By ROBERT LOHRER
After Nick Watney won his first PGA Tour event three weeks ago in New Orleans, he spent a day in Fort Worth, Texas, with golf sportswear designer John Ashworth and photographer Barry Grimes. The three made their way through an industrial section, looking for suitable places to pose Watney in Ashworth sportswear.
The timing of the photo shoot, following so closely after Watney’s first victory, was the result of both good planning and fortune. Watney has worn Ashworth for some time and the photo shoot had been scheduled before the victory. Even without the win, Watney, 26, with a winning smile and the kind of broad shoulders that show clothes so well, might have figured more prominently in Ashworth’s seasonal advertising and promotional material.
For those who follow golf’s periodic and imprecise dalliance with true image making (in the fashion sense), however, the Ashworth-Grimes collaboration with Watney portends much more.
First, a little history. When Ashworth rose quickly to prominence as a golf sportswear brand in the early and mid-1990s, it was the result of a number of factors: timing, a strong point of view, design (broad, bold stripes and a distinctively loose, comfortable fit), and solid execution on the commercial side. More importantly, Ashworth (the brand) quickly acquired equity in golf as a core name that resonated with customers. Much of that had to do with John Ashworth’s belief that a shirt – and a brand – could somehow enmesh itself in the soul and spirit of a complex and unique game.
Having Fred Couples wear the clothes surely helped. As a stylish competitor, Couples had (and still has) few rivals. With his boyish good looks (even with streaks of gray now in his thick mop), easy gait and languid, looping swing, Couples and Ashworth seemed cut from the same cloth. During his years as a dominant player, if Couples wasn’t the Tour’s best competitor, he certainly was its coolest. And yet he could be downright enigmatic, a slightly reluctant star who never seemed entirely comfortable in the limelight or with the superlatives that carry added demands. Fred just wanted to be Fred.
And through those years, Ashworth used Couples to great visual effect, along with a select few others, including Ernie Els, John Cook, Dave Stockton and Jim Nantz. The credit belonged to John Ashworth and photographer Grimes, who had first collaborated with John Ashworth as an art director on the Ashworth and “Golfman” logos. When they couldn’t find a photographer who could produce the visual imagery they sought, Grimes wound up behind the lens.
Through the use of striking visual imagery, or what John Ashworth recently called “the visual vocabulary of the brand,” Ashworth positioned itself as a golf brand that said many things: authentic and cool with a nonchalance that bordered on, well . . . you get the point.
So what exactly made Ashworth’s images of Couples so compelling? Well, for starters, there was the series of Couples, a solitary figure, in various poses on a dusty, slightly forlorn section of railroad track with the Dallas skyline starkly in the background. In black and white, no less. The series was as moody as a smoky blues song in a dive bar on the wrong side of town. It was not about golf, but something more ephemeral.
Closer to golf, there was the photographic series of Els, shot in Scotland, that called to mind equal parts “Golf in the Kingdom” and Els’ own quiet, dignified power. On another occasion, Grimes was behind the lens when he and Ashworth put Couples, Els, Cook and Nantz in Ashworth’s classic red Cutlass convertible: Endless Summer and the Pacific Coast Highway, photos nearly as inspired as the cardboard that covered vinyl in the heyday of the LP.
So, what of Watney?
“What’s funny about Nick is that he was on the top of my radar when I was doing the Fidra brand,” John wrote in an e-mail to Golfweek. “And I was actually bummed when he signed with Ashworth Inc.
“[Nick] was a huge Fred Couples follower and wanted to go with Ashworth because of it. Nick’s a great kid, he’s got GQ looks. He’s soft-spoken and humble. He’s kind of the all-American guy.”
Does Watney have Couples’ star quality? Ashworth has seen enough not to jump at the bait and knows those rare collaborations can’t necessarily be pushed.
“Just going with the flow and staying in the present,” Ashworth writes when asked about a comparison of Couples and Watney. “Making great product and then matching up an image that is thought-provoking and fresh.”
Sometimes it’s that easy, and that elusive.
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Robert Lohrer is Golfweek's fashion editor. To reach him e-mail [email protected]