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Make Par, Not War

“Golf is what links the flesh to the soul.”
– The Kingdom of Shivas Irons

When I think about golf, I think of jazz – a bit confusing from the outside, but it’s the space between the notes that reveals its true beauty. The beauty of untouched dew on the tee box of an early morning round. The sound of footfalls on grass, a ghost beat to the rhythmic clinking of irons. The wind in the trees and the quiet murmur of men interrupted by the crack of a strong drive. And, at the end of the day, the crunch of metal spikes on concrete as a steady beat under a melody of laughter and pride and friendship.

But despite its slow, soulful beauty – or perhaps because of it – the popularity of golf has waned over the years. And while Florida continues to harbor thousands of aging golfers, statistics show that more and more courses are going the way of metal spikes and persimmon woods – they are disappearing.

Thanks to people like John Ashworth, however, morning is coming.

“I was born in LA. We lived in Gardena a few miles away from the LA Watts Riots in the ’60s. Soon after that, my parents moved us to Escondito in San Diego County.”

He barely remembers the riots, however. Rather, Mr. Ashworth’s most vivid memories from growing up were on the golf course. “My mom tried to get us to all go to sunday school together. And I just hated it,” he says with a laugh. He complained so much that she gave him an ultimatum: either go to sunday school or caddy for his father.

“It was a no brainer”, John says, smiling. In the late ’60s, it became their Sunday morning ritual – John’s time with dad. “I got hooked early and started playing in tournaments. I played all the way through junior high and high school and through college. I was a natural.”

John reminisces fondly, telling stories about the PA system going off in school, announcing an upcoming tournament and including the names of every player on the golf team. “We would all sink down in our seats. Growing up in the ’70s, golf wasn’t cool. At all. I remember feeling that way in large part because the clothing sucked. Plaid bellbottoms and garish colors. Yikes.”

Thankfully, since the 1970s, golf clothing has seen a number of iterations. And some of those changes are due in large part to Mr. Ashworth himself.

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Linksoul, which Ashworth started in 2011, is actually the third evolution of his apparel career, the most notable being the eponymous ‘Ashworth’ brand he started in 1987, now owned by TaylorMade-Adidas.

John, along with a close friend with an entrepreneurial spirit, had the idea of starting a golf brand. “I had just helped him close down a company that he owned, and in the midst of that, we felt like we could do something in the space. The clothing just wasn’t good. It was a mom and pop industry and no one was innovating. No one was pushing. Not to mention, there was no Tiger Woods in the ’80s and Nike hadn’t yet started to market golf.”

After hiring friends of friends who had studied clothing design, John started pounding the streets in the garment district of LA and asking endless questions. Shortly thereafter, Ashworth went into production. “When everything started. I had no idea what I was doing. I was literally selling merchandise out of the back of my car. You almost need to be ignorant to do something like that. We didn’t know anything, but that kind of helped.”

Also helpful was signing up his first PGA sponsor, a longtime friend by the name of Fred Couples. “At the time, the clothes were all clingy polyester and super tight. We wanted to do 100% cotton and make things a little looser. We were going against the grain. Fred liked the idea and said ‘I’m in’. He was fairly unknown at the time. When he won the Masters in ‘92, that was it.”

And as the Ashworth brand started to grow, John began traveling overseas to visit the famous links courses of Scotland (named because of their coastal position, “linking” the land and sea). “These rolling, coastal courses in Scotland are where the game got started,” says John. “I was always walking the courses, never riding. And there was this transcendent feel to it – just feeling one with the game.”

“It wasn’t about making golf clothes – it was about making clothes for golfers. It was about passion for the game. It was about soul.”

Concurrently with his trips to Scotland, John picked up Michael Murphy’s book The Kingdom of Shivas Irons, in which he discovered the phrase, ‘Golf is what links the flesh to the soul’.

“It was this phrase that expressed both the feeling I had while playing in Scotland and also what I was trying to do this whole time. It wasn’t about making golf clothes – it was about making clothes for golfers. It was about passion for the game. It was about soul.”

Several years later, after the Ashworth brand went public – going from zero to $90 million in 10 years – John left the company. But the word Linksoul followed him in his bones. “Even while I was running Ashworth, and even before I had discovered the name, ‘Linksoul’ was always the nucleus of what I was trying to do. That was my center.”

And so, in 2011, the longstanding ‘Linksoul’ concept was birthed as a company.

“Linksoul is primarily in the business of promoting the recreational soul of golf,” says John. “For the majority of golfers, it’s not a professionally competitive sport. People play because they love the game. It’s social. It’s fun. And let’s be honest, it’s not highly aerobic.”

Because of that, Linksoul crafts most of their pieces with 100% cotton, occasionally blended with cashmere or stretch for added comfort and movement. And with a palette loosely based on Japanese color theory, every item has a natural sensibility. “We’re definitely different”, says John. “We try to focus on great fabrics, simple details, and a timeless aesthetic. Overall, it’s very understated, but fresh.”

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“A huge part of Linksoul’s success is my team. I’ve been fortunate to have so many talented and passionate people come alongside this vision and make it into something so much bigger than I could have ever done on my own.”

Though Linksoul hasn’t reached the level of popularity as his namesake brand, golfers of all stripes have taken notice. “The demographic is boundless. A 70-year-old dude that plays at a country club and his 17-year-old grandson who surfs wear the same shirt. And that’s awesome.”

And beyond promoting golf through clothing, John is pioneering a movement to bring the game back to the soul of the community.

Originally opened in 1952 as a nine-hole regulation par-36, Center City Golf Course was the first course in San Diego County. Redesigned in the early ’90s into an 18-hole short course, it became known as “Goat Hill” to locals.

But after struggling with mismanagement in the late aughts, the city was preparing a deal with the owner of Real Salt Lake soccer team to build a minor league soccer stadium and private academy on the site. The local neighborhood, led in large part by Ashworth, intervened.

“It was pretty great – an entire community effort. Hundreds of people showed up for the town hall meeting. The decision to save the course was made in short order.”

John’s vision goes beyond saving the course he grew up on. From rebuilding the club house to a dedicated kids course and teaching academy, John’s vision for Goat Hill is to create a social space for the entire community. “We need these kinds of beginner-friendly courses that are affordable yet sustainable if golf is to have a future. Less intimidating and open to newcomers and kids. A social place to hang out.”

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“It was pretty great – an entire community effort. Hundreds of people showed up for the town hall meeting. The decision to save the course was made in short order.”

Goat Hill is also home to the North County Junior Golf Association a 501c3 non-profit. By starting a chapter of the George Solich Caddie Academy and Leadership program, the NCJGA will give kids a chance for educational scholarships and job opportunities. John hopes the course can be an inspiration and a blueprint for other cities around the country to make municipal courses a hub of their neighborhood. “It’s an amazing way to serve our community. Especially the youth.”

In the meantime, the newly renovated Goat Hill offers the community a great round of golf in the form of a short par 66 (only 4,800 yards). But while the coastal course wows with ocean views, it humbles scorecards with its hilly topography. “It’s a good challenge, but it’s inexpensive and only takes 3 hours to play 18-holes, at most. There’s no dress code – and lots of tattoos. It really is the epitome of what golf is supposed to be.”

So, despite the fact that his successful career in the apparel industry continues, it’s clear that Mr. Ashworth’s greatest contribution isn’t dressing the future generation with clothes. Rather, he is dressing them with a love for the game and an opportunity to flourish. An opportunity to experience the sound between the notes.

To experience golf with a soul.