’s rise in golf “is because of Tiger” said Matt McCabe, Golfsmith’s vice president of Soft Lines (footwear and apparel). “He wears the swoosh, he wins a lot, and people want to wear it.”

Men’s product director for Nike Golf Eric Schendler said the company emphasizes scripting to take advantage of “major moments” and “define what an athlete’s look will be and make a statement as a brand.”

Nearly every other apparel company followed Nike’s lead in recent years, sharing scripts with the media prior to each major.

“Honestly, I think [scripting] is played out a little bit,” said Jennifer Hawkins, director of marketing for Greg Norman/Dunning Golf, who said her company has been scripting for six or seven years. “You used to kind of stand out, but now all the brands have it. Once there’s that much noise, it sort of loses its impact.”

So companies have had to get creative to establish a niche.

One method is what Hawkins calls “statement dressing”: the use of bright colors, bold patterns, and octopus prints to stand out on the course.

Adidas/TaylorMade employed what Senior Director of Global Marketing Davide Mattucci called “team scripting” at this year’s Masters: It dressed its sponsored players in the same outfits. Though Mattucci said the company’s Web site was “flooded” with orders for those products, he said the company hasn’t decided whether or not to try it again.

“I love it and think it’s the best gear out there, but I don’t really like wearing the same thing as other guys,” said Jason Day, who wore the wrong script one day in Augusta.

Dunning Golf tries yet another approach, emphasizing the “heritage of the game” to appeal to its more old-school clientele and choosing players who are suited to the style.

“We really work hard to work with guys who are suited for our brand,” Hawkins said, citing clean-cut Dunning player Charles Howell III as an example. “If you have a player that doesn’t want to wear what you have in the line, you’re never going to make them happy.”

Rickie Fowler, the PGA Tour’s consensus fashion star, is the perfect example of a good brand-player fit. Puma was barely on the golf radar before signing Fowler in 2009, but has since grown into a top seller.

Fowler is “a young, cool kid,” Golfsmith’s McCabe said. “He does reasonably well on the tour, and kids want to look like him. Rickie moves the needle for sure.”

Fowler, known for his flat-brimmed caps, funky pants and bright color pallette, said “there wasn’t a whole lot of choosing” when it came to picking a sponsor.

“Puma was a great fit for me and I felt like I fit their model, so it went hand in hand,” he said. Bright colors “were always kind of their thing, although I brought more orange in.”

The combination has flourished, as aspiring young golfers from age 5 to 25 can be seen wearing Fowler’s flat-brimmed, Puma-logoed cap around courses around the country.

Sales such as those are the goal of all companies that script athletes, and the reason athletes are willing to wear whatever they’re told — even octopus pants.

“They asked me a couple weeks before if I’d be willing to wear them, and I said I’d be more than willing to,” Horschel said. “I’m more than willing to accommodate if any of my sponsors ask something of me.”

That sentiment, Norman said, is decidedly not a new phenomenon.

“Priorities have not changed,” Norman said. “It’s all about how lucrative the endorsement deal is. Fashion is secondary.”

 
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