This story first was published on Jan. 13, 2019.
OCEANSIDE, CALIFORNIA | John Ashworth says he likes to live in the moment, and at the moment I walk into the Linksoul Lab, the Oceanside building that serves as his apparel company’s headquarters, he is hunched over a table examining a couple dozen cotton shirts strewn across it. Be-bop jazz wafts out of a pair of speakers, and a dog of a probably untraceable pedigree sleeps soundly on the concrete floor. A copying machine stands next to a washer and dryer, and a vintage bicycle is parked against a wall, by a golf bag filled with persimmon woods and a set of Ben Hogan blades so worn they may well have been forged when the Hawk was still sitting at the chairman’s desk. Gazing out a window overlooking a side street, I notice an artificial turf putting green that takes up part of the sidewalk – and that is sometimes used by employees as a place to unwind. Beyond that is Linksoul’s neighbor to the south, a mortuary.
Wearing dark slacks, a long-sleeve, blue-green polo shirt and a baseball-style hat, all of which bear the Linksoul logo, Ashworth is presiding over what he describes as “sort of a sales meeting.” After commenting on the shirts to the half dozen people standing by the same table, he suggests we head out for lunch.
To do so, we first must pass through a studio-like space in the front of the lab where a local artist is preparing an installation – and where Ashworth, on occasion, also stages benefit concerts and screens documentaries. Then, we push through a door that features an etching of a golf club and a hammer crossed as a pair of swords might be on an Arthurian shield and the words, “Make Par, Not War.” The club is for golf, of course. “And the hammer is for work,” Ashworth says.
Outside, we amble down the palm tree-lined main street of this coastal town north of Carlsbad, just a few blocks east of the ocean. Past a Linksoul retail store, where the company sells golf clubs and bags, sunglasses and shoes, and clothes. Then by the company’s administrative offices, where a sign above the entrance reads: “A Beautiful You Salon.” The previous tenants, it seems, were hair stylists.
Born in Los Angeles and raised mostly in north San Diego County, Ashworth embodies California cool. He surfs. He does yoga. He works out on a climbing wall across the street from the lab. He insists that his employees play golf in some way, shape or form on Fridays. A 3-handicap who competed as a collegian at the University of Arizona and briefly caddied on the PGA Tour, he describes himself as a “mid-century modernist” when it comes to clubs and still plays most rounds with persimmon woods and blade irons. He frequently philosophizes, describing golf as being “so deep that you never get to the end of it” and seeing it as his “own sharpening stone.” His good friend, the CBS Sports broadcaster Jim Nantz, understands the thinking. “Ash is a spiritual guy who is connected to the very soul of the sport,” he says.
“I always wanted to shed light on golf’s spiritual side, its soulful side.” – John Ashworth
But cool is more than just a personal trait for Ashworth. It is also what has driven his business endeavors since he started the eponymous Ashworth apparel company more than three decades ago, when he was just 26. “I wanted to make golf cool,” he says as he reflects on his motivation for building a brand that turned golf apparel on its ear with stylish clothes that were made entirely of cotton and could be worn as easily off the golf course as on it. And he did just that. First at Ashworth, then at a second apparel company called Fidra and now with Linksoul. Along the way, Ashworth tried, unsuccessfully, to build a golf course in the East Lothian region of Scotland, and then with better results saved a rough-around the-edges municipal track in Oceanside called Goat Hill. There have been bumps and bruises along the way, to be sure. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It really is as much about the journey as it is the end result,” he says as he settles down to a tuna sandwich. “And it has been an amazing journey.”
It is said tenor saxophonist Lester Young first coined the term “cool,” and his virtuoso riffing nearly a century ago demonstrated he was all that. So did his being the first musician to wear sunglasses while performing in nightclubs. In golf, no one was cooler than Arnold Palmer, and in later years Fred Couples assumed that mantel.
Well, it was Ashworth who caught Palmer’s eye with his smart, soft-collar wares when the apparel maker exhibited at its first PGA Merchandise Show in 1988. And it was Ashworth who soon after dressed Couples and another California chill golfer, John Cook. What that means, of course, is that John Ashworth is pretty cool himself. And he is still trying to bring that vibe to the game.
