By  on July 23, 2008

How do an emerging pro golfer like Ryuji Imada and a heritage brand like Lacoste hook up?

For Imada — the 31-year-old who has run up to 57th in the world rankings this year from 160th in January — comfort was paramount. At a lean 5 feet, 8 inches and 150 pounds, Imada didn’t want “clothes with long sleeves that hung off him,” said Jeremy Elliot, director of golf at Career Sports & Entertainment, the Atlanta-based agency that signed the golfer to a two-year, six-figure endorsement deal with Lacoste. “He doesn’t want his golf apparel to be too loose, tight or restrictive,” Elliot continued. “There’s a good selection of small and extra-small shirts, which was important. He’s interested in a form-fitting, European style.”

The arrangement, which began in January, also reflects Lacoste’s search for athletes such as Imada to represent the values the company aims to imbue in its brand — “tenacity, elegance, fair play and, most important of all, heart,” Philippe Darbis, sports marketing director at Lacoste, said.

To encourage Imada to wear Lacoste sportswear when he’s not golfing, the brand has given him a clothing allowance “in the neighborhood of $25,000 to $30,000 over the two-year period,” Elliot said. “I don’t think they’d scoff if he wanted more. They brought two bags of clothes for him and his wife to the British Open [last week], with hats, knits, handbags and small pieces of luggage.” (Imada missed the cut by two strokes, at 11 over par.)

Following a one-year trial of wearing the crocodile styles and considering other possible apparel endorsements, including Polo Ralph Lauren, Dunhill and Under Armour, Imada chose Lacoste, whose offer also provides bonuses for top-15 tournament finishes. A deal stopper with Under Armour, for one, was its ban on affixing other logos to its golf shirts. Imada is wearing the logo of Aflac, which does significant business in Japan, on the right sleeve of his tournament shirts, and had been wearing it on the Zoi golfwear he’d donned prior to the pact with Lacoste. Lacoste’s restriction was one the golf pro could live with: no logo on a shirt’s right breast, opposite the brand’s signature crocodile.

The performance wear Imada is endorsing is weighted to shirts and outerwear, with a smattering of sweaters tossed in. He’s free to select his own shoes, socks and slacks for golf and he has a few pairs of Lacoste pants in his wardrobe. Imada has a taste for the slim fitting, silver crocodile polos, in particular, Elliot said, noting “He tries to get as many as possible when new ones come out.”

Wearing Lacoste apparently suits Japan’s rising star. So far this season, Imada notched his first win on the PGA tour in May at the AT&T Classic in Duluth, Ga., following second-place finishes earlier this year at the Buick Open (behind Tiger Woods) in San Diego and at the PODS Championship in Tampa (behind one of his British Open partners, Sean O’Hair.) Imada is seventh on the 2008 PGA Tour’s money list, a steep ascent from his ranking of 65th in 2007, when he had PGA Tour winnings of $1.4 million, according to the golfer’s official Web site.

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