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Millennials Are Saving Golf by Rebranding It

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This is not about golf.

This is about brand building, “bland” building, legacy disruption, social change, racial equality, streetwear’s triumph, Covid’s wake and flogging endless gear to the Alphabet Generations.

Okay … it’s a little about golf.

American golf is now, arguably, in its sixth stylistic wave.

The first wave — “Scottish” — was imported from across the Atlantic, complete with hickory niblicks, heavy tweed, Royal and Ancient rulings and clubhouses that impersonated stately homes. Should you need convincing, 12 of the first 16 winners of the US Open (between 1895 and 1910) were from Scotland, and the other four were English.

Golf’s second wave saw the emergence of an “American” style — personified by Walter “The Haig” Hagen, a caddie-turned-pro whose 11 major victories (between 1914 and 1929) still rank behind only Tiger Woods (15) and Jack Nicklaus (18). Not only did “Sir” Walter challenge the game’s soi-disant “gentlemen” — for example, by dressing in a limo parked outside any clubhouses that excluded “professionals” like him — he pioneered a Gatsbyesque deportment and manner of dress that so charmed sponsors he became golf’s first millionaire.

Wave three established golf as “Cool” — driven by pros (Arnold Palmer), presidents (John F. Kennedy) and personalities (Sean Connery) and characterized by the ring-a-ding-ding stylings of cigarette-puffing, slacks-wearing, fedora-snapping Rat Packers like Frank, Sammy and Dino — who once advised, “If you drink, don’t drive. Don’t even putt.”

The fourth wave was unabashedly “Brash” — where business was hustled on the course, and clubs hustled for players by hiring “big names” like Jack Nicklaus to design “championship” courses with super-fast greens. Sartorially, the era was an unmourned blend of gaudy ostentation (loud patterns, colored balls, big brands) and Seinfeldian normcore (pleated chinos, baggy shirts, mullet hair).

Tiger Woods unleashed golf’s fifth wave by combining unparalleled talent and ineffable cool with a hard-won “Athletic” prowess. Woods turned the game into a sport, exploding audience numbers, driving up prize money, challenging racism(2), obliging clubs to “Tiger-proof” their courses by making them tougher, forcing fellow players into the gym and catalyzing fashion’s transition to form-fitting performance attire.

Which brings us to the current stylistic wave I’m calling “Golf 6.0” — born in the pre-pandemic brandgrab of Direct-To-Consumer disruption, but accelerated by Covid’s lockdowns, work-from-home and the still-unfolding “great resignation.”

According to the National Golf Federation (NGF), the “Tiger Effect” of 1999-2000 prompted 4.8 million Americans to take up on-course golf; the “Covid Effect” of 2020-2021 catalyzed another 6.2 million to step up to their first tee. And if the brands of Golf 6.0 get their way, maybe these newbies will stay.

From Hickory to Hip (Hop)

Golf has long been defined (and plagued) by polarization: Pros v. Joes; country clubs v. public courses; snobs v. slobs; men v. women; anti-Semites and racists v. minorities of every stripe; double eagles v. triple bogeys; “Tin Cup” v. “Happy Gilmore” … the list goes on.

But whereas traditional golf resigned itself to (and even reveled in) these bipolarities, Golf 6.0 takes a kaleidoscopic approach.

Golf 6.0 combines selected elements of the game’s storied past with eclectic influences from contemporary culture to engage a new cohort of players for whom “sport” is a lifestyle as much as an activity, and “belonging” is not an external fact of club membership or fan allegiance, but an internal fancy of self-defined identity.

How is the kaleidoscope shaken? Let us count the ways.

Look ’n’ Feel ’n’ Tone of Voice

Blands · Many Golf 6.0 brands are essentially “blands” — DTC disruptors that claim to be unique in product, groundbreaking in purpose and singular in delivery, while slavishly following an identikit formula of attitude and aesthetic.

One only has to look at the deluge of DTC golf balls to spot the tropes:

Humble origins · Piper: “After playing golf for over 30 years, Mike Gottfried stood in the golf ball section of one of those big box sports stores, scratching his head with no clue what to buy.”

Grand aspirations · Pearl: “Not just a ball.”

Underdog spirit · “Cut Golf was born out of our frustrations of buying expensive golf balls, only to then lose them on the course, effectively throwing away money.”

Disruptive drive · Sounder Golf: “We know that there are many people out there who share our love for golf as a game — and also our frustration with golf as an industry.”

