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The Unbearable Ugliness Of Sporting Goods

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Each spring stir-crazy athletes cooped up throughout the long winter rush outside armed with new equipment to jump-start their old games. That means it’s prime shopping season at sporting goods stores catering to golf and tennis, those formerly aristocratic sports and staples of the suburban country club. But woe betide the gentleman of taste who goes shopping for the latest equipment, which is like being a judge at an ugly dog contest.

Country clubs still impose certain rules of propriety, such as the banning of t-shirts and jeans. But they should really set an example and ban ugly equipment. Unfortuntely there’d be nothing to play with, and tennis would become handball and golf would become foot golf.

The equipment, accessories, apparel and footwear made for golf and tennis has largely devolved into garish, radioactive, testosterone-infused dreck. “I don’t want anything that looks NASCAR,” I overheard a gray-haired customer tell a salesman at one of New York’s leading golf retailers. “It’s too distracting.” The clerk fidgeted, wondering what he might possibly have in stock to sell the guy.

In the symbiotic relationship between consumers, retailers and manufacturers, for equipment to become more visually elegant and streamlined would be seen as devolution. There seems to be a kind of immutable law in which everything becomes more “extreme” — even family fare such as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is touring its “Circus Xtreme.” Likewise, much of today’s golf and tennis gear looks like it employed the same graphic designer used for Monster energy drinks. Golf clubs and balls, which once had whimsical names that paid tribute to Scotland, now sound like military coding with numbers and tough-sounding letters such as R, V, X and Z, when really the most fitting letters for the sport of golf are LOL.

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There’s also the amusing irony in that when it comes to clubs the ugliest of the ugly are the easiest to use, while a small number of clubs geared towards advanced players demonstrate the classical virtues of simplicity and restraint. So beginner clubs look ugly and advanced clubs look simple, meaning it takes years of practice to earn the right not to carry an eyesore.

This spring Lacoste, which was founded by the great French tennis star Rene Lacoste in 1937, brought out a tennis racket of exceptional beauty. Made of a combination of wood and graphite, with simple graphics and rendered in white, this “handmade by a French artisan” racket is priced at $900 and limited to a production of 650, which is probably about the number of people in the world who can appreciate an attractive, classic-looking tennis racket.

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At the Bobby Jones company, a tiny player in the highly competitive golf industry, even carving out a sliver of marketshare for beautiful equipment may not be a viable business strategy. When renowned clubmaker Jesse Ortiz joined the brand in 2008, he spent several years producing clubs carefully designed from a performance standpoint, but which golfers said were so handsome they looked like “museum pieces,” according to Ortiz in a marketing video. “It’s against my religion to make anything ugly,” he’s said.

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder (which might just be covered in fugly shades from Oakley), so it’s not fair to say Ortiz should eat his words. But perhaps under orders to cater to common taste, current Bobby Jones clubs don’t look much different from the fancy eyesores of the big boys. Club heads now look techy rather than classic, and shafts, once painted a handsome British Racing Green, are now eye-popping red.

Perhaps consumer choice is yet another illusion that we eventually have to come to terms with. When the first mild weekend came this spring, I went shopping for new court shoes, which left me feeling like the lone wine connoisseur at a rowdy kegger. Online and in-store, I browsed countless tennis shoes that looked like footwear for interplanetary exploration rendered in colors associated with fishing lures. It wasn’t a case of choosing something I really loved, but rather something I didn’t completely hate.

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No serious athlete wants to play with antiquated equipment, it’s just a shame that modern technology should come in such an ugly package. Perhaps Apple Computer, whose guiding principles are elegance and simplicity, should start a sporting goods division.

The Stylish Life: Golf

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I’ve had to let GolfStyle.guru languish, alas. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the few men interested in both golf and classic style.

But I’m pleased to annouce that today a nice coffee table book has been released, which I was able to provide the text for. Here’s the Amazon listing.

Harmony And Simplicity: An Interview With Katsuhiro Miura

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Miura Golf is known for the beauty of its clubs and the fervor of its cult following. Recently Golf Style spoke with Katsuhiro Miura, the man behind the brand, about what drives this master craftsman.

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GS: What makes a man want to perfect the art of forging golf clubs, and launch a company to compete with so many larger ones?

KM: It’s not so much about competition, although we welcome any competition that sharpens our efforts and makes us perform at the highest level. The main goal is to always seek perfection in design and forging. We may not reach absolute perfection, but the effort itself is important so that we can do our very best for golfers.

GS: Japanese design has always given utmost importance to simplicity and harmony. How is your national character reflected in your approach to club making?

KM: The design principles I have learned over the decades are based mostly on what will best serve the golfer in his enjoyment of the game and his quest to constantly improve. Simplicity, harmony symmetry — all these elements flow naturally from those primary considerations.

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GS: Most average golfers think blade-style clubs are too difficult to hit, but you disagree.

KM: It takes only a brief moment of extra care to make solid contact using a blade club. The effort to do so leads to a more satisfying stroke. The player who wants to do this is capable — he need only take that extra half-second of consideration before each stroke and then allow his body to work in concert with the club. This does not mean that other technologies, such as perimeter weighting and cavity backs, are somehow sub-standard. It only means that the conscientious player should not talk himself out of a blade simply because others consider them difficult to hit.

GS: Will Miura golf grow from a cult brand into something larger? Or by its very nature must it remain a small company aimed at the connoisseur?

KM: Within the requirements of our goals in serving golfers, we certainly plan to grow at a wise pace. We’re not particularly concerned with being big or small, cult or mainstream. We figure that if we do business wisely and keep our primary focus in mind, good results will follow.

GS: There is a tremendous sense of beauty to your clubs. Is there a psychological and playing benefit to the golfer to have clubs that look pleasing to the eye?

KM: Yes. What the player sees, especially at address, connects strongly to the confidence needed to make a worthwhile stroke. And as we all know as golfers, this confidence tends to build on itself, stroke after stroke. It also matters what the club looks like in the bag, how its design displays its potential as a trusted golf tool. But again, the beauty is not the main objective. We are glad golfers find beauty in our clubs, but we believe any such beauty flows directly from the design that enables the club to work as one with the golfer.

GS: Does your refined taste in clubs extend to other aspects of golf? Do you see beauty in the flight of balls and the layout of courses?

KM: I like to think so, yes. Golf may well be the most beautiful sport. Its connection to nature is a great benefit. And what golfer doesn’t appreciate the thrill of seeing a well-struck shot fly through a pristine sky? All these things are wonderful to be connected to.

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The Footwear Hybrid

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Part trendy colorful sneaker, part traditional golf shoe. From Ashworth.

Ah, but file it under Birdies or Bogeys?

Schlepping The Course With Schweppes

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After a long hiatus I’m back, and looking rather like Commander Whitehead of the famous Schweppes ad campaign.

The commander was a genuine veteran of the Royal Navy and was an executive at Schweppes. He oozed mojo through his luxuriant beard at a time when they were highly unfashionable. The campaign was headed by “Mad Men” inspiration David Ogilvy, and Whitehead was a kind of “world’s most interesting man” long before that campaign launched.

He looks like he’d be fun to play with. And no about what he’d be drinking at the 19th hole.

Bad Taste In Golf, Email Edition

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This is uglier than a shank.

On Hiatus

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Golf Style is on hiatus until November while I work on a book project. The good news is that it’s on golf and style. Stay tuned.