Path to perdition?

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By Adam Lawrence

Research figures suggest that two in every three rounds of golf in the United States are played from a golf cart (or buggy as they are often referred to in the UK). The old-fashioned picture of the golfer strolling down the fairway, small canvas bag on back, communing with nature is far from the norm in most golf markets. Even where carts are rare, we mostly use larger bags to hold more balls, waterproofs, food and drink and the like. And the alternative classic golf image – the player and his caddy – is equally unusual.

The reason why golf operators, especially at upmarket pay and play courses, like carts is easy to see. Many golf courses in the US are effectively making their profit from cart rental rather than green fees, and so their operators are naturally reluctant to pass up cart revenue.

The popularity of the pull (or push) trolley and its high-tech sister, the electric trolley, is one reason that riding a cart has been slow to take off in the traditionalist clubs of the UK. But even here, at higher end clubs, carts are now relatively common. It is, perhaps, hard for a British golfer to conceive of a situation where walking round the golf course, carrying or pulling clubs, is banned, but such is the situation at many US courses. In particular, the trolley, whether human-powered or electric, is strictly forbidden at many courses in the US. One either walks and carries, or one rides a cart.

The irony of the American market is that walking and carrying your bag is not permitted in peak periods at many courses, even (perhaps especially) high-end private clubs. At such clubs, in some ways, this is vaguely understandable – if the club is to maintain a successful caddy programme, then the caddies must be guaranteed a reasonable level of work, so if the golfer chooses to walk, he is compelled to hire a caddy. The more brutally commercial operations discourage walking – even to the extent of including cart hire in the green fee – because in effect, they are in the cart rental business, rather than the golf industry.

“Cart paths are relatively uncommon here in the UK,” says Shaun Wynne of cart supplier E-Z-GO. “But golf cars are becoming increasingly popular and managed properly really can contribute to the operating profit of golf clubs. In a lot of cases, the hire charge from the first round pays for the weekly rental, so all other hirings contribute directly to the bottom line.”

“It was something of a shock when I first worked in the States, because the first question asked by those involved in grass selection and irrigation was ‘How many carts are you going to have?’ and not ‘How do you want the course to play?’” says British architect Tom Mackenzie. “Carts dominated the issue and compromised much of the design work after that. I think that there is little doubt that the inclusion of cart paths has a negative impact on course design, although on many sites and climates they are undoubtedly a necessary evil. I also believe that once the decision has been taken that golfers should ride and not walk, then less effort is put into the convenience of a routing for those who choose to walk. Many still do walk, but have to cover many extra and unnecessary yards as a result. Certainly the walks are also increased to squeeze a few extra home sites in. This tends to happen on even flat sites where a walkable course is easy to achieve.”

The central problem with cart use is agronomic. Carts are heavy, and driving them across turfgrass results in compaction of the soil. More compaction means poor drainage, and thus, eventually, poor playing conditions. In particular, if the ground is wet, turf damage will be especially severe. But even in dry weather, repeatedly running a heavy cart over the same area of turf will harm the grass. This is why cart paths – effectively roads around the golf course – are built.

Brian Swinden of golf cart manufacturer Yamaha naturally takes a different view of cart usage. Golfers driving carts, he says, doesn’t seem to slow play down, even if those carts are confined to the paths. “From an operator’s point of view, if I were building a course from scratch, I’d want to put a cart path in because putting one in later is considerably more expensive,” he says. “Having a cart can give a golf course owner a great opportunity to increase his golfing season.”

Swinden says that, with most new courses already looking at carts as a key source of revenue, the real challenge is for existing clubs. “Because of the kind of terrain in this country, it’s not always easy for older courses to deploy carts, unless they are prepared to invest in pathways over some of the land at least,” he says. “That’s a key part of what we do – we will advise on how carts are to get around the property, if they should be used at all, and on issues like security.”

Such paths are expensive. On a new course, to build a continuous path from the first tee to the eighteenth green will typically add the equivalent of US$1 million to the budget. On the other hand, as E-Z-GO’s Wynne points out, they can be extremely profitable. “Although paths are expensive, when golf cars are hired correctly a fleet of 60 cars can earn upwards of £150,000 per year over a nine month hire period,” he says. “This income could help finance a network of cart paths over a three-year build scheme.”

Wynne denies that carts are a major source of turf damage. “Golf carts only damage the turf when used incorrectly, driving too fast and used in poor weather conditions,” he says. “And new electronic technology helps to reduce the speed of golf cars thus preventing operator misuse around the golf course.” His colleague Richard Tyrrell adds: “Misuse of golf cars is one of the most common problems on a golf course. But when they are used in the correct conditions, that is in good weather and on a well laid out course, turf damage is minimal. If paths are built on a course, it is possible to extend the usage period and provide the club with the opportunity of benefiting from the additional income that can be generated from renting golf cars.”

The common solution to the problem of compaction is to restrict carts to paths, especially in poor conditions. From the golfer’s perspective, though, carts on paths only can be a terrible way to play the game: if the path goes down the right side of the fairway but your drive goes down the left, how many clubs should you take with you to play your shot? Walk back and forth a few times and frankly you might as well have left the cart in the shed.

