Believe it or not, there was a time when golf wasn't considered cool.
An old man's game, some may have argued.
These days, however, it couldn't be further from that. Sure, there are personalities to thank for golf's coolness factor -- guys like Tiger Woods, who brought the game to the masses; Rickie Fowler, who has a cult following; Rory McIlroy, the world's No. 1 player and a four-time major champion at the age of just 25; and, of course, Fred Couples -- the King of Cool -- who came before all the aforementioned.
Apparel and accessory companies have also come a long way toward creating that "cool" golf vibe, extending their respective offerings to stuff you can wear off the course, while paying homage to the game you love, essentially making it so your love of golf is an entire lifestyle -- not just restricted to the fairways (OK, the rough, woods and bunkers for many of us).
One such company in this very space is Back 9 USA. Co-founded by Andy Hydorn, Back 9 USA's Chief Brand Officer, the company that started just outside Boston in 1996 now calls Houston home.
Back 9 USA got itself on the map -- initially -- with its headwear and its logo, which is brilliant in its meaning and simplicity. It's a backwards No. 9, indicative of playing the "back nine" on the golf course.
Over the years, Back 9 USA has expanded into so much more than that neat little company from Boston that makes the cool hats. The brand has morphed into an entire golf lifestyle brand.
It's not just lids for Back 9 USA anymore. Though you can still find those too, Back 9 USA also offers polos, fun t-shirts with witty golf-related phrases, sports socks, golf towels, custom headcovers and more.
Back 9 USA is Hydorn's dream coming to fruition -- he's cracked the code on creating his very own golf lifestyle and bringing it to the masses.
We sat down with Hydorn recently to learn more about his brand.
PGA.com: Back 9 USA started out as a golf headwear company. Over the last several years, you've transformed into so much more. It's not just hats anymore -- it's an entire golf lifestyle. Can you tell us about the transition?
Hydorn: Well, when we first got into the business, we had a great resource at Twins Enterprise in Boston (now 47 Brand). They were and still are, in my opinion, the best casual headwear makers in the country. They taught us a lot about the headwear business by observation alone and because of this relationship, we decided it was a natural that hats would be a great way to promote our new brand.
As time went by, the reaction to our logo and brand was consistently positive and it always begged an inquiry. That’s when we started to see that the correct way to build this company would be around the brand and not around a particular product category. We agreed then and there that if we could make a great product that we could design internally and brand it appropriately, the product category didn’t matter. We also realized that golfers have lives before the first tee and after the 18th green and making products for the lifestyle of the people who play golf as opposed to just “on the course” stuff just made more sense to us. Golfers are people too!
PGA.com: Tell us about your plethora of new offerings.
Hydorn: We like to look at what is going on in the rest of the retail world and not just in golf. It’s pretty easy to see what ‘s relevant if you remove your eyes from the golf course.
T-shirts and socks are great examples of that. The T-shirt has transformed greatly over the last several years into a more fashionable item. The fit is better and the fabrics are better. The tee has transcended into a whole new category. Socks are another great example of product evolution.
If you take a look around, the crew sock has made a huge comeback. Like any other comeback, it has its new wrinkles of color and style. We certainly saw this a year ago and wanted to be out front on a new golf crew sock as well as some colored ankle socks we saw lacking in the market. We’ll continue to look for opportunities this way. Things like golf bags, luggage, and an expanded line of apparel are always being closely looked at.
PGA.com: Let's talk a little about the logo. People love it. It seems like such a simple idea, but you're the only one who thought enough to create it! What made you think of the backwards nine?
Hydorn: Sometimes the most impactful things are right in front of your face the whole time. Iconic logos are tough to come by; we get that. We were lucky enough to take a really golf-centric term and pair it with the very simple process of turning a regular 9 into a backwards 9. The greatest thing about the mark is that it’s ours. It’s not a 9 or another number or a letter even. It’s a mark that was not known before it popped onto a notepad on my nightstand. It’s literal too, which makes it kind of cool. Truth be told, we had some pretty terrible ones on that same notepad but this one was different from the rest. The logo brings questions almost every time we’re in public. That’s a cool thing.
PGA.com: What's it like to see people wearing your gear?