Middleman contempt · Sugar: “No retail games”

Figurative naming · “Why Vice you ask? Because … being bad is so good.”

All of which are packaged together with an approachably on-bland look:

Retro · While golf dates back to the 15th century, the retrospection of Golf 6.0 borrows less from “old world” origins than “old school” nostalgia — though the favored era of retro varies by brand. For example, when TaylorMade-Adidas acquired Adams Golf in 2012, the brand’s corporate ’90s look was revamped in the style of classic Americana:

By contrast, Metalwood Studio defines its style as “an ode to golf in the ’90s and some of the early 2000s,” and has the typography to prove it:

Similarly, the new(ish) owners of Jones golf bags made a calculated return to the look that was handstitched in 1971 by George Jones, the bag’s inventor. And the British brand Manors styled its latest collection around the homespun era of Irish links golf.

Heritage · Subsected to retro is the subtler trope of “heritage” — which allows brands to dive deeper into history, not through the (increasingly controversial) prism of culture, but via the timeless perspective of craft. Take, for instance, Fyfe Golf’s glorious collection of handmade head-covers, hats and socks …

… all of which are inspired by the company’s ideology:

“Our product is handmade by skilled artisans and heritage factories across Scotland and we source our core fabrics from the finest Scottish mills and weavers. We want to reconnect golf with Scottish manufacturing and blend tradition, excellence and modernity through our designs and creations.”

It looks good on you, though · It’s hard to ignore “Caddyshack’s” influence on golf culture even 42 years after its release (to somewhat tepid reviews). Under the evergreen tagline “Some people just don’t belong,” “Caddyshack” nailed the game’s snobbery and defined many of its stock characters: philandering pro (Chevy Chase); pompous president (Ted Knight); obnoxious parvenu (Rodney Dangerfield) and stoner caddy (Michael O’Keefe) — to say nothing of unhinged greenskeeper (Bill Murray). Tiger Woods is such a fan that, in 2004, he made a spoof “Caddyshack” commercial for American Express:

By celebrating golf’s chaotic fun, “Caddyshack” spoke and still speaks to an underserved constituency of players: the newbies, the duffers, the weekend warriors and bev-cart boozers who despair of ever breaking 100, yet delight in the rarest of birdies. Over time, commerce has caught up with this cohort, and now a range of Golf 6.0 brands (Waggle, Kenny Flowers, Bad Birdie) target such players — including the great Carl Spackler Bill Murray himself, who in 2016 inspired William Murray Golf:

Although the “Caddyshack” vibe may now be sliding into Margaritaville, it’s notable that several of Golf 6.0’s most stylish brands — Malbon, Linksoul, Johnnie-O — were founded by former caddies. (“The cool is coming from inside the clubhouse.”) And there will always be golf brands whose middle name is Dangerfield, not least Loudmouth:

“We embrace the wild ones. We’re a little bit chaotic, nonsensical and weird. We have an incredible knack for unexpected style & not afraid to laugh at ourselves!”

Cannagolf · It’s a curious coincidence that Golf 6.0 has evolved conterminously with the availability, legality and social acceptability of cannabis, and the growing prominence of “cannagolf” in the amateur and professional game. At present, the branding of cannagolf seems to exist at the extremes. At one end, the “performance” semiotics of companies like Proshot CBD (“You might just drop three shots next round”):

At the other, the THC snigger of Puffingtons (“Keep it Fore20”) …

Street · Golf 6.0 may be premised upon a cheerful defiance of the social and racial apartheids that have long defined the game. But the boldest challenge to golf’s “pale, male, stale” past comes from brands built on street, sneaker and skate culture. The most notable include: Bogey Boys, launched by the Seattle rapper Macklemore; Drake’s NOCTA line with Nike; Golf Wang and Golf le Fleur founded by Tyler, the Creator; and the Black-owned, Detroit-based Eastside Golf, whose co-founder, Olajuwon Ajanaku, told GQ:

“I always wear gold chains, sweatshirts, jeans, and some fly shoes. It’s the way I want to look on the golf course or at a bank job, but I know that I really can’t. I want to look like myself everywhere I go.”

Street style’s influence on golf extends beyond fashion trends to commercial tactics — via limited editions, hype drops and collaborations between upstart disruptors (keen to acquire the imprimatur of authority) and legacy companies (keen to enjoy a frisson of cool). Hence: Vice Golf × Adidas Stan Smith; Eastside Golf × Nike Air Jordan; Vessel × Puma Cobra; Seamus Golf × Nike Air Zoom; Golf Wang × Levi’s; Malbon Golf × Nike / × Budweiser / × New Balance / × FootJoy … among many others.

