Rick Martin: Founder, Martin Golf Apparel
Written by: Robert Blumenthal for GolfConversations.com
Rick Martin has had a long and distinguished career in the golf apparel industry. The founder of Fairway & Greene sold that company several years ago and then got the itch to get back into the business. He and his daughter, Teri, launched Martin Golf Apparel in 2011, selling 100% Pima cotton shirts to the private golf club market.
I had a telephone conversation with Rick in early January of this year which follows below. Then we met in person at the PGA Show in Orlando where I was able to sample the Martin Golf Apparel goods myself. Let me tell you: Rick’s Peruvian Pima is primo!
Golf Conversations: I saw your website with your video. You’ve got some beautiful golf shirts.
Rick Martin: Everyone asks me, why, at my advanced stage in life, why would I be interested in coming back into the business? So I had to do that video to keep the questions at a minimum.
GC: Or to show everybody you were still alive.
RM: Exactly! I’ve been sitting on a park bench feeding the pigeons for the last five years.
It never gets out of your system. I’ve been in the apparel business my whole life. I stand for a particular taste level and thank goodness there are still people out there that respect and understand what I try to do. It’s been gratifying; we launched in July and planned to start delivering in January for spring. But we had such interest that we accelerated delivery to November and we’ve already gotten re-orders from several major clubs.
GC: I don’t know if you know this, but last year I interviewed Andy Bell, who is with Fairway & Greene. And Andy had mentioned that you were The Man at Fairway & Greene until not that long ago.
RM: Yeah, I started it. When I sold that company to the investment group, I tried to communicate to them that we had a particular niche in the market place. It was primarily a pure-finish, natural fiber niche. At the end of the day, that seemed to have changed as the wind changes.
Anyone who’s had a business that they’ve started – with a vision of what they want it to be – sometimes when they sell it, the vision changes to more of a profit motive. And, therefore, decisions are made by people that don’t have it in the gut; they’ve got it on the balance sheet. That’s what happens to most companies that have a change in direction and that’s what happened to my old company.
GC: When did you sell Fairway & Greene?
RM: I had a five-year non-compete. It ended in 2011, so I sold it in 2006. That’s why I was on the park bench for five years.
GC: While you were feeding the pigeons for those five years, did you have it in the back of your mind that when your non-compete expired you would …
RM: I had no interest or desire to come back into the business. My daughter Teri – who was with me from the get-go at Fairway & Greene – she’s the one who convinced me that I needed to come back in. And she’s joined me … that’s why I call this company Martin instead of Rick Martin because she’s Teri Martin and she will carry a certain load with this brand for as long as she wants to.
Teri and Rick Martin
GC: Rick, this is like The Godfather, Part III: just when you thought you were out, they dragged you back in!
RM: Teri has a very strong taste level of her own but she also knew that we needed the impetus of my name behind it to start the company. But she’s very much involved in the product development with me. She’s just wonderful.
GC: If what your company stands for is impeccable taste, I think you’re going to run into trouble by letting me interview you.
RM: Not true, I’ve heard nice things about you. Mary Beth speaks very highly of you. [EDITOR’S NOTE: “Mary Beth” heads her own PR Firm – Mary Beth Lacy, Inc. – and is the publicist for Martin Golf Apparel.]
GC: She should. I send Mary Beth 20 bucks every month to help keep me in golf shirts.
RM: She’s been a God-send to me because in the five years I was away, the media industry in golf has changed dramatically. Everybody sort of looks alike. So she’s been able to go through the weeds, if you will, and has been instrumental in getting me into blogs and websites and videos and things I would have never have thought about five years ago.
GC: Well, you’re definitely going to be on my website. Which, by the way, isn’t like any other web site out there. I’m kind of like the Rick Martin of golf web sites. And did I mention to you that I take a size Large in a golf shirt?
RM: You didn’t but I’m sure Mary Beth knows that…
GC: Ok, ok, don’t listen to me. I’m just kidding you.
RM: We want you all to have our shirts. You put them side by side with the things you have in your closet and you’ll see immediately why we’re back in business and doing it in an even better way this time around.
Finishing in cotton yarn has improved dramatically so we’re very, very pleased with it. And we’ve always maintained a certain type of basic yarn. The industry itself – when it got away from cotton and was driven by a lot of price decisions – I think a lot of the companies that used to use a higher quality Pima yarn, have gone to what they call Z.M. fabric.
GC: What’s that?
