Getting Around the Course

I’ve always been intrigued by the logistics of navigating the golf course.  A typical 18-hole golf course of 7,000+/- yards constitutes roughly 4 miles, plus the distance between greens and tees and the less than direct straight line most of us travel to complete play.  Thus, if you figure that one travels around 5 miles to play 18-holes a decision has to be made regarding how to get oneself (and their golf clubs) around the course.

There are two fundamental choices:  Walk or Ride.  However simple that may seem, today there are numerous options, each of which involve consideration of exercise desired, fitness, physical stress, cost and tradition.

Golf is traditionally a walking game. In Scotland where the game was invented it’s rare to observe a motorized golf cart with players riding the course.  In the US, however, golf has been inundated with the golf cart.  The National Golf Foundation says that approximately 2/3 of golfers in the United States ride carts.  Originally, golf carts were introduced in 1932, but widespread use didn’t occur until the 1950’s.  Golf carts were traditionally reserved for those with physical disabilities who couldn’t walk the distances required of a round of golf. Nowadays, golfers who prefer a more leisurely experience, without the need to lug a bag of clubs and accessories weighing more than 25 lbs. around the course, use carts.  At some courses their use is required.

With golf course development booms in the 1960’s and 1990’s, many courses were built as part of real estate developments and designed to accommodate homes overlooking the course.  Accordingly, maximizing golf front lots became the primary focus and there was often great distance between greens and the following hole’s teeing area.  Golf carts also became a recognized source of revenue for clubs, with golfers now paying anywhere from $15 to $35 for use of a motorized golf cart.  Some courses require the use of a golf cart and it doesn’t take high level mathematics to understand why.  To revenue starved clubs that annually host just 20,000 rounds, a $20 cart fee means $400,000 in annual revenues.  The annual cost of leasing a fleet of 70 carts is typically $70,000+/- so the profit is significant.

Many (including me) believe that walking is an integral part of golf and allows the proper pace of the game.  To those who choose (when permitted) to walk the course, there are several options available.

  • Caddies – Some private clubs and resorts still maintain strong caddie programs.  In addition to the career loopers, caddying often provides summer work opportunities for youngsters and the chance to interact with often successful club members who may help provide career opportunities in the future.  Caddies can be expensive, often ranging from $80 to $100 per bag, or more, but offer (presumably) a companion who knows the course, can assist the player and sometimes provide comic entertainment.  Many career caddies are part of a unique culture that travel with the warm weather seeking work year round.  They often have names like “Slim”, “Brownie”, “Sweet”, “Beefy” and my all-time favorite “Goop” and are some of the more interesting characters you’ll encounter.  The preponderance of caddies has declined as golf cart usage has increased, but many clubs, especially more established, traditional clubs have maintained strong caddie programs.
  • Carrying/”Hoofing It” – To some, there is a romantic element to playing the game with a bag on your back as eloquently and regularly described by Lee Pace in Random Walks.  As a lifelong walker and advocate of walking the course, I’m always intrigued by Lee’s words, but as the years go by the wear on my back and shoulders of carrying my bag becomes more significant.  I often will venture out with just 8 or 9 clubs, which reduces the weight significantly and provides the added benefit of game improvement by forcing the player to learn distance control and shot-making.  My scores don’t seem to vary when I play with a limited set of clubs.  It is easier on the back, and carrying adds no cost to the round while providing the exercise components.  For sure, today’s double strap bags balance out the stress on one’s back and shoulders but still burden the player with 25+ lbs.

“Walking Wheels”

  • Push/Pull Carts – Trolleys, as push/pull carts are known as in Scotland are a cost effective option for golfers who choose not to carry their bag.  Some golfers have their own trolleys and others will rent the club’s carts.  While not a big revenue producer for the club, some revenue is available and it’s a cheaper option for the golfer.  One can typically purchase a push/pull cart for $200 to $500 (or less) and relieve themselves of the carry.  Renting a trolley at most clubs is $10 or less per round.  Typically, those carts available for personal purchase and use are light, foldable and relatively easy to use.  Many found for rent at golf courses are heavy, “industrial” type units that are often not well-maintained and can be more trouble than they’re worth.  Trolleys (especially the good ones) do represent some physical relief to the golfer but still create pressure on the golfer’s back and shoulders, especially when ascending terrain and considering the forward reaching position required to push or the backward reaching position required to pull.  Several top college teams are now requiring their use by players to reduce back and shoulder injuries as opposed to carrying.
  • Motorized Trolleys – One option of club transportation developed in the 1980’s and gaining prominence is the electric caddy.  Basically a push cart with a battery powered motor, the motorized trolley comes in several versions, including those that require hands on monitoring, remote-control and those that can be commanded either a certain distance or for a certain time.  These units can cost anywhere from $750 to $2,000 and are also typically easily transportable for personal use.  Again, there are “industrial” versions that clubs often rent to golfers.  The primary benefit of the electric caddy is that it requires no physical effort like carrying or pushing/pulling.  Having used one of these on numerous occasions, I can attest that it is a wonderful way to play golf and much less costly than a caddie.  Motorized trolleys can also produce revenue for the club, with rentals for same typically ranging from $20-$30 per round with financial payback in the first few months of use.

Of these options, only caddies (expensive and not always an option) and motorized trolleys provide relief from the physical stress on players’ backs and shoulders that is provided by golf carts, which negate the exercise of walking and rush the pace of the game.

A cross between the golf cart and the various walking options is the recently introduced Golf Board.  Powered by a lithium-ion battery, the GolfBoard is a fully electric vehicle that feels like snowboarding or surfing and carries golfer and clubs between shots.  Priced between $6,500 and $8,000, Golf Boards are more likely to be purchased by clubs for rental at rates $25-$30.  One drawback of Golf Boards is the perceived safety risk, which has caused some clubs to cease their use after insurance premiums increased.

According to motorized trolley manufacturer, QOD Golf, The American Journal of Sports Medicine published a report stating that golfers who regularly carry their clubs suffered significantly more injuries to the lower back, shoulder, and ankle. In fact, it said that carrying your bag for just 9 holes causes the spine to shrink 6 mm.  QOD also suggests that while it’s obvious how using a manual push-cart could promote poor posture and put additional stress on the wrist, ankle, and shoulder joints, many people fail to recognize how much pain riding in a cart can cause as your spine is compressed, discs are aggravated and nerves are irritated.  Walking a golf course can burn up to 2,000 calories, so it’s no surprise that a study published in the American Journal of Medicine revealed subjects who walked while playing golf lost weight, lowered cholesterol, and reduced their blood glucose levels by up to 30%.

At some clubs, especially private clubs, push/pull carts and motorized trolleys are prohibited because of an age-old stigma that they “look bad”.  At other clubs, golfers are required to use and/or rent club-owned units to enhance revenues, and in some cases because clubs think it “looks bad” if members or golfers are bringing their own and transferring from their cars to the golf course.  However, this is changing.  A brief survey done last year of several prestigious northeastern clubs showed that even some of the most traditional clubs are welcoming the addition of “walking wheels” to their clubs.

The bottom line is that there are a wide variety of ways to get around the golf course.  Some provide limited physical exercise while others provide a maximum of same.  Some are costly while others cost nothing.  What’s best?  That depends on your priorities.  Do you value tradition above all else, or is exercise and physical fitness your goal?  What about player safety and injury avoidance?  What appears to be clear, according to a study by Dr. Neil Wolkodorf of The Center for Health & Sport Science is that walking the course is better for your game, with results showing lower scores by players who choose to walk the course versus riding.