Will Cool Clothes Make Young People Love Golf?

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Last Tuesday, as men in penny loafers descended on this golfers’ paradise, Stephen Malbon surveyed the backyard of a Spanish Colonial mansion and lit up a fat blunt. A hundred or so people had come to celebrate a collaboration between his apparel brand, Malbon Golf, and Beats, the headphone maker. “There’s still a lot of people coming,” he said, exhaling a thick cloud of smoke as Kanye West boomed in the background.

“Most golf parties, I don’t want to go to,” Mr. Malbon said. “It’s all white dudes in blazers and khaki pants. It’s like a bank party with a bunch of, like, bankers.”

He sauntered up to a makeshift putting green, where Schoolboy Q, a rapper, was demonstrating his swing for Tony Finau, the 16th-ranked player in the Professional Golfers Association.

“I try to golf every day,” said Schoolboy Q, whose given name is Quincy Matthew Hanley. He started playing a year and a half ago, after a friend bet him $10,000 that he couldn’t make a birdie (a score of one stroke under par) in two years. “The third time I ever played, I got a birdie,” he said. “That was the only birdie for like four months. But this guy,” he said, pounding Mr. Malbon on the shoulder, “plugged me with a lot of golfers, golf connections. I play with people like him and me, people that wanna change the game, people that don’t care about wearing their hat backwards until somebody says, ‘Hey, you gotta turn your hat around.’”

“We say, ‘No problem,’ and turn it around for like, one hole,” said Mr. Malbon.

“And then turn it right back,” said Schoolboy Q. “Don’t try to make me be not who I am. I wear my teeth.” He flashed his grill: chrome on top, blue on the bottom.

Mr. Malbon and his crew were in town for the U.S. Open, the third of four annual major golf championships, with a lofty goal in mind: to make golf cool. Though the sport has long appealed to a certain set of white-collar professionals, and the comeback of Tiger Woods enthralled even the most ESPN-averse, the look of it hasn’t changed all that much. Meanwhile, other professional sports like basketball, soccer, tennis and even gaming have become increasingly aligned with streetwear brands.

“Kids that are into fashion, hip-hop and music, they’re not into golf,” said Mr. Malbon. “It’s in danger of going where baseball is. Or think about bowling — bowling used to be lit.”

Enter the fire starters. Mr. Malbon, 43, founded Malbon Golf with his wife, Erica, 29, in 2017. Both previously started and scaled successful businesses. In 2015, Ms. Malbon co-founded The Now, a chain of sleek, competitively priced, perpetually booked massage parlors in Los Angeles; in 1999, Mr. Malbon founded Frank151, a media company and creative agency that has lent street cred to brands like Casio, Toyota and Nike.

“Every event, activation, whatever, it was always, art, music, fashion, graffiti, skateboarding,” said Mr. Malbon, who was raised in Virginia Beach and began golfing at age 12. “When I lived in New York, I was embarrassed, almost, to be a golfer,” he said, kicked back on a linen covered armchair inside the mansion (which is owned by Mark Werts, the founder of the clothing company American Rag Cie). “Golf is the most non-punk-rock thing there is.” Things changed when he moved to L.A., where Ms. Malbon grew up and golfed as a kid.

“I was doing events at Fred Segal with youth brands, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here,’” Mr. Malbon said. “I had that feeling of, ‘Gross.’ My interests had changed.”

“You matured,” Ms. Malbon said. She wore a white maxi dress and sanguinely sipped ice water. “It’s not like you’re going to be D.J.ing at an underground club anymore.”

“I don’t go to clubs,” Mr. Malbon said. “I don’t want to go to 1Oak. I want to go to country clubs early, in the morning.”

In 2012, Mr. Malbon started a golf-dedicated Instagram account, “because people in his daily life were like, ‘Dude, stop posting photos of golf, none of us golf,’” Ms. Malbon said. It became “a complete obsession,” Mr. Malbon said. “I had thoughts of doing what I know how to do” — making brands relevant to young people — “in the golf world.”

Cheeky logos — a golf ball with lines under its eyes, presumably strung out from the night before — adorn Malbon’s sweatshirts, hats and polos, available online and at a store on West Hollywood’s Fairfax Avenue, up the street from Supreme. There’s space in the back to putt and throw parties attended by casual celebrity golfers like Tyler the Creator. It’s millennial catnip, but not everyone likes cats.

“On Instagram, there’s a huge discrepancy between people that are our fans and people who are not our fans,” said Ms. Malbon. “The haters are like, ‘This is not golf,’ ‘Don’t wear Jordans golfing.’”

“Like skintight, dry-fit pants and dry-fit polos are golf,” said Mr. Malbon. “That’s like a tech outfit.”

Old and new ideas have informed his aesthetic sensibility. This fall, Malbon will introduce plush merino sweaters made with the Scottish heritage brand Lyle & Scott. Earlier this year, the company partnered with Nike on a line of graffiti-esque golf shoes that quickly sold out. And Beats, its co-host for the party, recently formalized endorsement deals with Mr. Finau, 29, and Justin Thomas, 26, the PGA’s seventh-ranked player, and Mr. Finau, 29.

“If you look at him, he’s just straight up Southern California,” Mr. Finau said of Mr. Malbon. “He’s got swag. The game of golf needs more of those personalities.”

“There’s a lot more guys like me on the tour that would like to come to a party like this,” he added, “instead of a place where they have to wear a button-up shirt.”

An unbuttoned philosophy governs the Malbon Golf Club, founded in May, a collective of L.A.-area golfers who plan to compete, monthly, on a municipal course, “so you don’t have to pay $300,000 to be able to play with a good group of people and have a good time,” Ms. Malbon said. The first gathering is scheduled for late June.

“There are lot of people like me, who, just because I want to join my dad’s country club, doesn’t mean I want to act like he did,” said Mr. Malbon.

“Or wear his clothes,” said Ms. Malbon. Still, she admitted, they’re in the process of joining a traditional country club, “mainly because our younger son,” they have two, ages 7 and 9, “is really obsessed with golf.”

“He needs camp,” said Mr. Malbon.

“It’s an investment in his future,” she said.

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