“Ladies Ts” · Despite being spiritually (and commercially) unisex, Golf 6.0 tends to skew male in language, look and leadership. As a result, several female-founded brands have come to the fore, aiming at the 25% of on-course golfers who are women. These include, Belyn Key (“Designed to transition seamlessly from the course to lunch, to cocktails”), Hedge (“… born out of a desire to look lovely on the tennis court, demure on the golf course and elegant the rest of the day”), and the “respectfully disruptive” Foray Golf, which was founded by a former Victoria’s Secret exec, Megan LaMothe, who told Golf Digest:

“Foray started because the first rounds of golf that I played, the only things that I understood I was supposed to wear were khakis from the Gap. The only options out there were really men’s products that were smaller. … At Victoria’s Secret, clothing was treated like a piece of science and a piece of art. We realized if we focused on this, we could really do it better.”

E.S.G(olf) · Given the environmental anxieties of its target audience — and the use of virgin plastics by over 95% of golf apparel — many 6.0 brands predictably nod toward sustainability; a few are even premised on ecology, including: Ocean Tee, Radmor and Swannies.

Analog · In addition to such golfstyle homeware brands as Lie+Loft, Fescue & Dunes and South Town Golf …

… Golf 6.0 has prompted a swathe of “slow” and stylish new publications, including: Caddie Magazine (“For lovers of pure golf and the joy of travel”), The Golfer’s Journal (“Golf in its purest form”), McKellar Magazine (“A golf companion”) and Catalogue 18 (“Golf’s first subscription art magazine – 300 pages of pure visual pleasure”).

This meditative return to analog ink could hardly be further from the visual style or commercial values of traditional golfing print:

And the cult-like popularity of analog kit brands like Western Birch premium wood tees amplifies the back-to-basics feel:

*  *  *

If Golf 6.0 is styled by a mashup of these tropes and their branded hashtags …

#GrowTheGame — Radda Golf

#SwingAndSmile — Palm Golf

#PlayOrPerish — Sugarloaf Social Club

#MakeParNotWar — Linksoul

#GolfIsHome — Lie+Loft

#BeyondTheFairway — Jones Golf

… it is structured by two novel oxymorons: Clubless Membership and Grassless Golf.

Clubless Membership

“Are you kidding? You think I’d join this crummy snobatorium?”— Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), “Caddyshack”

Golf 6.0’s antipathy to “country clubs” is not simply a rejection of racial and religious restrictions, social snobbery and sky-high fees, it’s also part of the great dislocation powered by the internet, fueled by social media, catalyzed by Covid and enabled by brands offering location-agnostic living (Airbnb, Uber, WeWork) and cloud-based content (Spotify, Netflix, Audible).

But while clubbability may be as dead as dial tones to the Alphabet Generations, belonging has never been more critical. And so, a slew of Golf 6.0 brands offer forms of membership to fill the void that even ceaseless consumption can’t sate.

Some of these “clubs” are little more than slogans or subscriptions. For example, Birds of a Condor has apparel lines emblazoned with: “Club Palms,” “The Weekend Rescue Club,” “Aloha Country Club,” “Osaka Country Club” and “Tokyo Country Club.” And the glove brand Asher Golf offers an Anti-Bogey Golf Club where, for $28 a month (after a $150 one-time initiation fee) members receive, among other things, one new glove a month and early access to drops and exclusive content.

Other memberships seek to extend golf far into the future. In 2021, Malbon Golf launched Bucket’s Club: “an NFT project consisting of 1,000 unique characters based on the iconic Buckets logo from Malbon Golf. Owning a Bucket gives you access to an exclusive club of holders with added value that grows over time, with full transparency on the Ethereum blockchain.”

However, a few branded projects resemble sincere attempts to generate a new genre of play. Founded in 2018, the Random Golf Club “was born out of a love for community — particularly, the community that is randomly established on the 1st tee box when you are paired with a stranger.” Now, with nearly 100 chapters “from Alabama to Australia,” RGC “ambassadors” organize real-life meetups that bring together players and challenge the game’s norms in remarkable ways.

A post shared by Erik Anders Lang (@erikanderslang)

Of course, even the most authentic of clubless clubs don’t stint when it comes to merch:

Grassless Golf

A key driver of Golf 6.0 is the rise of the grassless game.

