John Ashworth on the philosophy of his brand, LINKSOUL

John Ashworth showed up in Chigasaki with shoulder-length silver hair tied back and wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. The man who launched ASHWORTH in 1987 and brought style and a sense of cool to the golf world founded LINKSOUL in Oceanside, California, in 2012 with family and friends. At the same time, he promoted activities to protect a public golf course near LINKSOUL’s headquarters from urban development and kept it alive as Goat Hill Park, which is now an essential part of the community as a place where people can interact in more ways than just playing golf.

GDO President & CEO Mike Ishizaka has also visited Goat Hill Park several times, but he said he never had a chance to talk with Mr. Ashworth at length. This interview came to be after a GDO employee happened to board a plane next to him. When she told Mr. Ashworth about GDO and its activities in Chigasaki, he expressed interest, saying, “I would definitely like to stop by if I ever get to Japan.” On a certain day in April, the two men talked face-to-face in the clubhouse of GDO Chigasaki Golf Links.

John Ashworth visiting Chigasaki

Ashworth: This place is great. At least it's got all the ingredients. A beautiful land for a golf course. Great old clubhouse, so close to the beach. The surf club, the golf club, the dog club, yoga, parties, weddings. Everything a community needs is to just have fun and recreation and socializing and exercise. You know, just healthy and happy lifestyle.

Ishizaka:  This is the first time I've had the opportunity to talk to you personally, so what I would like to ask is where did the idea come from for reviving Goat Hill Park, not only for golfers, but also for all those who wished to see it survive?

Ashworth: Well for me, I grew up in the area, and then I play golf since I was 8 or 9 years old. I actually played there as a kid, junior golf tournaments and stuff. But the golf course that I grew up on, it's gone now. I've played high school golf course, that's gone. It could be for economic reasons, water restrictions and greedy developers, but all of a sudden, those green spaces are no longer there. So, it was like a perfect storm. I was living in Carlsbad and we started LINKSOUL in Oceanside. We started playing Goat Hill Park, which was what's called Center City Golf Course before. 

I happen to get my degree in agronomy which is turf grass. So I had a background in turf. And I was always interested in golf course design. I was thinking in my mind as I played, “If I change this area, it will be better.” I had fantasized about making golf accessible to everyone and using a golf course not just for golf, but for other forms of recreation and community like what you are doing here. It was like a petri dish, test lab for what can golf be. It's such a large outdoor space that can be utilized for so many things.

Talking together at GDO Chigasaki Golf Links

Ishizaka:  When I started GDO Chigasaki Golf Links, one thing I made clear was that it should not be managed by one individual or one company. As with Goat Hill Park, I wanted to work with the local and surrounding communities so that it could be managed with their support. When I read articles about Goat Hill Park, I found them incredibly helpful.

Ashworth:  First of all, it's got to be economically sustainable, right? You have to find a model that sustains. We have to ensure course maintenance, lighting, and infrastructure. And then, I always took the attitude that we were sort of the Switzerland of golf. Whoever wants to help us whether it's Callaway or Titleist, or TaylorMade, we're not excluding anyone. 

It's funny in the golf business because being that close to Carlsbad, there's a lot of golf companies there, they don't really share, they don't really get along with (people from different companies). But Goat Hill Park is a place that can all come to and feel comfortable. They can be there at the same time and they can play in the same group and they don't have to be worried about. Isn't it cool to be able to socialize with your enemy? I feel like I'm a missionary to try to spread golf to more people and this is why I started Goat Hill Park. I think it's just for the betterment of humanity. Golf's a great game for humanity in my opinion.

Ashworth looking around the facilities adjacent to GDO Chigasaki Golf Links

In 1997, ASHWORTH rose to become the number one golf brand in the United States (Darrell Survey). With a market share of over 10%, it was the best-known golf brand for people under 30, and worn by 25% of the best U.S. players (handicap 0 to 5). However, around the same time, Mr. Ashworth left the company due to philosophical differences, and after several projects, he established a new brand, LINKSOUL, in 2012.

