Editor's LetterMarch 11, 2013

Like An Old Shoe?

Byron Nelson and Sam Snead take a load off at Oakmont in 1945.

Byron Nelson and Sam Snead take a load off at Oakmont in 1945.

When Darren Clarke played Tiger Woods in the 36-hole final of the WGC-Match Play in 2000, he wanted a pair of classic alligator golf shoes delivered to his hotel the night before the match. Asked why he'd take a chance on breaking in a new pair of shoes during the biggest match of his life, Clarke said, "If I'm playing for a million dollars, I want to look like a million dollars." Clarke won the match and the million bucks.

my old shoes

It was a last hurrah for the old leather golf shoe that weighed up to 32 ounces bone dry. Heavier when wet. I remember the time when a less-friendly USGA regime didn't cut a swath through U.S. Open rough between tee and fairway just so the pros' leather shoes would get wet from the dew immediately. They wanted the players to be uncomfortable without knowing why. And leather didn't dry out for two days.

Style versus performance—you can have both, as the 20 shoes demonstrate in our annual shoe guide,

but the old heavyweights leave me with mixed emotions.

"You walk into a locker room at a tour event and you think you're in a high-school gymnasium," the late Dave Marr once told me of the modern trend. "Half the shoes on the lockers are basketball sneakers. I always thought you could judge a man by what's on his feet. There's no style in gym shoes. Whatever happened to tasseled loafers?"

Even muny pros had that classic style when I was a kid working for $2 an hour in a golf shop. My pro had his pants tailored with a slit at the cuff, drove a tail-fin Cadillac and wore alligator shoes. I never could afford the alligators, but I saved up $400 to buy black lizard-skin loafers at wholesale in the shop. Years later I wore them with a tuxedo in my wedding, and today—37 years after I bought them—they're still shined like new in my closet. That's one of the big differences between then and now.

Classic lasts forever. Arnold Palmer has kept more than 200 used pairs in his Latrobe barn. Ben Hogan's are still on display at Golf House with his famous extra spike for traction—forget that it didn't keep him from slipping on the 18th tee shot in his U.S. Open playoff with Jack Fleck. I remember Sam Snead telling me he could look around a locker room and identify the owner of each pair of shoes by the way they were worn, because he knew every pros' walk. Modern tour stars treat their shoes like their drivers, as if they're disposable or at least replaceable, so you never see a touch of wear.

The upside is, today's soft construction requires no breaking in. And the heaviest model in our shoe guide weighs 17.4 ounces—the lightest a feathery 7.2.

"It's simple math, really," says Associate Editor Ashley Mayo. "If a golfer's stride is one yard long, that's about 9,000 steps in a round. For every ounce lighter, you save 562 pounds of leg fatigue over 18 holes."

So like the old Toney Penna persimmon woods that were the handwork of immigrant craftsmen, my old brogans stir feelings of romance and nostalgia. But give me today's high-tech, high-performance replacements every time.