Hype for Hackers: How Sneaker Culture Infiltrated the Golf World
Despite its global – and growing – popularity, golf hasn't always been the most progressive sport, and even its most zealous disciples would struggle to argue otherwise. Long steeped in tradition, golf is now a multi-billion-dollar industry – and an Olympic spectacle – that is finally moving away from its pretentious past into a new era of enlightenment.
Unfortunately, golf's adoption of the athletic/aesthetic movement has been as slow as a Sunday morning tee time – somewhat ironic considering many have been wanting it to be accepted as a 'real sport' for decades. Thankfully, however, the ball is now rolling – and rolling fast.
As part of that modern evolution of the game, sneakers are now at the top of the leaderboard when it comes to hot commodities for the course, but how did we get here? And why the hell has it taken so long?
From Spiked to Hyped
The earliest incarnations of the golf shoe were conceived in the mid-1800s, when players in the game's homeland of Scotland began hammering nails into the leather soles of their shoes. The DIY spikes improved traction on wet and windy links, but inevitably loosened and fell out after a few rounds. As you can imagine, nails were also known to pierce through the flimsy footbeds, resulting in hole-outs of a different kind – as if golf wasn’t already painful enough!
Out of necessity, screw-in metal spikes were introduced for the first time in the 1890s, eventually leading to the adoption of the classic Saddle Oxford shoe at the turn of the century. The recognisable two-toned leather shoe with contrasting colour band was originally invented for tennis, but the style really came to the fore on the course as opposed to the courts, establishing itself as the sport’s archetypal footwear choice for many years to come.
The appearance of the shoes remained relatively the same for decades (did we mention golfers were change-averse?), but the outsoles were a constant work in progress, with spike design evolving all the way until the early 90s. The steel spikes were gratingly loud when walking on anything but turf, and also damaged everything they treaded on, including the putting greens, which required constant maintenance. It took almost a century for the steel spike leave the market, with plastic becoming the go-to spike material by the time the year 2000 rolled along. Greenskeepers across the globe breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The adoption of the plastic spike opened the floodgates for experimentation when it came to golf shoe design, as did the rise of an up-and-comer by the name of Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods. Backed by the Swoosh, the fresh-faced American prodigy was ready to change the game and its antiquated footwear, forever.
The Tiger Effect
An avid golfer himself, Michael Jordan’s influence on the sneaker game is known to all. However, there's other GOATs out there who have also shaped their own distinct footwear legacies. While the wider cultural clout can't be compared to that of MJ's signature line, Tiger Woods' ongoing partnership with Nike has taken performance golf shoe design to stratospheric heights.
Tiger has always put performance over panache, and his signature shoe line reflects just that, breaking the mould of traditional cleats to introduce the Swoosh's cutting-edge tech to the course. The designs were divisive, disruptive and, in some cases, downright ugly, but Tiger was just focused on winning.
Watching the sport today, it's hard to believe Nike's presence in golf was more or less non-existent prior to the signing of Tiger in 1996 (fresh off him turning pro). Less than two years after signing the most prodigious talent in the sport's history, Nike bestowed a young Tiger with his first signature shoe – the Air Zoom TW.
The Air Zoom TW design shocked the prissy traditionalists, sporting a hybrid leather and mesh construction, as well as a shroud-like lacing aesthetic. There was a traditional spiked cleat design on the outsole, but it was the inclusion of the Swoosh's game-changing Air Zoom that set the design apart. And, yes, it was pretty damn ugly, too.
Nike Golf has since used Tiger's footwear line as a vehicle for progression, packing in their latest innovations and smashing any notions of what a traditional golf cleat is meant to be. Not in the least surprising considering he's arguably the hardest trainer the game has ever seen.
After sporting a prototype with Free technology in 2011, Tiger debuted the Nike TW 13 the following year. Looking for a shoe that gave him the same performance fit and feel as the Free shoes he used for running and training, Tiger's design ethos was simple. 'I train with Nike Free technology all the time,' said Woods. 'I love training in it, running in it, lifting in it. So I asked, why can't I play golf in it?'
