The surprising history and broader impact of golf’s most debated fashion choice
Words by Travis Hill
Light / Dark
The best of Johnny Miller’s ridiculous boasts—and they are myriad—often contain a kernel of truth. (Did you hear he won the 1973 U.S. Open with a final-round 63? At Oakmont?) A classic one in the Miller oeuvre came to mind recently after a tweet stopped me in my tracks.
Connor T. Lewis of the Society of Golf Historians—and the Official Historian of This Column (a Miller-esque invented superlative if there ever was one)—retweeted a painting of golfers in St. Andrews in 1740. He subtly noted the one accessory all four players wore: “The white belts are coming!!!”
Predictably, the tweet reignited debate on one of golf’s unanswerable questions: Are white belts OK?
According to Miller, they are. Because of him. Cue the not-even-remotely-close-to-humble brag: “I’m the guy who made the white belt famous,” he told GolfDigest.com in 2017.
While the painted evidence clearly shows he wasn’t the first to don one, Miller did play an outsized role in the white belt’s resurgence in the 1970s. He was one of the stars of an era that saw grown men hoist the game’s most important trophies in butterfly collars and Sansabelt pants. It should be noted that this was a time when brands were not scripting outfits and players had much more autonomy over their sartorial decisions. It should also be noted that many observers find this era one of golf fashion’s most terrifying. They’re not entirely wrong. Research for this column included falling down an etymological rabbit hole full of orange and mint-green leisure suits where I learned that the white belt/white shoe combo is known as “the full Cleveland.”
To follow the popularity of the white belt since Miller was pairing it with aggressively plaid pants is to board a dizzying roller coaster of trends. White belts disappeared in the great wide-leg khaki tsunami of the 1980s and ’90s, only to reappear in the mid-2000s. Jesper Parnevik is widely given credit for bringing them back in Europe, and Anthony Kim took it to an extreme (X-treme?) American level when he strutted onto the scene with a white belt and an “AK” buckle the size of an F-150 grill.
The amount of pearl clutching from golf observers at the time was predictable. Self-styled fashionistas like Kim and Rickie Fowler scared the hell out of the khaki crowd, who wanted no part of any resurgent full-Cleveland nightmare. In 2009, John Paul Newport let loose in a Wall Street Journal story: “When I took up the game in the 1980s, I did so with the understanding I would never be expected to wear white belts, plaid pants, canary-yellow sweaters, polyester Sansabelt slacks or any other flammable items of clothing.”
Nevertheless, the trend spent a full decade-plus on Tour, when it suddenly became OK for Phil Mickelson to go full penguin and rock a white shoes/black pants/white belt/black shirt ensemble at Augusta National. (Well, maybe not completely OK. Some of those early 2010s golf Tumblr accounts were big mad!)
Which brings us to today, where the only white belts you’ll see on Tour are paired with white pants, essentially hidden. The roller coaster has bottomed out and white belts are once again passé with the pros. Golf brands are taking their cues from a new generation of cool kids, many of whom think a white belt now screams “old guy at the muni trying way too hard to look cool while shooting 97.”
Perhaps the only fashion constant in golf is that the speed of trends moving in and out of the PGA Tour take much longer to cycle through with regular hackers. This has led to our current state of white-belt confusion. Spin through any golf message board and you will find that the white-belt debate is topped in passion only by the one on distance. Some dudes still swear by it, while others would rather be smothered by Ian Poulter’s Union Jack pants before wearing one.
“The white belt doesn’t bother me so much, as long as it’s done right,” Wesley Morris tells me. “It’s got to look good. It can’t have some giant, ridiculous logo on it.”
Morris is a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning critic-at-large for The New York Times who has written extensively about the intersection of sports and fashion. He takes seriously what clothing choices mean for athletes and the wider world. He’s also someone who actually watched The Match between Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. A perfect person to weigh in on this all-important question.
“I think golfers, after basketball players, are the most influential people when it comes to how men dress,” he says. “For most men—whether they even play it or not—their casual-Friday outfit looks like golf: ‘What’s the dressiest thing I can wear that isn’t super dressy and is kind of casual and ultimately comfortable? Oh yeah, it’s golf.’”
Morris has written and seen enough that the volatile ups and downs of the white-belt trend don’t bother him. He’s more fascinated by the sport’s broader decision-making.
“Golf is fighting an uphill battle in general,” he says. “Because anything a golfer wears is going to make them look like an asshole to somebody. A guy like Fowler is interesting because, to me, it looks like he has basically said, ‘People are going to talk anyway, so I’m going to come up with a thing [his tradition of wearing orange, the main color of his alma mater, Oklahoma State, on Sundays] and completely lean into it.’ And it’s totally obnoxious—I think he’s even tanning to match the clothes. Now, he could be the nicest guy in the world, but there’s something in there that’s really unpleasant, because there are times you can’t physically look at him without wanting to throw up. It’s actually nauseating.”
Morris also has a warning to the people who get bent out of shape by white belts: Buckle up. The envelope will be pushed further.
“I’m into the idea of someone all tatted up—the Allen Iverson of golf,” he says. “I don’t know him at all, but what about Bryson DeChambeau? I could see him getting a full sleeve of tattoos. Eventually, somebody’s gonna show up with one.”
The full Iverson? We’d love to hear what Johnny Miller would say about that.