Lifestyle

Eastside Golf Interview With Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper

The PGA Show, golf’s largest trade fair, can be a little intimidating. Almost every golf product and service under the sun ends up under the same roof’s 2,100,000 square feet.

Then there are the people, a mixture of golf professionals sorting their merchandise for the upcoming season and buyers at big-box retailers in blue blazer and khaki pants uniforms. It’s a good survey of what the golf industry looks like country-wide.

Now imagine two young men arriving in Orlando to market their new streetwear-inspired golf brand, its logo depicting the founder swinging a club with a Cuban link-chain flying off his neck. That was the position that Eastside Golf founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper found themselves in 2020. Four years later, they returned with one of the most impressive booths on the floor. It wasn’t the largest, but unlike others, it was open to the public and welcomed newcomers and hardcore golfers alike. Since then, Eastside Golf has won legions of fans by way of collaborations with Jordan Brand that have put sneakerheads and streetwear enthusiasts on notice. Ajanaku and Cooper themselves are long-time golfers who played varsity golf together at Morehouse College, and they both strongly feel the brand can maintain its street appeal while widening its reach to endemic retailers and players.

That January in 2020 was an important month for the brand as it served as their large-scale debut, but January 18, 2024, was even more important for its growth as Eastside closed a seeding round led by EP Golf Ventures, an investment partnership between the PGA of America and Elysian Park Ventures (affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers). It’s a key investment as the brand looks to expand its influence in 2024 and beyond.

Hypegolf caught up with Ajanaku and Cooper in Orlando last week to discuss the PGA Show, their new partnership and their plans going forward.

In the Hulu docuseries Grails you two spoke about coming to the PGA Show for the first time in 2020 and trying to get noticed. Now that you’ve come back here with this large booth, does it feel like a full circle moment?

Olajuwon Ajanaku: Yeah, definitely full circle. I remember starting a brand and getting to a point, I was just like “Earl, we gotta take this down to the PGA Show. We gotta see what the regular world thinks about it. We gotta see what the golf world thinks about it.” It definitely feels like two separate worlds, you know? The golf world feels like corporate America, so changing that over time is our goal.

Earl Cooper: And as a PGA professional, I’ve been coming here for 10 plus years but I’ve never really seen a booth that connects with me as an individual. We’ve been telling our community that our booth is a place to hang out. We want people to come and chill, relax. We got the music going, it’s the only booth that has two entrances, we have 12 foot walls. It’s very open and inviting, and people are just making their way in.

And I guess I’ll say, coming down here now, I started off here four years ago. I had a book bag with about 10 sweatshirts and I was just walking around. So to go from that to now four years later, being here with a whole booth with the same sweatshirt is crazy.

“If you make great clothing, the consumer will determine what they like and what they don’t like, and we refuse to be boxed in.” – Earl Cooper

You mentioned this show can have a corporate feel, and obviously wholesale is a big priority. But at the same time, Eastside Golf has this strong fashion identity. So how do you balance these two sides of the brand?

EC: We just try to make great clothing, just make dope sh*t is what we like to say. If you make great clothing, the consumer will determine what they like and what they don’t like, and we refuse to be boxed in.

That’s probably our biggest challenge now, opening people’s minds and fighting them from putting us in a box. That’s all they keep trying to do. Like, “you’re the Black brand,” or “you’re the cool brand.” No, we make clothes and they’re for everybody.

Earl, you mentioned being a PGA professional. How does it feel to get this investment from the PGA of America and Elysian Park Ventures?

EC: Yeah being a PGA professional, I’m certainly happy that they came around. Because I can remember just being excited about Eastside and calling them like, “yo, this is something real. We’re working with the NBA. What’s up? We’re working with MLB. What’s up?” I always wanted it, but at the same time we weren’t going to compromise who we are, our integrity, morals, and values.

So it feels good because the people who see us and interact with us, they can see we’re the same guys that were walking around with the book bag. Just because we got the booth, that doesn’t mean we’ve changed.

“There are more golfers coming up now who share our story. You know, not being able to afford pro golf, struggling through the PGA school and getting all the way to the top.” – Olajuwon Ajanaku

And how does that investment enable what you have coming in the pipeline?

OA: Definitely structure wise within the business, being able to hire more people, being able to afford the new office that we have and just expanding. And beyond that, just being able to buy even more SKUs. That’s what the money’s for: research and development and really putting in the time into figuring out how we can make golf look different.

And on top of that, still supporting HBCU golf. Supporting NIL deals if we want to sign somebody next year, and with the women’s line coming out, we might sign a women golfer this year. So just being intentional with the money is what’s going to lead us down the right path.

EC: And then I would add, we weren’t searching for it, but it is a form of validation. We knew what we were doing from the beginning, as far as the vision is concerned, but it’s a natural thing for the world to wonder if it’s legit. But now people see we aren’t going anywhere. We’re setting the pace and we’re merging into that space and people are respecting the brand now.

Continuing that theme, smaller brands have been in the news recently, for example with Malbon Golf signing Jason Day. We know you have a partnership with Wyatt Worthington II, but are there other players who you feel align with the brand?

OA: There are other people that could align with the brand, but we see them as more of the up and coming golfers. You can publish this, we definitely put in our bid for Tiger Woods. He was a free agent and we definitely put in our bid but we came up a little short. But he knows about Eastside Golf, his whole team knows about Eastside Golf.

But we just want to continue to be authentic and tell a story from our perspective. There are more golfers coming up now who share our story. You know, not being able to afford pro golf, struggling through the PGA school and getting all the way to the top. So as long as we continue to be authentic, I think those golfers who believe in culture and believe in non-tradition will find their way to the brand.

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