In addition to being a part of his life since he was a young boy, golf is also in Ashworth’s DNA. His grandparents were avid players, and he says his grandmother was good enough to have won the Los Angeles City Women’s Amateur in the 1920s. As for his schoolteacher father, Bud, who moved his family to Escondido in north San Diego County in 1966 after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, he was a 4-handicap who dabbled in golf club repair and enjoyed regular weekend games at a local course called San Luis Rey Downs. He also was the one who introduced Ashworth to the game.
“My mother wanted her kids to go to Sunday school with her each week,” Ashworth recalls. “I did not like the sound of that, so we struck a deal that allowed me to go instead to the golf course to caddie for my father and his friends. They’d play $1 Nassaus, and I’d get $2 a round and maybe a Snickers bar. I loved it. Being outside. The smell of the freshly mown grass. The sound their spiked shoes made on the pavement.”
Ashworth also came to love playing. “As a teacher, my dad had summers off, and we’d go to the course together almost every day that time of year, to play and hit balls,” he says.
The youngster soon was competing in tournaments and became good enough to win the San Diego Junior Amateur and to qualify for the U.S. Junior Amateur. He played on his high school golf team and later enrolled at Arizona, where he earned a degree in agronomy while minoring in philosophy. “I was neither the top guy or the bottom guy on the team at Arizona,” he says. “And I knew I was not good enough to play professionally. But I wanted to somehow make a living in the game. I loved it that much.”
After graduating from Arizona in 1982, Ashworth worked for a spell as an assistant superintendent at a course back in Southern California. “But I did not like getting up early in the morning,” he says. “So, I started selling insurance. That didn’t last long either, and I took a job as an assistant golf professional.”
Then he took a phone call from his friend Mark Wiebe. “Mark and I had grown up in Escondido and played a lot of junior golf together,” Ashworth says. “He was trying to make it on the PGA Tour and asked if I would caddie for him. So, that’s what I did for a year. He said he’d paid me $250 a week and give me five percent of any winnings. It was like being in the circus. We’d roll into a new town each week, go to work, go to some parties and then move on. I sometimes slept in my car. But I didn’t care. I was having a blast.”
During his time looping, Ashworth met one of Wiebe’s sponsors, Gerry Montiel. And it was with Montiel that he started his first clothing company, the one that came to be known as Ashworth. “I had gone to work for Gerry at a sporting goods store he had opened in Denver,” he recalls. “And when he closed that down, he suggested we start another business. I had long thought about golf apparel because I hated the clothes that were being made for golf. Gerry liked the idea, and he was the one who suggested calling it Ashworth. He liked the Old World English sound of it.”
So, Ashworth moved back to Los Angeles and started putting together a collection. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “But I knew what I liked, and I knew I wanted to do something different. Everybody else was polyester. But we were 100 percent cotton.”
Ashworth first exhibited at the PGA Show, and the best part of that event came when Palmer stopped by his booth. “He shook my hand and made some very positive remarks about what we had,” Ashworth says. Soon after, he signed up Couples and Cook. “I could only give them pieces of the company as compensation because I could not afford to pay them endorsement fees,” Ashworth says. “But they were fine with that, and after Fred won the 1992 Masters wearing our clothes, the brand took off. All of a sudden, we went from having one or two employees to 200, and from making no money to having annual revenues of $90 million.”
As good as those developments were, Ashworth felt a need for something more. “I always wanted to shed light on golf’s spiritual side, its soulful side,” he says. “And during a trip to Scotland, I became fascinated with the links game. Then, I hit on this idea of building a golf course on a site not far from Muirfield in East Lothian. It was a wonderful piece of property on which a couple of courses had operated decades before but had since gone to seed. One was named Archerfield and the other Fidra, and I thought we could really plant the Ashworth flag in the ancestral home of golf, building a new course there and putting up a boutique hotel. I thought it would be good for the brand.”
But the Ashworth board did not agree, and that led the co-founder to resign in 1997 from the company he had helped start. Then he began selling his stake in it.
