The first time I met Michael Huynh in person, I’d just finished a round at one of southern California’s most beloved short golf courses, affectionately referred to as Ben Brown’s but now technically named “The Ranch at Laguna Beach.”
Wrapping up, I grabbed my phone out of my bag to discover an invitation of sorts. “Bomb ass chicken!!” reads the text from Huynh, along with an address. Zero questions later, I cruised up Highway 1 towards a family-owned Mediterranean joint in a strip mall in Costa Mesa. Waiting outside was the poet laureate of modern golf style. The founder of Students Golf, one of the more exciting golf brands to enter the space in the past half decade.
This isn't Huynh's first rodeo. In 2009, at 24 years old, he started Publish, a highly successful streetwear brand most would credit with popularising the jogger pant. With nine years in the industry, business was good but Huynh was not. “I stopped enjoying clothing for a very, very long time. Just got too big, too fast, too many people,” he says. “I ended up troubleshooting every day.” On one of those days, Huynh excused himself to his office and had a seizure. He was rushed to the ER and diagnosed with hypertension. His physical therapist later suggested he give golf a shot.
Huynh credits the sport with saving his life, his career and his love of design. It’s a sentiment new golfers are hearing a lot about lately. But the concept is nothing new to the golf gods. I’ve read stories about guys whose doctors prescribe golf as a remedy following injuries that curtail their engagement in more physically demanding activities. I’ve personally credited the sport with serving as my primary religion and therapy. Huynh is sure he wouldn’t be here without it. “I promised myself that when I started Students I was going to have fun again.”
Huynh became obsessed with golf and has fallen back in love with design. This resulted in staying up all night designing clothes. Just coming up with the ingenious phrases that he plasters all over them is just another fun part of the gig.
Some of these phrases, like “Dew Sweepers” or “Short Game Maestro” for instance, are familiar to golfers. Other ideas, like a circle of players standing around a guy laying on the ground with the word “INTERVENTION” plastered in all caps, represents a familiar feeling in golf. The rest of the shirt reads, “If you lay up too often, we lay you to rest.”
“We actually mean it when we say we’re students. And we're here to help other students," Huynh told me over Zoom last month. “That's the fun side of it to me, the brand-building and storytelling. It felt like a lot of golf brands don’t tell stories enough through their graphics and maybe that's because they’ve established their brand around a certain monogram, a logo, a certain icon, a certain character. It's hard for them to go out and do weird shit like a shirt with a ‘Pace of Play Officer’ on it.”
Every time Students drops something new—which feels increasingly frequent over the past year—there are always a few moments of storytelling that stop me in my tracks. I’m talking a-ha and ha-ha moments alike. At the chicken shop, he tells me about “Municians,” a proper noun he invented (and trademarked, among others) referring to those of us who frequent municipal golf courses, as opposed to the private country club. Another shirt reads, in wavy text that instantly signals the wallowing stress anyone who sucks a putting can relate to, “I can’t feel the undulations!!”
Huynh is making clothing for golfers who’ve felt that. The brand’s messaging finds poetic and lyrical ways to express the common frustrations and elations that occur between the first and 18th holes of any given round. The clothing speaks to the everyman golfer. It speaks to those not flaunting a single-digit handicap or waving their member number around for all to see. It’s not that Huynh is anti-club—he’s a member at two—he just relates a little more to the people outside of their walls. So much so it recently got him kicked out of one for repeatedly ignoring its dress codes. His alleged crimes included wearing pants that were too cropped, as well as foregoing a belt.
Knowing this, it’s easier to see the particular experience threaded throughout Students’ offering. It’s not that Students doesn’t produce Club-Approved clothing. The brand carries polos with proper collars, among other common golf garments cut from proprietary patterns. But you won’t find anything that isn’t speaking to you face-to-face. Quiet Luxury is not a course taught at Students HQ. If you’re wearing one of the brand's polos to a club, everyone will know it.
“You know what’s crazy? I went to the PGA Show, and saw a swarm of young, 17 to 24-year-olds wearing the same fucking uniform,” Huynh says. “That same uniform is what the old guys are wearing: Tan khakis, white performance polos, and a navy blazer with black shoes. Why are they dressing this way? Because they've been told that in order for you to become an industry person, look like a ‘pro.’ This is the oven and this is how we're going to bake you. And it sucks. It sucks.”
Huynh is still going to wear an elastic waistband that fits him, sans belt, whenever he wants. But rather than a middle finger to the poorly dressed, ageing Caucasians who kicked him out of the club, he’d rather create something to counter that discrimination.
“I think that's what I want to tell the world," he says. "We're not just a clothing brand. We're really, really a process in the making. I want all golfers to know that there is a space for them with us, for sure.”