Skins Game

June 15, 2015

Golfers catching rays at Wailua Municipal Golf Course, Kauai, Hawaii.

Before you recoil in disgust and declare that bare-chested golf is a game you'll never play, acknowledge that the rules of decorum are in constant flux. The first Olympians competed in the nude. Male beach-goers in the Victorian era had to wear one-piece bathing suits that rose over the shoulders. As late as 1960, men could be fined for showing torso in Central Park. Today we traipse through airports in pajamas, and top CEOs wear hoodies. The courses that permit unprotected golf are still few, but the battle of shirts versus skins rages on.

Basketball, soccer and tennis players in public parks agree: In severe humidity, no microfiber outperforms skin. Some joggers consider their route before going topless, though many appear governed only by vanity. Among all the breeds of weekend warriors looking to even their tan, golfers must be the most particular about location.

The best start is to find a public course whose atmosphere embodies the Kris Kristofferson lyric, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Newport Beach (Calif.) Golf Course has mats instead of grass for tee boxes, no real rules against bringing beer (or really anything), and so this is where Travis Mathew chief creative officer Chris Rosaasen and staff hold an informal event called The Matsters. "The first time we played, we saw people on other fairways without shirts, and we were all like, Hell, yeah; let's do this," Rosaasen says. The vibe is so fun that he has turned down games at Bel-Air Country Club (where shorts are banned) to play Newport.

"We played our college golf course without shirts all the time," says Jeff Ritter, now the founder of Make The Turn Performance at Poppy Hills in California. "We'd peel them off on the second tee and then put them back on coming up 18. It was awesome. Proper etiquette is about doing everything you can to let your opponent play his best, not about what you wear."

Guys like Rickie Fowler and Michael Phelps have Instagrammed au naturel selfies from courses in the Bahamas and Mexico, but that's not to suggest you need to travel so far south to get away with it. The tradition is longstanding at several men-only clubs in the contiguous United States, including as far north as Bob O'Link Golf Club outside Chicago. Nor do you need six-pack abs: Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was a regular disrober at Burning Tree outside Washington, D.C.

Ged Johnson, a 31-year-old Manhattan financial professional, had doubts the first time he swung threadbare at a private club on Long Island: "My golf game can make me look dumb enough—I don't need extra help—but I must say, it was a remarkably liberating feeling." Johnson won't name the club, fearing he'd never get invited back, but there's a designated tee box on the back nine where the caddies tell you to put your shirt back on because the border rejoins residential property. "I felt terrible standing over that tee shot," Johnson says. "It's like you're wearing a coat of armor."

Skin cancer is no joke, so half-clad golfers should go heavy on sunscreen. Messy as that sounds, it might help your swing. As Sam Snead famously remarked, "I try to feel oily."

Because of the secrecy, it's hard to know if shirtless rounds are trending up or down. Scott Verplank is nostalgic for the customs of Oak Tree National in Oklahoma before it went co-ed. "Coming out here," he says of the PGA Tour, "was like getting dressed up."

Where you won't find shirtless golf is at any mid-range daily-fee or standard country club. Like the horseshoe theory of politics, which asserts that the far right and far left are more similar than either group will admit, shirtless golf is encountered only at each end of the spectrum of exclusivity.

Only the well-heeled and no-heeled know that golf's a beach.