Rethinking golf carts

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If golf carts aren’t the worst thing to happen to the game, they are certainly the most consequential. Golf has not been the same since motorized vehicles – buggies, in European parlance – became commonplace in the 1960s. It took a decade for them to gain a foothold following their introduction after World War II. At first, their deployment was limited, with clubs only having a handful and limiting their availability to medical cases. Golfers walked. Caddies accompanied them. Or players toted their own bag, sometimes on their shoulder, otherwise via an unobtrusive cart.

It’s now common for facilities to have a fleet of 60 or 80 carts. Caddies have virtually disappeared. In order to adapt to the proliferation of carts, clubs laid 8- or 10-foot wide paved paths throughout their grounds. Architects got spoiled by the ability to rely on carts in solving their routing deficiencies. Or they simply used carts as a convenience in stretching out golf holes to maximize lot frontage.

The biggest myth of cart use is that it contributes to increased pace of play. This is nonsense. Golfers who regularly walk play fast. We have seen a dramatic uptick in pace of play the last few months when many golfers were walking. Carts breed bad golf habits, including being out of position and wasting time.

Carts have also allowed some seniors and others less capable of sustained walking to enjoy the game as a lifetime endeavor. But there’s been considerable cost that often goes unstated when facility managers tout the financial upside of cart revenue. My own sense is that the money flowing into the clubhouse coffers does not adequately take into account the costs to the golf course borne by the maintenance shop. The wear and tear take a considerable toll that simply gets chalked up against the superintendent’s budget.

Then there’s the recklessness of some drivers. The worst is the practice of fourball groups with four carts because “it’s quicker” or the way in which carts, even when doubled up, divert from designated paths. The stop-start action of wheels has a terrible grinding impact on turfgrass. Despite the best (and admirable) efforts of cart manufacturers to reduce PSI, they end up doing serious damage to the grounds.

There’s hope, however. After decades of listening to one-sided, distorted odes to the business virtues and necessity of golf carts, courses were filled with walkers over this last few months. Private clubs let folks carry their own golf bags or pull/push them around on two- or three-wheeled carts.

It wasn’t just an ideal spring season of weather that helped courses across the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest to come back from winter looking better than ever. The virtual absence of golf carts enabled many courses to look – and play – great. With golf back in some form in all 50 states and across North America (and more cautiously, across Europe), we are seeing a new pattern. More people are walking.

Let’s not lose that momentum. Now, more than ever, superintendents can help define reasonable cart use polices. While more folks are walking, there is also the simultaneous threat of more cart traffic than ever. Running solo carts isn’t nearly as profitable as running carts that are doubled up. There are much-heightened maintenance costs such as disinfecting, storing and recharging. There’s the additional burden of traffic impact on turf. Clubs that seek to meet demand for carts by leasing or buying more vehicles are, by definition, taking on more expense and debt.

Here are some alternative policies moving forward:

  • Raise rates on cart users
  • Limit cart use to certain periods of time after the first two to three hours of tee times when turf is drier and cart damage is less likely
  • Private clubs can limit cart use to medically-certified members
  • Public facilities should have a separate rate for cart use rather than one, all-inclusive fee that folds in the (optional) use of cart
  • Where continuous cart paths exist, limit cart use to that path, with exceptions granted only upon presentation of a medical certificate
  • Place limits on two solo carts per group, with option for (additional) bags to be carried on the cart but only the one rider allowed and all social distancing rules in place for the cart throughout the round
  • Facilities should make pull/push carts available to golfers at low or no cost

Some of this will prove unpopular. As we have learned from the last few months, many more golfers will walk than had originally self-reported. Pace of play does not suffer when people walk. When people walk, the course gains. Golfers gain. The whole game gains.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter (@BradleySKlein).