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Ben Wright: Cart Blanch

Appeared in the January/February 2006 LINKS

The most regrettable day of my life in golf was the one I was first forced to use a cart. Until my inaugural trip to America in the mid-1960s, I had never even seen a golf cart. Now I was a guest at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, and my guide around the famed South Course was Firestone’s genial PR chief, Scotty Brubaker. The cart’s beverage cooler was loaded and I was hooked (against my better instincts).

What I quickly came to realize was how easily “cart golf” can ruin a round. Cart paths are sometimes built too close to fairways and greens (particularly if the architect was working on a limited budget), leading to bad bounces and marring the course’s aesthetic value. Conversely, paths can be set so far from the action that a golfer will wear himself out trudging from cart to ball and back when that dreaded edict, “carts on path only,” has been issued.

I can understand the paths-only rule if wet fairways decree it the only sensible way to preserve the golf course. But from an architectural standpoint, cart-paths-only prevents players from fully seeing the course as the designer intended. A walking golfer—or even one allowed to ride in the fairway—can see a hole unfold before him and plot his next move as he goes from shot to shot. And a golfer on foot has the added advantage of sensing the contours of the terrain—a subtle but important consideration that could well affect how he elects to play the next shot.

Perhaps the cart’s most unfortunate effect on good course design has been in the area of routing. So great are the distances between greens and tees on courses today, there’s rarely any flow or continuity. The golfer is unable to develop a sense of rhythm—of how the holes fit together, and of how to manage his game.

It seems many of these path-oriented designs are plotted for the purpose of driving revenue—both from carts on a smaller scale and real estate sales on a larger one—rather than for the golfer’s enjoyment and exercise. Confined to a cart, I don’t log nearly as much foot travel as I did in my younger days. These four-wheeled contraptions have made me golf’s equivalent of a couch potato!

To me, the greatest courses are the ones without any cart paths at all. Those are found mostly in the British Isles, and not coincidentally, they’re among the best examples of great architecture. St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Turnberry, Sunningdale—the list could go on and on. One of my favorite courses in the world, Bermuda’s Mid Ocean Club, has only very narrow cart paths and is eminently more enjoyable when played on foot, allowing the golfer to fully savor the classic C.B. Macdonald design.

Last year I participated in the Nationwide Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs Communities in upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina. (I designed one of the courses and regularly play most of them.) With Brandt Snedeker as my partner, we led the tournament’s pro/celebrity division after our first round, played on The Cliffs’ easily walkable Valley Course. Then came the second round at Walnut Cove, a lovely Jack Nicklaus design, but full of those confounded cart paths set far from the field of play. And wouldn’t you know it—cart-paths-only was in effect that day. We quickly disappeared from the leaderboard as I let down my poor partner and finished nearly on my knees, beaten, battered and exhausted!

Recently I received notice that my home course would require golfers to stay on paths throughout the coming winter. Very well, I’ve decided—they won’t see me during those months. I’ll be a real couch potato, resting my weary bones, and my psyche, for my next round of cart golf. 

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