Basketball has traversed the tight-rope between style and sport with ease since Clyde Walt Frazier took the court. In the last five years, soccer’s rep in the style game has transformed from cultish kit collectors to sold-out on-pitch collabs. Even the more conservative sport of tennis has gotten in on the fashion crossover act in recent years, and its popularity on and off the court is reaping the benefits. This is somewhat down to the faces that represent the sports, which opens it to new avenues of opportunity, equality, representation, and revenue. A lot can be said for what the Jordans/Beckhams/Williams have done for those respective sports. More recently, the LeBrons, Osakas, and Rashfords of this world have opened the sports up even more, taking them beyond style and having a real impact on the culture surrounding them. On the other side of the courts and pitches, it's the communities, creatives, and brands that collaborate with the sports that help to push them.
Golf hasn't had the fire in its belly to completely throw the game upside down since Tiger Woods took center stage in the '90s. But the communities, creatives, and up-and-coming brands surrounding the sport are not waiting around for another hero. They are taking the game by the scruff of the polo neck and bringing it kicking and screaming to a new generation.
This month, Drake released his NOCTA x Nike Golf collection, and both Stone Island and Nike are doing a lot in the space to help push the sport forward. But without the grassroots communities and creatives constantly keeping the golf fire burning, these brands wouldn't even be sniffing around to highlight the game.
One such member of the golfing community is photographer Christian Hafer. Hafer’s rise up the ranks has been pretty rapid, from shooting his mates skateboarding and snowboarding in his native Colorado to becoming the official BMW photographer for the Ryder Cup last week. Hafer is one of the off-course talents putting some much-needed swag into the game. His style is raw and brings all the punk and DIY attitude from the early skate and snowboard photographers, infusing it into the greens and bunkers of the golfing world. We caught up with Hafer before he set off to capture the Ryder Cup for BMW.
Hafer got into golf, like many young players, through family (Drake's collection was influenced by rounds on the course with his uncle), but it didn't click as a full-time love until later in life. Hafer found his way into the game through an unlikely avenue. He says: "It wasn't cool, right? Golf was the least exciting thing that I could do at that time, 14, 15. So I started snowboarding and skateboarding more. That's what got me into photography. I needed a reason to hang out with the kids that could snowboard and were better than I was. And half the year, we were on snow. So I figured, "Well, if I pick up a camera and I take pictures of them, I can hang out." So that's really how I got into photography." This is where Hafer cut his teeth, picking up the traits that would make his images stand out so much against the usual sports photography involved in the game.
Hafer’s link to golf was on and off, doing odd cash jobs building clubs and becoming a golfers' assistant before he moved to Philadelphia and started to play at weekends with his mates. Realizing photography had taken a back seat to just earning a living, Hafer started bringing his camera to the course. "I would go out and play golf with my buddies on a Saturday, maybe once a month or something. But I really wasn't into golf at the time. I really wasn't consumed by it. I realized I wasn't taking photos anymore because I was working a day job. I was trying to provide and all those things. And so I just started bringing my camera with me on the golf course because that's where I started spending more and more of my time. At first, I was taking the worst, most generic golf photos of all time that everyone was taking. And as a photographer, I was like, 'Wow, these really are shit. And I don't understand why. What am I doing? Is it this hard? How do you make it look good?' So I got consumed by it. And it was at the same time as I was getting consumed about looking at this style of photography differently that I was looking at the game of golf a little bit more through my personal experience. And so the photography and the golf blended nicely together at the beginning. And I said early on, "How do I make these photos the way I would shoot them? I feel like I'm shooting it the way I think you're supposed to shoot golf." And I think for me, that was the light bulb moment when I just started shooting stuff the way I wanted to."
Hafer's images of courses stood out because they went against the grain. They brought a new eye to the game and shone it in a more approachable light. He wasn't shooting the polished greens and high-end courses that the world associates with golf. He was shooting where he played. Hafer made Golf look real. "I was playing, to be honest, shitty golf courses that didn't look great. But I wanted to make them look at least unique or cool or make some sort of image that was strong. And I found it pretty easy when I was at these golf courses that were run down, and a little beat up to make strong images. And it just worked." Attention was garnered, and the high-profile jobs came in, but Hafer has always stuck to his roots. "With snowboarding, you're trying to capture the action. But you're also trying to show the environment in which they're in. And golf to me is very similar in that sense, that a lot of these courses are beautiful, like a lot of these places snowboarders are at. So you want to be able to show off the beauty of the environment but also give people a taste for what's happening there."
Hafer is leading the charge on how the game is perceived photographically, at least. But the clear elephant in the room is golf is by its very tradition a closed game and is perceived at least to only be accessible to a rich few.
"I think our big issue is how to make everyone feel welcome and not feel like they have to play by a set of rules that really was designed for a different era for a different time. And we've evolved as a community, as a whole, as a world. As people, we've evolved, right? So golf needs to adjust to that."
