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  • Connor Laubenstein

What’s in a Name? 50 Years of Jones Bags From a Taxi Cab

//As published in Random Golf Club//

In the early 1970s, George Jones trundled his little yellow taxi down the streets of a still-sleepy Portland, Oregon. But rather than scouring the sidewalks in search of fares, Jones drove aimlessly, his mind feverishly toying with new invention concepts. The driving gig was just a means to an end, while he tinkered with fanny packs and other product designs.

The eureka moment for Jones came when he noticed a major gap in the golf bag industry. Everyone from professional golfers down to casual weekend players carried behemoth leather “staffies”: the kind of bag you’d see a caddie carrying today on tour. The reliance on caddies ensured that the pros didn’t even need to lift their hefty bags, but for the average player—and more so the high school and collegiate golfers—there was room for a slimmer, lighter silhouette.

Jones didn’t look any further than his taxi’s backseat to find the leather needed to build a sample: he stripped the cushions, shaped a lightweight bag, and Jones Sports Co. was in business. His taxicab doubled as the company’s first sales floor; starting in 1971, Jones notoriously peddled his leather wares from the trunk, in between rides.

Still rooted in Portland, the single-strap golf bag evangelists at Jones recently celebrated their 50-year anniversary with a commemorative line of bags and apparel. The new products reinterpret the company’s classics: a Trouper stand bag, and an iconic single-strap carry bag, the aptly-named Original. Characteristically minimal, the bags still sport Jonesian features: buckles and pockets everywhere, a twisted handle, a “pig nose” patch. The light touches of yellow throughout the collection are an ode to George Jones and his taxicab.

Jones CEO, Matt Lemman, says these bags that hearken to the company’s roots are also nod to “the futuristic look of the company; where we’re heading.” Another drop scheduled for this summer will memorialize the Jones history more explicitly; a history packed with highs and lows.

Ever the inventor, George Jones also created the first stand bag, and by the 1980s, the company controlled upwards of 90 percent market share. This was due, in large part, to big equipment manufacturers like Titleist and Ping being slow to venture into the bag game. But in the ‘90s, Jones forked the company over to a foreign holder who, according to Lemman, “ran it into the side of a mountain.”

By the late aughts, Lemman—a Portland native himself—felt nostalgic for afternoon rounds as a junior golfer with his Jones bag slung over his shoulder. He’d seen the decline of this hometown business, and in 2012 scooped up the Jones Sports Co. name alongside his father, brother, and current partner Chris Carnahan.

Huddled around a computer screen, the fledgling business partners studied the eBay listing in front of them: an Original Jones bag. With a successful bid, they got their hands on one of the few remaining Jones bags of yore, and got to work. Their mission? Replicate what made the first Jones design so successful all those years ago, and administer a much-needed branding facelift.

“We hit the PGA Merchandise show with our first bag in 2012, and it’s been nonstop since then,” Lemman says. “We already had the brand awareness of 40- and 50-year-olds who played with Jones bags through high school and college, so our main job was convincing the millennials that this old-school look and feel was interesting and different.”

Call it clairvoyance, call it damn lucky — the “new” Jones Sports Co. launched right alongside the proliferation of Instagram. “The kids were hungry for brands with a cool backstory, and the platform let us connect with them through imagery.” The team had pocket aces: a rich brand history, and the marketing chops to reinterpret that story for the modern golfer. Today, golfers’ Instagrams with Jones’ bags set the comment sections ablaze: “What bag is that,” “Where do I buy,” and “NEED!!!”

Nine years and innumerable products sold later, the Jones name has been properly restored to its former glory. The company’s attitude mirrors that of its bags: laid back, functional, but acutely detailed. The recipe has made Jones synonymous with the stylish image of what some lazily term “woke golf”, or, more accurately: a revived respect for the game and the golf course, an admiration of walking and the outdoors, a deep love of camaraderie.

While the company’s wholesale business has been hurt like any other in the pandemic, Lemman says direct to consumer channels are thriving. “While people are hesitant to head into a golf shop and buy products, you’ve got a ton of folks sitting on their couch at home.” And the millions of extra rounds of golf in 2020 surely didn’t hurt either.

Now, Lemman and his team are in full “carry on” mode as they march closer to their next drop in July. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re continuing to instill George’s traditions, and maintaining the simplicity that people have come to love from Jones.” When asked if a taxi cab is a good metaphor for golf, Lemman said, “Yeah! Golf’s a game of runs, and we’re all just trying to get a ride.”

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