2001: The White shoe has faded away

By Brian Hewitt

One morning white shoes were still “in,” comforting fashion-conscious golfers the way tweeds ease the sartorial burden of Ivy League history professors. The next morning white shoes were “out.”

“Nearing extinction,” was the phrase chosen by FootJoy president Jim Connor.

And it wasn’t just a matter of opinion. An industry check revealed that Nike, without fanfare, had stopped selling all-white golf shoes this year. So had Etonic.

Nobody was exactly sure why. Nobody could pinpoint the exact date of the death of the white golf shoe. And since our sport hasn’t yet appointed a “Mr. Blackwell” to tell us what we need to think when it comes to golf and style, it had all happened very quietly.

Question: If a profit margin falls in the forest and no one is around, does anybody hear it? In 1995, FootJoy offered 17 different styles in all white. That number had shrunk to nine by 2001.

Nobody had seen Tiger Woods in white golf shoes in years. And a source at Nike confirmed the company had stopped making them for him 30 months ago. Which is why each time The Golf Channel showed highlights of Woods winning the 1994 U.S. Amateur wearing white shoes, shorts and that outrageous straw hat, it looked a little more strange.

“You can’t discount the Tiger Woods effect,” said Ted Almy of Etonic. “He changed the paradigm.”

Meanwhile, each time television aired the Senior PGA Tour it became more apparent the old guys just didn’t “get it.” These are the same men who had clung to the concept of Sansabelts long after that fashion ship had sailed. This was the same rumpled bunch whose spiritual leader, Arnold Palmer, would be wearing hard collar golf shirts until the day he no longer could push a peg in the ground.

“Those guys,” said one industry executive of the Seniors, “generally wear whatever’s lying around their closet.”

White golf shoes had once accessorized nicely with plaids and reds and pastels. Then golf apparel had gone to muted earth tones. And shoe colors had started running to blacks and browns or two-tone darks. Saddle shoes were still acceptable as long as they weren’t white-on-white.

“The khaki movement,” Connor said, “drove a stake through all white shoes.”

Dark shoes, said Kevin Yeager of Florsheim, “were easier to maintain.”

Suddenly, we found ourselves in a spikeless age wearing golf clothes that doubled as business casual. You could walk right off the 18th green and into a downtown restaurant without worrying about changing outfits. Clearly, all-white golf shoes weren’t going to survive the transition. And this wasn’t just about men.

“We’ve seen this trend even on the women’s side,” said Chris Crawford of Nike. “With solid dark colors in golf shoes, people aren’t afraid to wear ‘hook-ups’ – shoes to belts. People who are afraid to take fashion risks will stay all white with their shoes.”

And they increasingly will be viewed as out of step (pun intended) in an area of the golf apparel industry where significant change happens about as often as the periodic table adds new elements.

Connor, Crawford and Almy all predict white shoes will be back. Fashion, they remind us, is nothing if not cyclical. But for now it’s time to go dark. Wear white shoes on the course and you are walking in spirit with Joe Namath, Nancy Sinatra, Pat Boone and, yes, Walter Zembriski.

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