According to the NGF, of the 37.5 million Americans who “played golf” in 2021, 12.4 million (45%) participated exclusively in off-course activities.

This statistic becomes less startling when you see how grassless golf has evolved from the rickety ranges of old. For example, Topgolf (acquired in 2020 by Callaway Golf for around $2 billion) is hoping to become the “Peloton of Golf” by revolutionizing not just driving ranges … 

… but virtual golfing experiences:

And golfertainment brands like Swingers have “taken crazy golf from the 1920’s British countryside, gin infused plus-fours” and added “gourmet street food” and “banging beats”:

Add to this mix, eSport golf, as blessed by the Royal and Ancient …

… urban golf, as popularized by Patrick Barr, aka Tiger Hood …

… and various golfing forays into the metaverse, and it’s amazing anyone has the time or inclination to trudge 18 holes in the driving rain.

Presumably, the (il)logical endpoint of grassless golf is golfless golf — though stylistically this may be a dawning reality. As Birds of Condor sees it, Golf 6.0 is a Lebowskian state of mind:

“Whatever you call it, you don’t even need to golf, Birds is a happy place for all where pure swings, pre-tee refreshments & good times are a plenty.”

“Obviously, you’re not a golfer” as The Dude once observed.

All the gear and no idea?

Of all golf’s historic polarizations, the most fundamental might be “theory v. reality.”

For generations, golf brands have focused on the theoretical game — emphasizing technical performance and professional specs to flatter even casual hackers that they too might benefit from the “2.0 ZG Process Dual Core” and “Spherically-Tiled 348 Tetrahedral Dimple Design” of the Titleist Pro V1x.

Golf 6.0 takes a more realistic approach, as defined by the DTC ball maker, Seed:

“Because we’re all going to lose a few balls out there, but should we have to second-guess a shot, or hold back because we’re thinking about how much we paid for that ball? Hell no. … The thing is golf balls are the most regulated piece of equipment in your bag: size, weight, shape, ball speed, spin rates, initial velocity and total distance — they’re all regulated by the USGA and R&A. Ball design is now more evolution than revolution. That creates a level playing field, which creates an opportunity.”

Golf is an expensive, time-consuming and tantalizing pastime, where the misery of thousand shanks is redeemed by that one perfect shot, and buying the latest kit is significantly easier than using it. Yet for 6.0 golfers, the ability of Scottie Scheffler or Jin Young Ko to play in a diving suit with only a 5-iron and still beat any amateur on earth is not depressing but liberating: If you can’t beat ’em, enjoy ’em.

By understanding that aspiring to the unobtainable is far less appealing than it once was, Golf 6.0 echoes Apple’s original challenge to IBM — “The computer for the rest of us” — and reflects the contemporary power of authenticity.

According to a 2021 survey, 56% of consumers in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France and Australia prefer “everyday influencers” (friends, family, peers, wider networks) over “celebrities” or “social media stars.” And according to Emory University’s 2021 Next Generation Fandom Survey, when it comes to “expressing fandom,” Gen Z is consistently less likely than Millennials or Gen X to:

· Wear apparel featuring a specific team or player

· Follow a team or player on social media

· Watch a specific team or player on television

· Collect physical fan memorabilia

· Buy fan-related NFTs

Significantly, Golf 6.0 does not seek to de-pedestal GOATs like Tiger. Instead, it acknowledges that admiration does not require impersonation, and that aspiration can coexist with a healthy dose of self-deprecation.

Although aimed at and activated by the Alphabet Generations, Golf 6.0 is engaging players of all ages for whom golf is a sport and a pastime — though not necessarily in that order. You don’t need to be a golfer to see how the clarity and confidence of this kaleidoscopic approach might help brands in every industry challenge their legacy values.

Golf 6.0 is less interested in blurring or even healing the game’s soiled and ancient divisions than in simply leapfrogging them — creating a parallel pursuit where all are welcome and anything goes, so long as you play the ball where it lies. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Branding Wealth Management for the Averagely Affluent: Ben Schott and Paul J. Davies

• Tiger Woods Is an Underdog Again at the Masters: Stephen L. Carter

• Inside Trump’s Money-Losing Scottish Golf Paradise: Tim O’Brien

(1) In 1996, the same year Tiger Woods signed a $40 million sponsorship deal withNike(securing his ambassadorial succession to Michael Jordan), he made the groundbreaking commercial “Hello World” which included the lines: “There are still courses in the U.S. I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin. I’ve heard I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me?”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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