The golf and fashion worlds are being reimagined as brands like Eastside Golf, Malbon and Bogey Boys appeal to enthusiasts and non-golfers alike.
Earl Cooper was introduced to golf through the LPGA Urban Youth Golf Program. His father saw a flyer for an event in conjunction with the now-defunct LPGA McDonald’s Championship at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware, and signed his son up.
“It wasn’t something I instantly fell in love with,” Cooper said. “I was good at the game, but there was always this feeling of, ‘Where are my friends?’ and that most people didn’t look like me who were out there, especially our instructors.”
Despite those hesitations, Cooper stuck with golf. At 13 years old, he won local and regional Drive, Chip & Putt competitions, earning a spot at the nationals in Orlando where he finished second. His dedication earned him a scholarship to play golf at Morehouse College in Atlanta, which led him on the path to becoming a PGA professional. He was named one of Golf Digest’s Best Young Teachers in America in 2021.
While at Morehouse, Cooper and teammate Olajuwon Ajanaku quickly became friends, bonding over the game and the fun fact that they were born four days apart. After struggling to secure the capital needed to progress toward the PGA Tour, Ajanaku, now working in finance, reached out to Cooper with an idea to create a logo of a young Black man in a sweatshirt and jeans with a gold chain around his neck mid-swing.
The design, which Ajanaku says is supposed to be him, has since turned into a game-changing symbol for both Eastside Golf and the sport in general.
Changing the Game
Golf’s modern roots go as far back as 15th century Scotland, though through its history, the game has predominantly been reserved for affluent, older white men. Even New York Times bestselling journalist Malcolm Gladwell once referred to the sport as “crack cocaine for rich white guys.”
Out of the approximately 400 card-carrying members of the PGA Tour in 2020 — including 94 international players from 29 countries and territories outside of the US — only four players had Black heritage. 55% of the 582 LPGA and Symetra Tour (now called the Epson Tour) members that year were white, compared to just 2% who were Black or African-American.
One could also trace the lack of opportunities for golfers of color to the PGA of America’s “Caucasian-only clause” that lasted from 1934-61. It was part of the association’s bylaws preventing non-whites from membership and competing on the PGA Tour. Augusta National, home of The Masters, didn’t admit its first Black member until 1990 and its first female members until 2012.
“That is what’s deterred people from the game — it’s not the game, it’s the rules,” Cooper said. “We’re challenging that for positive change. If we can change the way the game is showing up, that’s how we grow it.”
Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others — many at the hands of police — corporations and sports leagues prioritized discussions around DE&I and investing more in opportunities for marginalized communities.
And while more pathways have sprouted up, whether it’s through First Tee, the Steph Curry-backed Underrated Golf Tour, or APGA Tour, golf has gone mainstream. The coronavirus pandemic, increased accessibility, and emerging fashion brands have all helped golf grow as well.
“You can definitely tell if you watch golf everyone’s just trying to culture it and they’re trying to get out of the original look of golf,” said NFL running back Melvin Gordon III, who co-founded Vibez Golf Club in 2021. “People are trying to make it more exciting and people are trying to flair it up. People are wearing Jordans, people are trying to make it more urban. There’s more Black people playing.
“The more you see that, the more comfortable you get with it because you used to think it’s a status sport. When you’re younger you’re like, ‘Either rich people play this or white people.’ Obviously the more I’ve learned about the game, I just look at it completely differently too now.”
According to the National Golf Foundation, a record 41.1 million Americans aged 6 or older played both on-course and off-course golf in 2022, while a record 3.3 million people played on a golf course for the first time. Newcomers to the game also continue to be more diverse than the overall participation base, with beginners 45% more likely to be non-white and 35% more likely to be women, compared to current golfers.
While professional golf still lacks diversity at the highest levels, the game is growing and diversifying at the grassroots levels. Golf entertainment venues like Topgolf, Popstroke, and Five Iron are bringing the once-exclusive sport into cities and more people’s backyards. Costly greens fees, equipment rentals, and endless hours have turned into a more relaxed, gamified version of the sport consumed with cheeseburgers and beer over an hour or two for a portion of the cost.