Hydorn: It’s surreal. Knowing that you’ve created something from nothing and seeing it on complete strangers is a feeling that every entrepreneur should experience.
PGA.com: What was it that made you realize there was a need/want for golf lifestyle gear for people to take off the course?
Hydorn: For example, we saw the T-shirt category become a real component of people’s wardrobes, especially people in our target demographic group. As I said before, golfers are people too and we think they would prefer to wear a T-shirt that could tie them to golf as opposed to a guy in Iowa buying a tee from a surf brand.
Until recently though, the only cool T-shirts you could get were mostly from surf or skate brands. Well, not everyone desires or identifies with that culture. We have our own culture.
PGA.com: It seems as though custom golf head covers are sprouting up everywhere these last few years. What separates Back 9's from the others?
Hydorn: We are a design company. We saw a nice opening in the head cover market a few years ago. We felt like people were starting to tire of the manufacturers “give away” covers and wanted to dress their bag up a little more. We saw the emergence of the boutique head cover companies that were out there making really nice product, but manufacturing them one by one and bringing them to market for $50-$60.
First, we made a design upgrade by adding a stretch fabric panel on each side of the cover which made the footprint in the bag a little smaller and allowed us to embroider a completed head cover.
Second, we sourced a great fabric and manufacturing relationship that allowed us to bring the head covers to market for around $30. We also established some domestic production and partnered with the Woolrich Woolen Mill to make some really unique “Made-in-USA” wool slip on covers to go along with our engineered leather slip on covers. We feel like the price and value of our covers is really an advantage for us.
PGA.com: You've been involved in golf for many, many years -- both as a competitive amateur player and in the business. Can you ever remember it having as much of a "coolness" vibe as it has now?
Hydorn: No I can’t really. There are some really cool new brands out there now who are doing some great things and the iconic golf brands still are like royalty in the golf community. Golf is a younger game and I think the new stars are attracting a great new crop of aspiring players. Tiger, Rory, Rickie, and more have certainly done a lot to help our game in that respect. The brands are making cooler products now too; not just for the kids but for the adults also.
PGA.com: What's your favorite Back 9 item?
Hydorn: My favorite is whichever product I am working on now!
PGA.com: One of your more unique offerings is what's available to your customers in "The Lounge" on your website. Can you tell our readers about it?
Hydorn: Ah… “The Lounge.” It’s something I’m very proud of. We saw other industries doing some cool things in regards to personal customization and we thought that head covers would be the perfect product for us to offer this feature.
Today’s consumer is definitely more into personal design and we wanted to make this available to our customers on their head covers. We have a full menu of icons to pick from like the shamrock and skull and bones designs. The customer can then add a monogram or personal message to finish the design.
We also use the Lounge for our collegiate licenses. Some schools have a multitude of logos and we decided to let our customer tell us how they wanted to show their school pride instead of us guessing what they wanted. There are a ton of options and the Lounge just allows our customer to have more things to choose from.
PGA.com: Back 9 provided headcovers for the U.S. and European Solheim Cup teams in the 2011 matches. That had to be a neat experience for you.
Hydorn: That is that “surreal” feeling again. A few years back we had done some head covers for Callaway and Beth Daniel got her hands on one. She was the incoming captain for the 2009 Solheim Cup and we’ve been doing them ever since. It’s truly a sense of satisfaction when you see your head cover being ripped off a driver by Michelle Wie in an international competition.
PGA.com: The golf industry can be tough for small companies. How have you been able to not only stick around so long, but also expand your brand?
Hydorn: That hasn’t been easy by any stretch. I wish we had more resources but I’m sure everyone wishes for the same. We understand the importance of building the awareness of our brand and everything we do is focused on just that. We’re still so small and still relatively unknown to the masses but we do take pride in knowing that the "golf moles" know who we are and like what we do.
That’s the assurance we need to keep our eyes focused on the right things. We also believe that the struggles in the golf industry are real but a bit overstated. We don’t feel as if people “like” golf any less than before but just find it harder to play as much as before. Golf has become more accessible to more people and definitely has that cooler vibe you alluded to, so the desire for the game continues to grow. The lifestyle is vibrant.
As a special to PGA.com readers, Back 9 USA is offering 10 percent off any purchase through the end of October. Just use coupon code “PGA10” at checkout.