Today's golfer is asking themselves a similar question when it comes to sneaker-style golf cleats.
If you love the look and feel of an Air Jordan 1, why can't you adapt it for the course? Well, thanks largely to Tiger's influence on the game, Nike did just that… and it's just one of the countless fashion-to-fairway crossovers to release in the last 15 years.
Crossovers and the 'Casual' Shift
Aside from Tiger, there's another legend of the game that helped spark the casual revolution on the course. Fred Couples has always been regarded as one of the coolest cats on the tour, blessed with plenty of panache and one of smoothest swings we've ever seen. Nicknamed 'Boom Boom', the 1992 Masters winner is a perennial fan-favourite, thanks largely to his laidback, unpretentious demeanour.
Well into his 50s at the time, Couples famously laced up a pair of Ecco Street golf shoes while playing the 2010 Masters, changing the notion of fairway footwear forever. Aside from its casual look, Ecco's latest shoe had a spikeless sole. Up until that point, just about all golf shoes still had plastic spikes, with a small number of pros still opting for steel. Funnily enough, Couples turned back the clock, ending up in the final group on Sunday playing alongside eventual winner Phil Mickelson. His sixth-place finish was one of the stories of the tournament, but people were just as excited to talk about the spikeless shoes on his feet, which he wore sockless no less!
Believe it or not, you could actually play serious golf without spikes. Go figure.
Naturally, brands like Nike, Jordan Brand, adidas and PUMA were quick to expand their golf footwear lineups following in Freddy's spikeless footsteps. It made total sense, as they already had the market share when it came to golf's casual crowd. The next few years saw spikeless golf shoe sales skyrocket, with many pros also switching to the easier-wearing style.
We had to wait a few years, but the first legitimate high-profile sneaker moment in the golf realm can be traced back to as recently as 2017, when Aussie golfer Jason Day rocked a not-so-subtle white pair of Air Jordan 1 Golfs at the Open Championship (the world’s oldest major no less). Back then, you didn’t see high-tops on the golf course very often, but when you did, old hackers lost their minds… Day got proper roasted by purist factions of the golf fraternity, and has since never worn the 1s on course, which is a bit of a shame if you ask us.
Wtf, you can't wear those on a golf course! #nba #theopen #jasonday pic.twitter.com/Lli6iSfFxW— john silva (@Johnsilva10) July 20, 2017
Thankfully, Jordan Brand ignored the outrage, proceeding to expand their own in-house golf shoe lineup, while also releasing golf adaptations of all-time classics such as the Air Jordan 3, Air Jordan 4, Air Jordan 5, and Air Jordan 11 Low. Nike did the same, applying the 'G' treatment to the Air Max 1, Air Max 90, Air Max 97, and Air Max 270, all of which were just as versatile off the course thanks to their spikeless soles.
More recently, adidas have caught on, introducing the Stan Smith and ZX 8000 to the course, while PUMA have finessed an RS-Golf in the same vein.
'It's Fashion, Bro'
After being questioned for sporting a pair of Off-White x Nike Air Max 90 Gs on course back in 2019, multiple major winner Brooks Koepka responded by saying, 'I don't know how to explain it. It's Off-White. It's fashion. I guarantee the whole golf world has no clue what Off-White is, but it's fresh. If you're a sneakerhead, you'll get it – or into fashion. Sneakerheads know, yeah.'
Yes, that's a real quote, people.
Nevertheless, moments like this are becoming far less common, as golf continues to move away from its traditionalist past. In fact, sneaker culture's infiltration into golf has sparked a new wave of streetwear-inspired apparel start-ups and communities looking to spread the message of inclusivity, and all the big brands and players are jumping in the cart, too.
As more people take up the game amid the pandemic – is there a better sport for social distancing? – we're also seeing more collaborations between these progressive golf labels like Malbon and Eastside Golf, who have recently released limited edition projects alongside New Balance (not a traditional player in the golf market) and Jordan Brand, respectively.
While it's difficult to quantify, the growing popularity of the game probably owes a lot to the sneakersphere. Whether you're shooting over 100 or breaking par, it's good to know a pair of AJ1s won't break on-course dress codes anymore.