Athletes, musicians, and entertainers like DJ Khaled, ScHoolboy Q, CC Sabathia, Justin Timberlake, Mark Wahlberg and Macklemore are getting into the game and showcasing that not everyone who plays has to look, act, and dress like a PGA Tour professional.
“I realized that golf clothes were trash about a week after I started playing,” said Ben Haggerty, AKA Macklemore, who launched Bogey Boys in 2021.
Engaging the Non-golfer
Endemic golf brands have spent years building up their dominance in the industry by engaging existing golfers. Sure, people new to the sport immediately look at brands like FootJoy, Titleist, TaylorMade, Callaway, Nike, and Adidas, but today, brands like Eastside Golf, Bogey Boys, Malbon Golf, and others are making golfwear more fashionable, diverse, and versatile on and off the course.
Launched in 2017, Malbon is a golf-influenced lifestyle brand that has leveraged collaborations and relationships with non-endemic brands like Girl Skateboards, Beats by Dre, Vilebrequin, and Undefeated to bring golf to new communities off the course. It has also worked with those brands to bring Malbon’s fresh approach and style to existing golfers.
“The concept of golf is really cool — being outside with your friends in nature and having a competitive challenge to do that’s not easy to conquer,” Malbon founder Stephen Malbon said. “The whole concept of it is really cool, but the game just got too divided by the haves and have-nots, which in turn put negative attention to it, so creative people were basically like, ‘I don’t want to golf because it’s for yuppies.’ It just didn’t blend at all. It was polar opposites.
“Over the last however many years, those walls have been knocked down a lot and I think it has a lot to do with people being who they want to be and being accepted into the golf world.”
While golf is now more accessible both in practice and fashion, legacy brands also see the value in engaging the non-traditional golfer.
Adidas, for example, has collaborated with endemic and non-endemic brands like PALACE Skateboards (Feb. 2020), Vice Golf (March 2021), Burning Cart Society (Jan. 2023), and Bogey Boys (June 2023) to expand its appeal and reach to golfers and non-golfers alike.
“Our mission is to be the most progressive golf brand in the world,” Adidas Golf President Jeff Lienhart said. “One of the areas we can do that is by being inclusive through the products we offer. That includes collaborations with other brands in the space as well as with other categories at Adidas.
“Golf is — and should be — a sport for everyone, so while we do see opportunities like these as another way to reach new audiences, it’s also another way to provide products that allow golfers to authentically express themselves on the course through unique apparel and footwear.”
You’re probably familiar with the spike that golf saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s as Tiger Woods burst onto the scene as a young Black man dominating the predominately white PGA Tour. The sport experienced a similar explosion at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, as 500,000 more people played golf in 2020 compared to 2019. That 2% increase was the biggest for the sport in 17 years, according to Golf Digest.
The numbers have steadily climbed since as golf has become more accessible and continues to evolve, as evidenced by the 15.5 million people who participated exclusively via off-course activities like driving ranges, indoor simulators, and golf-entertainment venues in 2022. Within the sport’s largest customer age segment (ages 18-34), 6.2 million played on-course golf last year while another 5.8 million were off-course participants only, according to the NGF.
“Overall the golf industry goes through spikes,” Malbon said. “There were a lot of people who started playing golf because of Tiger Woods. COVID inspired a bunch of people too. I don’t know if it’s going to keep growing the way it did over COVID, so now I think it’s about maintaining where it is and not let it spike and go down.”
For someone like Cooper, who has been playing since he was 6, the key to further promoting diversity in golf isn’t just through fashion or how many People of Color make it to the highest levels on the PGA Tour or LPGA, though neither would hurt.
“Not necessarily just in apparel but you have to diversify across the board, so we need more diversity in CMOs and CEOs,” he said. “The governing bodies of the sport have to look like what they want the sport to look like. It’s going to be a collective effort that’s going to change it. As long as we continue to keep having conversations and making sure it’s relevant as a whole that’s when you’ll see the change.”
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