RM: It’s basically an assortment of different countries all assembling their yarns in a holding area and then they pick out what they want. So sometimes you can get uneven lengths of skeins and you’ll wind up with a fabric that’s not as good as it should be. All of our yarn skeins are exactly the same length; they’re all long staple and they’re all from one place.
GC: Rick, when I see cotton shirts, I often see the word “mercerized.” Explain, please.
RM: Mercerization is in the eyes of the beholder; it’s very much like a cook in a kitchen. Julia Child’s going to cook differently than Martha Stewart. They can use the same ingredients but they approach the cooking differently.
The same thing is true when you do the finishing of yarn. The finishing we use on our yarns is proprietary and unique to us. We don’t share it with anybody. We also don’t share any of our mills or factories with anybody. That’s something I’ve learned in my years in the apparel business – particularly when retailers are now manufacturers and manufacturers have their own outlet stores. You’ve got to have the ability to keep these people out of your shops because they’ll go in there and knock you off before you get to your first appointment.
GC: But let’s get back to that Z.M. thing you were talking about.
RM: Z.M. is a term. It’s a Pima yarn that is less expensive because it comes from various countries. There’s not the attention to the length of the skeins. So they’re not as discriminating. So if you start with a less expensive yarn and you don’t finish it with any consistency, you’re gonna wind up with a less-than-desirable lisle product. Lisle is our primary base cloth.
What got me into coming back … I saw so many shirts in the marketplace, not only in the golf shops but in fine retail stores … I knew they were using this cotton yarn because there was a lot of wrinkling. It had kind of a pre-washed look to it; that was a fashion look.
So these guys thought, why spend money on all these long-staple cotton yarns when we’re just gonna wash it and beat it up anyway? And that kind of washed over into the better golf shirt business.
If you put my shirt down with anybody else’s shirt, you’ll see the difference immediately.
GC: Not to beat a dead sheep, but do the initials Z.M. stand for something?
RM: They probably do and I don’t know what they stand for. It’s like Frigidaire or Stetson. It could have been somebody’s brand at one time but it’s become synonymous with a lower-priced cotton yarn.
GC: Ok, got it. Now let me ask you about the move over the last ten years into polyester. Which the industry has re-branded as a “performance product.” And all of this wicking stuff. When my contemporaries were wearing disco shirts – God forgive them – in the mid ‘70s, polyester was a very hot fabric. I guess they’ve made it more comfortable over the last 10 years, more wickable. Is that what happened?
RM: Yes. A synthetic yarn doesn’t behave like a natural yarn behaves. The whole reason for polyester was the care aspect. The same is true now for synthetic golf shirts. There’s a market for that and I would never, ever say anything ill of that. We have things we wear in our lives that have that component. My running shirts and shorts are made of that fabric.
I’ve always thought that cotton is the quintessential golf shirt fabric. It’s the one that behaves and performs the longest. Most synthetic shirts don’t have a lifespan. I don’t know if it’s because of the way they’re knitted or what. People get rid of ‘em and get new ones. And that’s part of the planned obsolescence of the stuff.
Most of the shirts you see in golf shops today could be worn on the professional bowling tour.
GC: Rick, you live Texas, right?
RM: Yes, I live in Dallas.
GC: Ok. It’s July in Dallas … you’re playing golf; it’s 100 degrees, the humidity is 90% and you’re wearing one of your beautiful all-cotton shirts. After 1 hour, the shirt is soaking wet, is it not?
RM: If you’re talking about high humidity, there’s no difference to me between a polyester shirt and a cotton shirt as far as appearance goes if you’re sweating profusely in it.
The difference is, when you sweat in a polyester shirt, the sweat stays on your skin and runs down into your pants. Whereas if you sweat in a cotton shirt, the cotton absorbs the sweat.
RM: And when cotton absorbs the sweat, as it continues to breathe, it evaporates. On a hot, humid day, there’s nothing worse to wear for me – for my body – than a polyester shirt.
GC: So Rick, what are they talking about when they say these shirts wick away the perspiration?
RM: Wicking, to me, is when fabric will take the moisture from the body, draw it from the body, and wick it out into the atmosphere. For my money, the best fabric for that has always been an all-cotton, a pique stitch, which is an elliptical stitch that acts like a little circle.
The original Lacoste shirt – the René Lacoste shirt which became the Izod shirt – was a meshed shirt that was worn to play tennis because it did wick the moisture away from the body.
