News & Opinion

European Tour move could have legs

To counter triple-digit heat in South Africa, tour loosens its shorts policy to include tournament rounds. As casual attire spreads throughout our everyday world, will the PGA Tour slack off?

There was no rumbling of earthquake from South Africa last week, no tilting of the golf world on its axis. But there was a seismic shift in the attitude of at least one of the game’s ruling bodies when the European Tour allowed its players to wear shorts during tournament rounds of the Alfred Dunhill Championship.

Temperatures at Leopard Creek Country Club in Malelane regularly topped 100 degrees, and Tour officials relented, expanding at least for one week its policy that shorts are OK for practice rounds but not for competition. That’s also the regulation on the PGA Tour. But will there be a domino effect, started in South Africa?

Alfred Dunhill Championship 2019
Pablo Larrazabal (left) and Branden Grace make competing fashion statements during the Alfred Dunhill Championship, which Larrazabal won.

Some traditionalists will say that shorts are not professional. But they remember times when pros wore wool trousers and leather-soled, metal-spiked FootJoy Classics. Virtually no one does that any longer.

And, in fact, shorts were worn on the PGA Tour years ago. Fred Haas won the 1945 Memphis Open, ending Byron Nelson’s 11-tournament winning streak. Haas wore shorts in the final round.

In the 1955 All-American Open in suburban Chicago, players were given permission to wear shorts. And the most famous instance occurred in the final round of the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont when Forrest Fezler changed clothes in a portable toilet between the 17th green and 18th tee and played the last hole in shorts as a protest against the USGA. He received a standing ovation at the final green.

“I went brain dead for a few minutes of my life, and it brought me publicity for 30-some years,” said Fezler, who died in 2018. “I’m glad I did it.”

Styles and norms are different in 2019. Casual Fridays at the office are increasingly popular. Fewer people dress for dinner these days. Tour players are constantly spotted at expensive restaurants wearing T-shirts and jeans.

Many club professionals at all but the most exclusive clubs wear golf clothes with sneakers or other casual shoes to work. Tour players show up for tournament rounds wearing sneakers before they change into golf shoes, not out of disrespect to the game but because it’s today’s style.

Speaking of golf shoes, today’s models are built to be athletic wear. That’s the way the game has evolved. And if it’s now more of an athletic contest, players should be allowed to dress like it, and that means shorts.

The professional tours have been moving tentatively in that direction. In 2016, the EurAsia Cup was played in extreme heat in Malaysia, and the competitors were allowed by the European Tour to wear shorts in practice rounds. The practice was repeated at Abu Dhabi the next week and continued from there.

The PGA Tour decreed in February that its players could wear shorts during practice rounds and in pro-ams. Even the tradition-rich R&A said that players could wear shorts for practice rounds of the British Open. So did the PGA of America for its PGA Championship.

Predictably, Augusta National and the USGA haven’t joined the movement and aren’t likely to do so. Ironically, while Augusta National frowns on members and guests wearing shorts during non-Masters weeks, it does allow Masters patrons, tournament guests and media to do so, even allowing shorts-wearers in the clubhouse.

The USGA allows competitors to wear shorts in all 10 of its amateur championships. Only the male professionals are required to wear long trousers.

However, it’s hard to reason with the practice-round-only policy, considering the events in South Africa last week. Perhaps the governing bodies don’t want their players seen on TV in shorts. But that doesn’t make much sense given that Golf Channel and others are broadcasting early in the week at PGA Tour events and major championships. Viewers have seen professional players in shorts plenty.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Branden Grace, who tied for third at the Alfred Dunhill in South Africa. “When the new rule came in about wearing shorts in practice, it was tremendous. The Sunshine Tour and European Tour have got it spot on. It’s boiling out there.”

Predictably, PGA Tour players are all in favor of wearing shorts all the time. “I would love it,” Tiger Woods said earlier in the year. “We play in some of the hottest climates on the planet. We usually travel with the sun, and a lot of our events are played in the summer.”

“It makes the guys a lot more comfortable,” Rory McIlroy said. “… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with professional golfers showing the lower half of their leg.”

There was one conspicuous player in South Africa who opted to remain in long pants. Pablo Larrazabal, the Alfred Dunhill winner, kept his legs covered.

“I don’t feel like I’m ready to go in shorts,” Larrazabal said. “It’s more like for pro-ams, practice rounds and just to chill out with your friends, but not for competitive rounds. I don’t feel like it.

“We play in a lot worse than this. We play in Singapore; we play in Malaysia. This is hot but not that bad. We’re not going to die.”

But for every Larrazabal, there are a few hundred other pros who would rather tee it up in shorts every day that weather permits. And unless he changes his mind, Larrazabal might one day be the outlier, the one about whom fans will end up asking, Why in the world is that guy wearing long pants? Is he crazy?