Golf is a game built on tradition. It is a sport defined by respect and rules of etiquette that span attire, behavior and care for the course. During a culture-shifting year like 2020, these norms were challenged with the goal of bringing change to golf.
Clubs like Augusta National and professional golfers like Cameron Champ promoted diversity and initiated conversations about making the sport visually represent the United States, but these actions only mark the beginning of a cultural and demographic shift that is overdue.
That’s where the next generation steps in.
This next generation of golfers and golf leaders is already comfortable addressing the status quo in golf. Members of Generation Z, born from the late 1990s through the mid-2010s, are already thinking about how the sport is changing and how they want the game they love to be perceived by future generations.
While all under the age of 30, their insights and experiences speak of where the sport is headed in the areas of distance, traditional fashion and most importantly, diversity.
The hoodie debate and golf fashion
Who knew a hoodie could cause such controversy? Not Tyrrell Hatton.
When the 29-year-old wore an Adidas hoodie for the final round of the BMW PGA Championship in October — which he won — it wasn’t his performance that was discussed in the days that followed. It was his attire. Despite how he played that final round to win the European Tour’s flagship event and boost himself into the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time, his appearance became a major talking point.
The disgruntled reaction to his fashion choice elicited a few eye rolls, but few surprised faces.
At its core, golf is a game of tradition and etiquette. Players remove their hats post round and shake hands. The backdrop is, for the most part, quiet. Respect is often communicated through dress code. But how many of these traditional rules are vital to the integrity of the game and how many are simply exclusionary?
On the topic of apparel in golf, Mr. Style weighed in.
“I find it absurd that we have a discussion about someone wearing a hoodie on a golf course. … The establishment has always represented, ‘Let’s keep the status quo. Change is not good,’ and I just think it’s sort of a parent-child type of relationship,” said Marty Hackel, the longtime fashion editor at Golf Digest. “The older generation thinks they’re preserving the game is making the game more exclusionary.
“They’re not helping, they’re hurting.”
Hackel knows golf fashion. The 77-year-old said the vehemence over Hatton’s hoodie proves why so many are turned off from the sport.
“The same people that are against the hoodie are the people who are hurting growing the game because they keep making it exclusionary rather than welcoming,” Hackel said.
Marty Hackel and Cristie Kerr attends the Lacoste & Golf Digest Celebrate Links On Lincoln Honoring Cristie Kerr on November 19, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images For Golf Digest Magazine)
Rounds of golf have increased significantly this year with golf being designated as a safe outdoor activity during the coronavirus pandemic. The National Golf Foundation and Golf Datatech reported 2020 will end with approximately a 12-percent increase in rounds played in the United States over 2019’s total, equal to an increase of 50 million rounds.
In a time when safe group activities are few, the game has attracted new players as well as those who are rediscovering the sport with newfound time. This growth benefits the sport on an economic level during a year with record unemployment and economic despair, but will the new player boom have longevity? Will those new to a sport heavy on tradition, including attire, feel welcomed?
Korn Fery Tour player Ryan Ruffels, 22, shares Hackel’s opinion surrounding the absurdity of the hoodie debate that Hatton unwittingly sparked. Ruffels even saw a direct correlation from the conversation of fashion in golf to the need to promote inclusivity.
“The etiquette and the culture around golf, I think that has to evolve if we’re going to include more and more people from different walks of life,” Ruffels said. “Different places there’s going to be different cultures, different traditions, different ways of doing things and a younger crowd as well, they’re not going to be as keen to jump into a sport where they feel like they’ve have to dress like old men or tuck their shirt and all the time wear V-neck sweaters.
“That’s cool and certain environments and stuff, but I think for the most part the world just becomes a little bit more progressive as time goes on and sure there are certain traditions in golf that need to be respected and all that sort of stuff, but nobody’s wearing anything trashy, anything that looks disrespectful.”
Tyrrell Hatton wearing his adidas hoodie after winning the 2020 BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Golf Club in Virginia Water, England. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
University of Michigan player Hailey Borja, 19, shares the progressive mindset of her Gen Z peers. She loves the innovation of women’s fashion like Lululemon shirts with a small collar as opposed to the traditional full-collar polo and empathizes with men wanting to wear shorts on sweltering competition days (currently, players competing on the PGA Tour and its feeder tours can only wear shorts during a practice round, a change that was made in 2019).
At its core, Borja said, golf is built on tradition and respect. But she doesn’t fully agree with opening the floodgates on what attire is welcome on the course.
“It’s the 21st century and people are being more open about things and accepting but I think there’s still should be some traditional formalwear and how it was back in the day,” Borja said.
So where is the line between maintaining the traditions the game was built upon while still welcoming players from young generations into the sport?
The solution for each challenge is time, openness and a willingness for the sport to evolve based on what’s best for the longevity of the game. Younger generations’ desire for golf to evolve doesn’t mean they want to entirely upend it.
Each young golfer interviewed had a passion for the game built on respect and tradition, but at the same time, each wanted more for the sport. By adding the elements of diversity, excitement and inclusion and taking away unnecessary divisions, they’re working to build a game that will continue to stand the test of time.
“Personally I know I’m younger, I know I’m 22 and speaking from that perspective, but I think we have to loosen up a little bit,” Ruffels said.