What happened with the apparel in golf is directly related to what’s happened to clubs and equipment. The world has gone to titanium and dimples and flex shafts and graphite, etc. And it was very easy to kind of glom on to that technology and talk about performance shirts.
It’s all a matter of what somebody wants. I’m not putting my shirt against anybody’s shirt as far as what is the best shirt for you. You decide for yourself what’s best.
What I say is my customer is a club guy. I’m probably the only golf manufacturer that doesn’t sell to any retail stores. Doesn’t sell to any off-course golf shops. I only sell to private clubs. Because private clubs have a membership that is, generally speaking, attuned to cotton or natural fibers. And certainly to more sophisticated coloring and less like bowling shirts.
And by the way, the conditions of the marketplace today are almost identical to what they were in 1996 when I started Fairway & Greene.
GC: How so?
RM: You could interchange labels on anybody’s shirt in the pro shop and not know whose shirt it is. They all look alike. They all subscribe to the same color service. They all go to the same mills. They all go to the same button maker. They all copy the other guy’s hang tag.
The other day, I was asked by another interviewer about whom I consider to be my competition. And I said, “I look at my competition in the eye every morning when I’m shaving.” I do what I do. I don’t do what the other guys do. They do whatever they want to do, that’s their business. I know who my customer is. How can I make it better for him? How can I make him feel more comfortable in it and how can I get him to buy more of what I do?
GC: I’ve purchased some 100% cotton shirts that look weathered. You put them in the washing machine and the dryer and the collars come out all bent and they never look the same again. I assume that’s because the cotton is of an inferior quality?
RM: It’s also the way it’s constructed. The one thing you’ll find about a Martin golf shirt is that you buy your true size in my shirt. You don’t upsize it because you think it’s going to shrink. It doesn’t. We shrink 2% over the life of the garment, which is nil. A lot of cotton shirts like you’re talking about, they’ll shrink 8-9%.
GC: I’ve noticed that.
RM: When I first went into the business, we were competing against the Ashworth company who was using an interlock cotton fabric which shrinks like a bandit – like 9, 10%. So everybody who was buying an Ashworth shirt – me included – was buying a bigger size because we knew it was going to shrink when we washed it.
I came out with Fairway & Greene and I was getting calls from customers: “Your shirts are too big!” I told them, “If your customer’s a large, sell him a large; not an extra-large.”
GC: What happens to the collars, though?
RM: It’s because they’re not properly constructed. We do what’s called a double-lock collar. It’s the way we construct it, the types of yarns, and the number of ends we use. Again, it’s proprietary. Our shirts never curl.
That was one of the strongest suits with my other company: the collar was such a beautiful thing. You took it out of the dryer; you didn’t have to iron it. In the early days, some of the guys on tour would call me. I’d say, “You need some more shirts?”
They’d say, “No we don’t need any more shirts. I got the 6 or 8 you sent me last season. Put a little obsolescence in your product.”
I said, “That’s not what we do here.” The whole idea of this kind of shirt is longevity.
GC: Who were some of the tour guys who didn’t want more shirts?
RM: Andy Bean, Leonard Thompson, Gil Morgan, those were some of the early guys who wore our shirts way back then.
GC: That doesn’t sound like tour pros. They want all the free stuff they can get.
RM: No, they didn’t. Believe me.
GC: I must have them confused with me. I want all the free stuff I can get.
RM: Leonard Thompson only wore either yellow or white. Gil Morgan always wore white. And I never paid anybody to wear my shirt. I had 27 guys on the tour in the early days. We just started our first guy on the tour wearing a Martin golf shirt – I can’t tell you his name. I never paid anybody a nickel and I will not start now.
GC: But you’ve got someone lined up now for the PGA Tour or the Champions Tour?
RM: The big tour.
GC: How would you like to be the official apparel provider for GolfConversations.com? Don’t answer yet. Just think about it.
RM: I’ll think about it. I don’t know what that entails but the idea that someone would want to do that with my product would make me lean very heavily toward doing that. I think the whole idea is: you associate quality with quality.
GC: You don’t want to associate with me then.
RM: No, Mary Beth said you’re high quality.
GC: I’ve bought all-cotton shirts and I just hate it when I take them out of the dryer and the collar is curled and bent.
RM: If you wore a Martin golf shirt, you’ll see what the difference is. Again, I came back in the business for one reason: people are not doing a better shirt anymore. When I started, there was Como and Descente and they’re gone.
There’s a four-letter brand that’s all over the marketplace and yet they’ve got Z.M. fabric in their golf line.
