OTTAWA — “In my prime,” Jack Nicklaus once wrote, “my legs were very strong.”
That was true in more ways than one, it turns out: in 2014, Golf Digest published never-before-seen photos of the eventual 14-time major winner practising in shorts, showcasing a well-muscled pair of tree-trunk legs “more befitting an NFL fullback than the greatest golfer of all time.”
If not for those photos, taken back in 1970 by a star-struck assistant club pro, the golden gams of the Golden Bear might have never seen the light of day — in those days, the sight of a bare-legged touring pro was about as welcome as tinfoil on a toothache.
Times, albeit at golf’s typically glacial pace, are indeed changing.
The internet collapsed in paroxysms — the golf part of the internet, anyway — when the PGA of America broke with decades of tradition and allowed players to wear shorts during their practice rounds at this week’s PGA Championship, the fourth and final major of the year.
“Love the shorts,” Masters champion Sergio Garcia said Wednesday, echoing a host of other players who want to see the practice adopted by the PGA Tour, which organizes and orchestrates most of the regular North American events players compete in each week.
“I don’t know why the PGA Tour is waiting to make a decision on it, but I love it — I think it’s great,” Garcia said. “We get to show a little bit of skin and be a little bit cooler, so it’s good.”
Whether hairy and bare or clad in plaid, golfers seem to have a thing about their legs.
They’re a tremendous power source in the golf swing — just ask Nicklaus. Country clubs are famous for limiting how much leg skin should be showing. And fans of John Daly know all about “bad golf pants,” a phrase that yields nearly 2 million hits on Google.
The golf course “has always been a place where guys could experiment with what they were wearing,” said Mike McAllister, who writes a blog about golf fashion at chapeaunoirgolf.com.
“My dad always wore a suit to work — very conservative, government job — but then when he played golf on the weekends, he’d break out the plaid pants and the canary-yellow shirt and off he’d go. It was almost like, ‘OK, I can relax a little bit and have a bit of fun,’ and that’s what it should be.”
Old-timey golfers in Scotland famously wore ties, tweed coats and “plus fours” — funky, baggy trousers, long favoured by Tintin and Payne Stewart, that showed off splashy socks by stopping just four inches below the knee.
Golf’s modern-day taste for brash, bold below-the-waist statements is directly linked to that plus-four legacy, McAllister surmises. So, too, is the long-standing tradition of dressing up to play golf: slacks and collars and polished wingtip shoes instead of jeans, sweats and sneakers.
“I think back to when I used to go to the Canadian Open in the mid-1980s with my dad, and you’d see all these guys in these great garbardine pants, and you’re like, ‘Wow, these guys really have it together,’ he recalled.
“They look professional when they wear trousers, and that was always kind of a cool thing … there’s that sort of mystique about it. But at the same time, I think we’re getting past that. You can look good in a pair of shorts; it is possible.”
No matter the time of year or the temperature, some golfers refuse to wear shorts, preferring to protect their bare legs from the sting of mosquitoes, the torment of the sun or the relentless and unforgiving gaze of fellow golfers anxious to make “white stakes” jokes.
Happily, a number of apparel manufacturers have obliged with ultra-lightweight slacks made of stretchy, breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics so cool and comfortable that you’ll be double-checking later in the day to make sure you’re still wearing them.
Just watch Dustin Johnston, the big-hitting No. 1 player in the world, stalk the fairways of Quail Hollow this week. That peace of mind, that swagger, that confidence doesn’t come from his distance off the tee or having Wayne Gretzky as a father-in-law.
No, pretty sure it’s the pants.
“They’re incredibly comfortable, nice and lightweight, great fit, and that’s a Utopia statement right there — that’s really what we’re looking for,” said Lesley Hawkins, the general manager of Adidas Golf, the apparel sponsor for a number of marquee players, including Johnston, Garcia and Justin Rose.
“We have very quickly — around Canada and now throughout North America — become the No. 1 bottoms in golf.”
The shorts are more popular than the full-length pants, a fact that reflects the tastes and tendencies of the recreational golf market, Hawkins added — a trend that she believes golf’s governing bodies would be wise to acknowledge.
“Some of the temperatures that these (pro) players play in on a regular basis are really quite restrictive, and it’s good to see the organization be more reflective of the trends that are in the marketplace,” she said.
“I think that’s positive for the game, for sure, because guess what? Everybody this week, in all media outlets, is talking about the PGA Championship and shorts. It’s a great conversation for the game of golf.”
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @froghairgolf
James McCarten, The Canadian Press