Ashworth: I was 26 or 27 when I started ASHWORTH. I had been playing golf my whole life, and back then, golf was not considered cool, you know? Like I didn't tell people I played golf. I grew up in Southern California, where surf culture was big, and so the clothing for surf was way cooler than the golf. The college uniforms I played in were terrible... I started ASHWORTH because I thought golf fashion at the time gave golf proportionally bad name for younger people.

Ishizaka: I'm a little younger than you. Until the early 90s, clothing and gear made in the U.S. were all cool. Japanese companies started to get a little bigger in the 90s, but the dollar was still high in the 80s, and brands such as Titleist, TaylorMade, and ASHWORTH were only available in limited places in Japan and not easily accessible.

Ashworth: At the time, we were a public company. We had grown big and I was probably a little burnt out at that time. I've been starting to go to Scotland for inspiration and just I found a piece of land that I thought could be developed. It was originally two golf courses that had disappeared. They were built back in the 1800s and was right next to the home of The Honorable Company (of Edinburgh Golfers =Muirfield). So I felt like if we could bring those courses back, and have a global headquarters. Maybe I was too crazy in the board of directors. Yeah. Okay. That was one of the differences. By the way, those two golf courses are there right now (the Renaissance Club), where the Scottish Open is played.

The other difference was the fact that we brought in somebody to help us run the company. And it's a typical thing where they want to do all these changes, which I wasn't really in agreement. One of them was to make the product cheap using less quality materials to take the margins better. That was probably the biggest one really. I was then 37, 38 years old and I just wasn't waking up in the morning excited. You know, too many days of that. So, I decided I need to make a change. It wasn't easy. but I don't regret it. If I didn't, I wouldn't be sitting here like this right now.

What path will you take in the future?

Ishizaka:  What does the newly launched LINKSOUL mean to you? And what is the ultimate goal of this brand?

Ashworth:  That’s a good question. It's been 10 years since we started, and it's been a constant evolution. It's a difficult business, it's been going good but It’s always challenging. I want us to grow steadily and make good quality products. From a product philosophy standpoint, it's more using really good fabrics and a softer color palette, not as loud bright one. That's my own personal taste. In today's world, we think that you can wake up in the morning and you can go through your work, go play, go have a drink afterwards and you don't have to go change every time you do it. It's very transitional and comfortable. I won't say it’s a fashion, let's say of style. It has to do with the confidence and it's not really what you wear, it's how you wear it.

I don't really try to plan too far out in advance. It's just like peeling back the layers of an onion. I mean if you get hit by golf then you're constantly learning about yourself. It's a meditation really. Definitely golf has a capacity to drive you crazy and I feel like it's a metaphor of something in life.

Ishizaka:  How did you come up with the brand name?

Ashworth:  The name came from the book. It's called The Kingdom of Shivas Irons. There's a line in it like “golf is what links the soul to the flesh”. That's kind of cool. I just like the meaning of “link”, I love links golf courses. I'm a pretty spiritual person and I feel like golf has the ability to link souls together. Four strangers show up, get paired together, and go through the ups and downs of playing golf. By the end of the day, they get to know each other and could become friends for life. I just love that part of the game.

Our vision of “enriching lives through golf” overlaps.

The LINKSOUL website states: LINKSOUL is more of a philosophy than a brand. More of an experience than a clothing company. LINKSOUL is the collective life’s work of people who care about each other and enjoy collaborating. We believe in creating products we value, with the people we love, for the good of our families and our community.

Mr. Ashworth, who describes himself as a spiritual person, is not afraid to hold pure ideals. His passion evokes John Lennon, who once sang in Imagine: “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us.”

In July 2023, GDO began handling LINKSOUL products. It was not simply to sell their golf apparel; it was because GDO found LINKSOUL had a lot in common with their philosophy. This philosophy is about “enriching lives through golf,” “bringing golf to more people,” and sharing this message as widely as possible. That is the mission we hope to accomplish with LINKSOUL.



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