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.
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.
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.
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.