GC: If you buy a shirt that’s going to wear well and last for 6-8 years … in the long run, it’s cheaper than buying the crappy cotton shirt that looks awful after 4 washes.
GC: Rick, I’m sure you’ve seen these younger golfers who walk around with their caps on backwards.
GC: To reach those guys, do you have any plans to sell cotton shirts you can wear inside out?
RM: My customers wear visors.
GC: So you’re not making 100% Pima cotton tank tops?
RM: Not at all. Nor short-shorts.
GC: Anything for the ladies or is it all for men?
RM: It’s in our DNA to do it.
GC: I think it’s in Teri’s DNA to do it.
GC: Well, I’m looking forward to meeting you at the PGA Show.
RM: Thanks for calling, Robert.
GC: See you in Orlando.
[The following conversation took place at the Martin Golf Apparel room at the PGA Show]:
RM: The shirt you’re wearing is a pique. A pique is a way that cotton yarn is knitted; you get an elliptical hole in there and the idea is it makes it cooler to wear.
GC: I see.
RM: Ours is mercerized twice. Which gives it greater lustre and greater stability. The big problem with cotton is that it shrinks. Our mercerization process is such that we control that shrinkage; we keep it 2% or under. So when you buy one of my shirts, 10 washings later, you’re still wearing the same size.
GC: Double mercerization?
RM: Double. And the second part of it is the most complex and expensive. When people say “mercerized cotton,” many times it’s just the yarn they’re mercerizing. We mercerize the yarn, then we knit the pattern and mercerize the piece. The second part of the mercerization process is what gives the shirt its lustre.
GC: Where does the knitting take place?
RM: In a knitting factory.
GC: I had to go to the president of the company to get an answer to that question?
I could have asked the security guard outside and he would have given me the same answer.
RM: We knit this cloth in South Korea. I still believe that South Korea has the finest needle in the world – particularly for knitwear.
GC: Yesterday when I saw you on the floor, I was wearing a 100% cotton shirt, you immediately looked down on me…
GC: Rick, you looked down on me…
RM: Come on. You’re sure?
GC: I AM sure. You said I had no lustre!
RM: No, you have lustre. The shirt didn’t have lustre.
GC: I thought you said I didn’t have lustre. I called my therapist last night. I have enough problems with a low self-image and I don’t need you tearing me down.
RM: You see what you’re wearing here?
GC: Yeah, I see it. I’m the one who put it on after I took a shower this morning.
RM: You’re wearing a private label shirt made for a price point so they can make a lot of money.
RM: They also carry my shirt in their pro shop.
GC: But you’re not allowed to say the name of the club, are you?
RM: No, I’m not going to get anybody in trouble.
But all kidding aside, we use a natural fiber and we’re very concerned with the finishing process. Whether it’s an interlock like this or a magnificent alpaca wool sweater… everything we do is designed to give the customer a beautiful garment.
We waterfall different colors. In a particular range, we’ve got 7 colors. In the next range, we have 7 colors also. The pro shop is sort of the last specialty store on earth. It’s where the vendor – the pro or the buyer for the pro shop – knows its membership. So when they buy a line, they know who in their membership they’ve got in mind. It’s a very specialized business.
So when we do these different colors, the idea is that in a given market we might have 6 different clubs selling our product. I don’t want them all having the same thing. Many times, when I’m putting the line together, I’m thinking about that different variety of clubs.
GC: Let’s say there’s Club A in Dallas and Club B in Dallas. Club B comes in to see you and says, “I’d like to get a couple dozen of Style X” and Style X is what you’ve already sold to Club A.
RM: It usually doesn’t work that way. We try to steer them … they’re not coming in and order taking. Our guys will make a presentation to them. They already know that Club A has bought the navy so they’ll show Club B something slightly different.
And a lot of people in those markets belong to two clubs, so you don’t want them saying, “Oh, I got that shirt over at my other club.”
GC: Do they put their club logos on your shirts?
GC: Is that an important part of the sale?
RM: Very important.
GC: The shirts are made in South Korea. When are the logos applied?
RM: We do it ourselves in Wisconsin which is where we have our distribution facility. We have marvelous embroidery equipment. In fact, we get as many compliments on our embroidery as we do on our product.
[I point to the “famous” logo on my shirt]
RM: We do that.
GC: Let the record show that Mr. Martin looked at my logo and said, “We do that.”
Who designs your shirts?