Hafer thinks it also comes down to accepting people’s styles in how they play and dress. By opening up the game to new strains of thinking in style, it will become more popular with the youth, and a more diverse audience will feel an affinity with the game. "I think a big thing is understanding that we need to be more welcoming to people coming into golf and all the differences. And the person who wants to roll up and he's wearing Supreme head to toe, let them do it. Or the person who wants to come in with Tiger's mock-neck. Okay, that's cool too. But I think the people coming in also need to understand there's a lot of ways to play golf. And you need to find yours, not attack the ones that maybe don't appeal to you. And I think golf needs to do that same thing. Everyone needs to find where they fit in the game of golf."
When you talk golf, you have to talk Tiger. What he did to the game was inconceivable, not only opening it up to a new audience beyond the upper classes but doing it with unmatchable style. "When Tiger came on the scene, that was the biggest thing to ever change culturally for the game of golf. And it was such a blow to the game of golf in a positive way, because it was a boom for all these people coming into the game. But what they were doing is they were emulating a person. They were emulating Tiger. So everybody played Tiger's game and dressed like Tiger and [wanted to] be like Tiger," he continues. “But I don't think there's anybody right now that'll ever have that kind of charisma and that self-belief that, I think, Tiger had. He just looked cool. He used to wear these huge, oversized, double-pleated, black slacks that were falling all over his shoe. But he still looked badass because his swing was so good."
Since then, there hasn't been anyone tearing up the game on the style front for a while. But Hafer points to one Keith Mitchell as a player who is experimenting with what they wear on the course. "When most people think about the best style in golf, they think of Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros, and young Jack Nicklaus. That era of the late '60s is the era where everyone's like, "That's the epitome of golf cool," right. And Keith is bringing that back in a more modern way. It's a cleaner look than you see. A lot of these guys are mostly in athletic, athleisure stuff. He is going the opposite way. He's wearing slacks. He's wearing cotton polos. And he's doing stuff that which is pretty cool."
As brands like Nike and Adidas come into the game with NOCTA and Palace collabs, the style evolves on the course and influences looks off of it. But it’s not just the big brands bringing change to the game. Hafer says, "I think the place that the game of golf is now, it's really up to the companies that are challenging. Adidas and Palace did their thing. And that stirred up some stuff. And it raised eyebrows. And I think the tour pros overall were like, 'Okay, this is cool. I like this.' But there really hasn't been anything monumental from a tour perspective. I think when you think about style in the game of golf, it's a lot of these smaller brands and some of my friends that are doing stuff that is really, really amazing like Manors is doing great stuff and Metalwood," he continues, "I don't think people are really looking at the tour anymore as their cues for golf style. I think now it's within the community. Metalwood is taking their cues from that late '80s, early '90s era of golf and making it look good and making it look relevant today and Manors is doing stuff that is tied to their heritage as a UK-based brand. But they're updating the fit. They're challenging the style and the way it looks and who's wearing it. There are little brands like that, that I think are really informing the bigger brands as to what's going on. And I don't think that was a thing before. I mean, the last five, 10 years, these smaller brands have been popping up more and more. And the bigger brands have no choice but to take notice of them."
For a hot minute, golf brands were jumping all over streetwear and athleisure like flies to shit, desperately flailing their arms looking to latch on to the trend that would propel the sport. But the grassroots brands that come from the alternative culture and community of golf should be the ones setting the standards. That's something Hafer sets out to do with his brand Burning Cart Society. Burning Cart is Hafer's passion project, creating clothing that he wants to wear but not overbearing the market with stuff people don't need. "I'll never make a Burning Cart polo. There are enough polos in the world. I don't need to make another one."
Despite Burning Cart’s rising popularity in the golf scene, Hafer wants to keep it as a non-profit. "The core of what I always did with everything when we started selling product was I almost felt bad in a way taking the money. So I was like, 'Okay. Well, what good can I do with it? Can I raise money for junior caddie programs?' Or maybe it's suicide awareness or whatever. Things that I'm into that are important to me, and how can I do something good with it?” He continues: “The core of Burning Cart will always be to challenge the game of golf to be better but try and provide solutions."
Whilst golf's garms are getting up to scratch, it is what is being worn on foot that has been a quick win for brands looking to capitalize on the game. It’s in this area that golf has begun to get some reach outside of the elite clubs and tours. Hafer says: "You see at the majors, Nike drops a one-off US Open Air Max 97. But I think I would like to see brands go outside of the easy wins, right? Jordans, 97s, Stan Smiths, those are easy wins. That's low-hanging fruit. But what else in your archive could work as a golf shoe? Vans should make golf shoes. There are so many opportunities for people to get creative with footwear that, I think, will pull along some of this style stuff, some of the fashion that comes with it. All the sneaker culture that's now in golf has been the turning point for fashion in golf."
Now is the time to start a golf brand. The market is open for forward-thinking brands to step into the game. The trajectory is going in exactly the right direction, and as more people like Hafer come into the game, a new direction and perspective come with it, opening the doors for creativity and expression in the style, accessibility, and popularity of golf. It is time for a new culture and community to rise from the sport not defined by the past but that sets a new path. Something Hafer believes will determine the future success of golf.
"I mean, we have a culture. But it's not really our culture. It's not my culture. I didn't look at golf and say, 'This is the community I want to be.' But now I certainly feel that. I look at some of the stuff that is coming out, and the stuff people are doing creatively, and the discussions we're having. And I'm like, yes, this is more about the community that I would want to be a part of."