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Custom Golf Shoes

Balls sail farther, clothes fit better: New materials and technology have undoubtedly improved the game. But when it comes to footwear, argues Gary Fisketjon, golfers should take a step back.

While no golfer I know would insist on using a persimmon driver anymore, since the ever-evolving technology produces clubs even a moron can hit better shots with, it nonetheless puzzles me that when it comes to shoes everyone happily slips on new ones nowhere near as good as those we wore decades ago—namely white calfskin-and-green patent-leather FootJoys. In 1972, I received a pair as a high school graduation present at what seemed an astronomically high cost. Nowadays these shoes might sound like something out of Superfly, but back then I could play—which never hurts—and fashions for the course ranged from the ridiculous (Amana hats, white belts) to the sublime (thanks to Doug Sanders, whose eye for color made him the Liberace of the PGA Tour). At any rate, FootJoys saw me through two years of college golf, during which I made my way through some of California's finest courses with stylish assurance, especially when I paired the shoes with slacks whose green-and-red plaid over white wasn't, please believe me, Christmasy in the least. Into the next decade the sixties still lived.

Golf shoes are certainly cheaper now, but forget about style, which has eroded considerably from those glory days. Today's offerings are formless, rubbery-looking things only a Joe Friday could love or even sandals, the absolute nadir. My first rule on the footwear is that it shouldn't be crafted from materials so light you might as well be wearing slippers. A solid leather shoe with a durable leather sole roots you to the course (if you can't lift your feet for 18 holes then climb aboard another abomination, the golf cart). Steve Elkington, the superb Australian who won the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera—and made another thrilling run for the Wanamaker trophy this August at Baltusrol—seconds this point in his book Five Fundamentals: "I do like heavy leather shoes....I want my feet in the ground; I want to feel anchored. If they made shoes with longer spikes I'd wear them, because then I could build more torque and leverage in my swing."

Seeing real metal spikes outlawed in recent years was bad enough; so-called soft cleats don't provide much traction or that satisfying clicking sound when you walk across stone or concrete around the clubhouse, though they have spared greens from the slew-footed marauders. Yet to "incorporate automotive technologies" into golf shoes—as FootJoy has just done with its new GF: II—strikes me as risible, even if Vijay Singh did win the Wachovia tournament wearing a pair. What a player really wants is a shoe that suits his or her taste and preferences, not "wishbone suspension."

After hearing these constant complaints, my wife leapt to the rescue, or so she thought, with a pair of golf shoes from Walter Steiger, on Park Avenue in New York City. Though they are admittedly handsome and costly, the rubber sole is, alas, too lightweight for my taste. Even so, they are beautifully crafted out of tan pebbled leather and definitely a step in the right direction; I wear them still. Steiger has another extremely attractive pair, white bucks with leather soles, but these also feel light to me and are even more ridiculously expensive, especially for something off the shelf. Strange, too, that they come from Switzerland, none of whose cantons is known for golf. Then my wife delivered the coup de grâce, arranging to have shoes made to measure for me, in whatever style and leather I'd like, right in Manhattan.

Just a block north of Canal on Howard Street, E. Vogel Custom Boots and Shoes has been housed in the same building since 1969. Now in its fourth generation, this enterprise was launched in 1879 by Egidius Vogel, who introduced the low-cut wing tip to the Wall Street crowd after horse traffic ceased and newly paved streets could be safely navigated without the benefit of high-tops. As you approach the shop, it seems as if you're entering a different century. The sign out front is suitably antique, though modernity is announced by rival postings: LEARN ENGLISH and COMMERCIAL SPACE FOR RENT. I felt vaguely like Bartleby the Scrivener as I stared through the window at the rows of riding boots and shoes. Once inside, a fabulous feline named Boots entertained me while I marveled at the selection and weighed my options.

Jackie Onassis had her riding boots made here as did General John Pershing. This is also where Texas A&M gets footwear for its senior corp of cadets. For my purposes, I could've chosen from the more than three dozen styles on display, almost all of which can be adapted for golf. Among them are the elegant Soho, the raffish Spectator, the classic Baltusrol, the straightforward Woodlawn, and the slip-on Hamilton (the latter, again, too light for me, with a modern crepe sole I wouldn't trust, and the very idea of not lacing up seems odd). I also could have brought in my old FootJoys for copying purposes, or a design of my own.

The craftsmen at Vogel begin by creating a handmade last—in effect, a model of your feet fashioned from wood or plastic. This is stored on the premises (I winced when I spotted a box labeled with a certain ex-boss's name) and future designs can be produced from it at $200 less than the $850 you spend on the initial pair. After measuring, the staff asks you to select the materials. Most Vogel leather is imported from France, Italy, and England. Hides from young calves are particularly prized because they are supple and unmarred, but more expensive ostrich, alligator, and lizard are also available, as is cordovan, which I was surprised to learn is literally from a horse's ass. To paw through rolls of hide in every hue and finish imaginable is, for anyone with a tactile appreciation or sense of smell, nearly overwhelming.

So is the guildsman ethic. The men who operate the antique cutting and stitching machines at Vogel know what they're about and it's fascinating to watch them work. Store manager Jack Lynch assisted me while I decided on the top (for golf, suede makes poor sense while imported calfskin is suitably supple), the sole (moisture-resistant leather, of course), and even the thickness of the sole and how much of it I wanted to see from above (enough to know it's there, not enough to distract me from a yard-long putt). How many eyes did I want for the laces? Six on each side seemed about right. Then he guided me through the stages, from cutting the pattern on paper and leather to stitching the pieces together to shaping it over the last and finally turning it all into a shoe, one at a time—a process truly from a previous century.

Lynch is highly qualified in these deliberations: Egidius was his great-grandfather, and his grandfather joined the company at the age of 15, running it with his mother until Lynch's uncles took over in the mid-sixties. After driving myself crazy with all the choices, I selected the Palmer for its simple, throwback charm, then picked white calfskin for the body of the shoe and the only hide left of a beautiful green leather from Italy for the heel trim, saddles, and lining.

Clients' names are handwritten on the inside of Vogel shoe tongues; when I received my pair 12 weeks after my first measurement, I realized that every time I notice this I'll want to wish Jack and his colleagues—not to mention the next generation at the shop—a long, successful life, because it is certain I'll never play a round with anyone wearing spikes (as we used to call them) that feel and fit and work better than mine. I first pulled them on right out of the box (so amazingly supple as to be instantly wearable) in Salem, Oregon, at my hometown's most venerable tournament, the Capital City Amateur. Since 1960 it has attracted a strong field—208 players this year—from the Willamette Valley and beyond.

Laced up, I felt suitably stylish as I ripped opening drives in front of the onlookers watching from Salem Golf Club's lovely veranda, a prospect daunting for the faint of heart or undershod. My friend Jim Fitzsimons, of an illustrious local golfing clan and a member of my group, ended up with the winning net score in our senior division first flight, but at least my shoes ruled even as I stepped off this historic course—the fairways are lined with massive firs, spruces, and cottonwoods, with various deciduous trees throughout and an apple orchard smack in the middle—a distant also-ran. My motto: If you don't play well, try to look as if you could have; in these beautiful green saddle shoes I do, and they'll only get better looking with age. If anyone ever questions how they look, well, that's strictly my own fault.

At 19 Howard St., New York City; 212-925-2460; www.vogelboots.com.