GC: You? You decide “let’s do a periwinkle blue with a canary trim”?
RM: I’m a rarity in the apparel business – not just the golf business, but the apparel business. I used to be president of both the Gant and Hathaway shirt companies.
GC: Were you the guy with the eye patch? The Ogilvy and Mather campaign?
RM: Ogilvy and Mather, yes.
GC: Oh my God: you’re the Hathaway Man!!!
RM: No, I was there when the Hathaway Man was created.
But here’s what I say to people: you’re looking at someone who’s in a very small fraternity: I’m the only non-Jewish, heterosexual clothing designer you’ll ever meet.
GC: Wait a minute. You’re heterosexual?
Take it from a Jewish heterosexual: your shirts are just beautiful. They feel like silk to the touch. If I ever got accepted to a private club where they sold your shirts, I’d be asking the pro when he was going to put them on sale.
RM: Here’s something else that most people don’t do. We do cotton sweaters and even the cotton yarn we use in our sweaters is double mercerized. So you have a beautiful sheen that you often don’t get in a cotton sweater.
Almost every sweater we do is fully fashioned. That means our sweaters are knitted one sweater at a time. They’re not cut in pieces and sewn together. Full fashion means that it’s knitted to size.
GC: Kind of like milled putters, in a way. They create the head and hosel out of one hunk of steel.
RM: That’s correct. Same thing.
GC: What kind of cotton do you use?
GC: And where does that come from?
RM: Peru. Peruvian Pima, we think, is the finest Pima cotton in the world. It’s long stapled, which gives it consistency. You’re not going to see what they call striation. See how clean this shirt is? There’s none of what looks like snow on a TV set. That’s because the yarn itself is consistent in length. So when you knit it, you have a smoothness because everything is the same length.
GC: Sometimes you get irregulars in the garment business.
RM: We don’t accept irregulars. Our factories are not allowed to do anything with the Martin label on them.
GC: Ok. Can you tell them to ship those directly to me? I’m not that picky.
RM: Ok, give me your card. I’ll do that!
They’re mostly Double X-Large so you can sleep in them.
GC: Forget it. What sizes do you have?
RM: We do Small to Double X. We don’t do Triple X.
GC: Hey, if you need to wear Triple X, you need to lose some weight.
Rick, do you make shirts for women?
RM: We will; we don’t at the moment. Our approach to womenswear is similar to men’s in this regard: women put things together better than men.
GC: And they’re put together better than men!
RM: Yes, they are.
GC: Spoken like a true heterosexual.
RM: We don’t want to create a situation where we are a collection. Meaning that you’re gonna have to have a shirt that goes with a sweater that goes with a skirt that goes with a sock. That’s not us. We want to have – just like we do in menswear – specialty item pieces. We call them “a cut above golf” – meaning, you can wear them beyond the golf course.
So our womenswear will be dedicated to a superior product that women will want to buy in more than one color.
GC: Just shirts, no skirts?
RM: No bottoms. That’s somebody else’s skill.
GC: Hey, the mercerization process… where did they come up with that name? Does it have anything to do with Johnny Mercer?
RM: No. And sanforized didn’t have anything to do with Fred Sanford.
GC: Oh, ‘Lizabeth, this is the Big One!
RM: In layman’s terms, it’s an impregnation of a cotton yarn.
GC: Hey, this is a family web site. Keep it clean!
RM: The process starts with us with the yarn, the long-staple cotton yarn. We then spin it into a single thread. We run that thread at a very high speed through a gas burner which burns all the impurities off the yarn. So all the little fuzzy things get burned away.
Then we die the yarn. Then we mercerize the yarn. Then we knit the pattern. Then we bathe the piece; the machine that does that costs $3 million. Most vendors don’t want to spend that kind of money on a mercerization machine.
GC: Approximately what are your shirts retailing for in a pro shop?
RM: The solid shirts will generally retail at $80-$85. And they’ll retail the fancies from $90-$100.
GC: What we talked about on the phone a few weeks ago… you buy one of your shirts and they last for 6 years. Compare that to spending $40 for a cheaper cotton shirt and after 3 washings, the collars are rolling and curling. So I think your shirts are a better value.
Well, you’ve got customers here so I won’t take up any more of your time. Good luck to you and Teri. I wish you every success with your company.
Hmmm, so if your shirts hardly shrink, I’m thinking I should be looking at mediums instead of larges … if you catch my drift. Wink, wink. Thanks, Rick.
RM: Thank you.