The March of Progress, as Told by Arnold’s Ugly Sweater

Golf attire ads tell a universal truth: The world is improving

The following essay and selected advertisements compose a tribute to the profitable, occasionally strange, often beautiful, decades-long marriage of golfers and the printed advertisement. View the full feature here.

In 1960, Pittsburgh-based Heinz became one of the first major brands to sign Arnold Palmer, a native of nearby Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Never trust anyone who tries to convince you that the world isn’t improving bit by bit, day by day. These people exist, and though some are just cynically using their pessimism to sell you something—a product, their particular brand of politics, politics as a product—there are also those poor souls who believe, sincerely, that somehow life today is worse than it was in some distant time long before they were born.

They are so, so wrong.

My understanding of history may be limited by my own willful ignorance. But from what I have learned, there was a time when men and women lived without air conditioning and subsisted mostly on unseasoned root vegetables, and every fourth peasant in the village was crushed to death by a barnyard animal. People could squeeze a lot of life into their dramatically shorter life spans, but for everyone born before penicillin, it hurt like shit.

Progress can be gauged in so many different ways, but for our purposes let’s measure it in perhaps the most consequential one: advancements in golf attire.

Writing this in what future, non-willfully-ignorant historians will surely refer to as the Age of Athleisure, it’s simply amazing that somehow a wool sweater can make the sport’s coolest man look like a stone-cold dork. As the greatest ambassador that golf has ever known, Arnold Palmer well understood his effect on his fellow man. Which is why it’s unbelievable that he ever would have decided to appear in so many advertisements with those forearms sheathed in some unholy, industrial-accident-colored alpaca blend.

In his defense, nothing Arnie did, said or believed could ever be questioned. Also, for his time at least, that herd-animal V-neck he was wearing did represent something like progress.

Had he been born a century earlier, Arnie would have been playing in stiff tweed and starched collars. Granted, he still would have been the coolest linksman who also happened to look like your least-favorite professor. But think of what that starch would have done to his magnificent shoulder turn. It’s hard to finish your swing with a reckless flourish when your outfit makes it nearly impossible to raise your hands above shoulder level.

I shouldn’t be so harsh, though. It’s easy to judge now, from the distance of decades.

Generations of DuPont chemical engineers who dreamed of doing something meaningful with their lives have instead given us ever-sturdier iterations of Spandex and polyester blends. We now have golf shirts that promise to act as our skin during the process of sweating. That’s wonderful, but also weird.

Thanks to the sacrifice of men and women living comfortable upper-middle-class lives in the exurbs of Wilmington, Delaware, our arms are freer, our hips more able to rotate and our bodies unencumbered by knits that once acted as wind protection for animals that, I suspect, made a hobby of rubbing in their own mess. Bit by bit, day by day, life gets better—in every conceivable way minus one: your game, which, for most of us, won’t improve no matter what we’re wearing.