Thus began what well might be called his wilderness years. Ashworth tried to develop the Scotland property but lost the land when a local partner reneged on a handshake deal. Ashworth founded another apparel concern, called Fidra, after one of the old Scottish courses. For a variety of reasons, he shut down that venture in 2005. At that point, Ashworth decided to take a couple of years off to regroup and spend time with his wife, Tam, and their two sons, Luke and Max. Then, after a brief and unsatisfying stint consulting for his old company, Ashworth, which had lost its way in every way imaginable, he and his nephew Geoff Cunningham founded Linksoul. Other family members came on board, among them Ashworth’s brother Hank, his sister Mary and eventually his younger son, Max. And they set up shop in Oceanside. “We worked, we surfed, we played golf at Goat Hill,” says Ashworth. “We liked the area, gritty as it may have been, and the rent was cheap.”
He set out to endow Linksoul with the same corporate ethos he had established at the original Ashworth. A place with golf roots that stood up for the soul of the game as it produced clothes made largely of natural fabrics that looked as good as they performed. The company name, he says, came from a line in the Michael Murphy book, The Kingdom of Shivas Irons, that reads: “Golf is what connects the soul to the flesh.” Ashworth also liked the connotation of golf’s unique ability to link souls and bring together complete strangers for games that finished with their being dear friends.
Watching Ashworth at work, it is clear that he has found his happy place once again. What’s made this go-round even better is how he also has been able to involve himself, and his company, in an initiative that allows them to give back to the game in substantial ways. That is Goat Hill, the funky and fun 18-hole municipal course that opened in 1952 in what Ashworth has dubbed the People’s Park of Oceanside. Laid out by Interstate 5 and boasting views of the Pacific from several vantage points, it was in danger of being sold and rezoned so that apartments or a mini-mall could be constructed. But then Ashworth stepped in with a plan to save the Goat and then take over management of the course. His interest in intervening was fueled in part by memories of the layout on which he caddied for his father, at San Luis Rey Downs, having years ago closed down so the property could be developed. He did not want Goat Hill to succumb to a similar fate.
Thankfully, his intervention work succeeded, largely due to his tireless efforts, which also included enlisting help from celebrities like Bill Murray, who wore a Save the Goat T-shirt at the 40th anniversary show for Saturday Night Live, as well as professional golfers Charley Hoffman, Dean Wilson, Mike Weir and Xander Schauffele, who last fall played an exhibition match at the Goat called the Wishbone Brawl to raise money for the North County Junior Golf Association, which has made Goat Hill its home. He persuaded architect Gil Hanse to design a three-hole kids course there, and with assistance from the NCJGA established a caddie academy at the facility.
It has been four years since Ashworth first thought about saving the Goat, and the place is prospering like never before. “It’s a welcome haven for anyone who plays,” says Chris McGinley, a longtime golf industry executive who lives in Oceanside and is currently the vice president of product for Honma Golf.
And you see everyone up there. Seniors and juniors. Men and women. Old hippies and CPAs. In the parking lot, Teslas and Range Rovers are found next to panel vans with extension ladders stacked on top of their roofs. Ashworth loves the eclectic clientele and has taken to describing the Goat as being “world class and working class.”
One regular is Wilson, a former PGA Tour professional. “Ash did a great job at Goat Hill, and the whole community rallied behind him,” he says. “I go there a few times a week to play and hit balls, often with my 6-year-old son. He loves it up there, and so do I. It’s good for us, and good for golf.”
Nantz, too, is enthralled with what Ashworth has accomplished. “For John, it’s always about the journey, and doing something right and just,” says the broadcaster, who served for several years on the original Ashworth board. “And of all the things he has done, Goat Hill may define him more than any of the others. It’s a confluence of his love for the game and wanting to give back.”
It’s pretty cool, too.
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Top photo: John Ashworth, left, with nephew, partner and Linksoul co-founder Geoff Cunningham. Photo courtesy of John Ashworth
Middle photo: John Ashworth playing as an 11-year-old in the North County Junior Golf Association.
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