The spikeless shoes Fred Couples wore during the opening round of the Masters Tournament can hardly be found in highway golf shops or professional locker rooms, for very different reasons.
Recreational golfers have stripped shelves bare of the style since Couples, playing without socks, topped the leaderboard with a first-round 66 at Augusta National Golf Club a year ago.
His pro colleagues, who often set mass-market trends in clothing and equipment, haven’t followed the pattern this time. Only the 51-year-old Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, and 30-year-old Ryan Moore were shod in no-spike shoes during the first round of golf’s first major championship yesterday.
“The game of golf is a very traditional game,” David Helter, who oversees the golf division of Denmark-based Ecco Inc., Couples’ shoemaker, said in an interview. “Old habits die hard. The golfer generally wants to wear cleated products. I think Freddie has shown the world that they don’t really need to.”
Many professional golfers, who swing their clubs as fast as 125 mph, have been reluctant to switch to spikeless shoes for fear of losing traction while hitting shots. Other players are also under contractual obligations, limiting their choice.
“Guys are wearing what they’re told to wear,” Moore, who is tied for 14th after an opening-round 70, said in an interview. “You don’t get to choose as much as people think.”
Moore, playing in his fourth Masters, wore Ecco last year before investing in and helping design a line of casual-style golf shoes for Dallas-based True Linkswear.
Moore’s True shoes, which sell for about $160 a pair, feature a wide, flexible toe area and flat sole, a design he says allows him to “feel the course” while playing.
The Ecco shoes look like those worn by skateboarders, with a soft rubber sole and tiny nubs to grip the turf. Couples started wearing them to help ease back pain that has plagued him for years. He has had an endorsement deal with Ecco since 2006.
“They’ve sold a lot of them,” Couples, who shot 4-under par in his second round today, said in an interview. “I saw Jack Nicklaus wearing them the other day. That was kind of fun. At the clubs where I play, everyone wears them.”
For his early morning tee time today, Couples switched to Ecco shoes with spikes for better traction on the course’s damp fairways.
Couples followed last year’s opening round at the Masters with a 3-over 75, then added subpar rounds on the weekend for a 279 total and sixth place, his best finish in Augusta, Georgia, since 2006. Fans took notice of his footwear.
After seeing Couples wearing them, Stan Gorczyca, a 52-year-old project manager for a roofing contractor near Pittsburgh, purchased a pair of Ecco shoes and was wearing them this week while walking around Augusta National.
“They’re the most comfortable golf shoes I have ever worn,” Gorczyca said in an interview. “I put them on, walked around the store a couple times, and knew they were what I wanted.”
Helter said Ecco, a 45-year-old closely held company, shipped 24 times more of the shoes than it had anticipated in 2010 and is sold out for the first six months of 2011. He wouldn’t provide sales figures for the $140 shoes.
“It just went off the charts,” Helter said in a telephone interview from the company’s U.S. headquarters in Londonderry, New Hampshire. “We made them as fast as we could and we still never caught up to the business. It has been a very pleasant surprise for us.”
A strong performance by top-level athlete endorsers in any sport helps boost sales, Helter said. It also can lead to copycats.
Taylor-Made Golf Co.’s Ashworth, Puma AG and Canada’s Kikkor Golf were among companies that followed Ecco with their own casual-style golf shoes.
“A couple of them are extremely close to the same look,” Couples said. “But that’s OK.”
Last month, Fortune Brands Inc.’s Foot-Joy, which says it accounted for 53 percent of shoes sold in U.S. golf shops over a 12-month period ended November 2010, launched its own “street” shoes.
Unlike Ecco’s version, FootJoy’s street shoes, which sell for about $90, have a combination of nubs and spikes, which it says increases traction.
Ecco initially balked at Foot-Joy’s use of the term “street” in its marketing.
“Unfortunately, we did not patent or coin the word ‘street’ in the U.S.,” Helter said. “That was, in hindsight, probably a mistake.”
Spikeless, or street-style, footwear accounts for less than 10 percent of the 3.9 million pairs of golf shoes sold annually in the U.S., according to Kissimmee, Florida-based Golf Datatech, which tracks sales of golf products. The company said it couldn’t compare that figure with previous readings because it was too small to be specific.
It may be some time before that trend reaches the top pro tournaments such as the Masters at Augusta National, a 79-year-old private club located about 150 miles east of Atlanta.
“The professional takes a little more to convince than the casual player,” said Moore. “The average guy just wants to be comfortable and doesn’t want his feet to hurt at the end of a round.”