Low profile paths – perhaps constructed of a material that blends in to the environment more than concrete – are one way of reducing their impact on the course. “Cart paths can be constructed of many materials; concrete, tarmac, recycled road surface and there is even a ‘honeycomb’ plastic webbing that is planted into the soil and prevents wet areas turning to mud,” says Wynne. “This type of path is camouflaged into the environment.” The problem with low profile is that the effect of the path is reduced. Move the path further from the corridor of play and the result will be more driving on the turf. Add kerbs to paths to prevent players exiting at sensitive points or straying off through inattention and the visual impact is increased. So, potentially is the impact on play – this writer had a very fortunate ricochet off a cart path kerb a few months ago!

Cart paths are one of the key issues of modern golf design. Should the architect resist the temptation to build paths, work hard to conceal the path, or embrace cart use and optimise the cart-based golf experience? American architect Jim Engh, much of whose work has been in the Rocky Mountain states such as Colorado, is well-known for building golf courses that present their best views from the cart path. While the purist might find this approach gruesome, it is as well to be aware that building walkable courses is well-nigh impossible in the high mountains. And Engh’s commitment to pure golf is proven by his affection for the wild links courses of western Ireland. In particular, he is a long-time member at Carne, and is currently engaged in a pro bono project to add nine holes to Eddie Hackett’s original design. It is fairly safe to assume that there will be no continuous cart path – and probably no carts – on Engh’s course at Carne!

Architects spend a high proportion of their time routing the cart path around the golf course. The challenge is complex: to find a path route that makes for a smooth ride around the course, without severe turns and with no need to reverse, while at the same time ensuring that a wide concrete scar isn’t the first thing the golfer sees. Architect Tom Fazio has gone on record as saying that screening the cart path is one of the most important jobs his firm can do. “I personally think every cart path hurts the look of a golf course,” he has said. “The ideal brandnew hole, in my opinion, is one where you stand on the tee and you don’t see a cart path anywhere. My guys know that if I visit a property and I see a cart path, the first thing I’m going to say is, ‘What happened here?’”

Many modern golf courses have only been made possible by the existence and use of golf carts. Such courses are often dismissed by purists as not real golf but ‘cartball’, and it is undeniably true that many courses are now designed without much thought for the walker – in particular, the distance between green and next tee can often be so vast that the course becomes well-nigh unwalkable. Yet on extreme property such as the high mountains, cart-based golf is essentially inevitable. Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus, built by American architect Cabell Robinson, is a classic example. The course occupies two plateaux separated by a wide valley. Neither plateau is sufficiently large to accommodate a full eighteen holes, but the ravine between them is hundreds of feet deep and wide. Is the course walkable? Only if the golfer is prepared to hike down a series of hairpin bends to reach the tee of the par three seventh hole, and then most of the way back up to reach the eighth. The diehard walker might like to think he would be prepared to make this trek, but the sight of the cart path, doglegging down the mountain like an Alpine road to be tackled by Tour de France cyclists, is enough to put off even the most enthusiastic. Add the often ferocious Cypriot heat, and the decision is easier. Robinson himself has described routing Aphrodite Hills as one of the greatest challenges of his career, and one that was only solved by creating the network of cart paths. Similarly, the new course at La Zagaleta in Spain, featured on p56 of this issue of GCA, would be unplayable without the help of a golf cart – indeed, some of the paths are so steep that special high-powered carts are needed to cope with the inclines.

The other design issue around cart usage lies in their impact on architecture. Many observers would argue that carts and their associated paths have resulted in a decline of the skill of course routing. It’s arguable that carts are the symptom here, not the cause – are golfers using carts because green to tee walks are longer on modern courses, especially those developed alongside housing? But the fact remains that modern golf courses are typically considerably less intimate than their older cousins, that they occupy more land, and that what is a five or six mile walk around a classic golf course might well be a nine or ten mile walk on a newer one.

“I believe the two things responsible for a reduction in routing skills (or, more accurately, a loss of interest in getting the routing as tight as possible) are the prevalence of golf carts and the ability to move earth,” says architect Tom Doak. “In both cases, architects simply don’t try harder to get the routing to work perfectly because they figure it can be fixed by carts or by earthmoving. Symptom or cause? I think the carts started it. Certainly nowadays there is a lot of pressure in golf and real estate developments to make the plan work out well for the real estate first, even if it means long cart rides from one hole to the next, but that’s only possible because of the prevalence of cart use. And one of the main reasons cart use has not expanded more quickly in Britain is the lack of need; in fact, the greens and tees are so close together that sometimes it’s hard to find anywhere to park the cart!”

Architect Forrest Richardson disagrees. “I think carts have opened routing options even more,” he says. “If one looks at the premise that architects look for great golf holes on land, then it is only logical that being able to get from one green to the next tee is much more exponential with a cart routing than if we are restricted to walking only. This is not to say I agree with a cart philosophy, but it is a reality in many resort clubs. And, it is also a reality on many pieces of land. I think if carts had been around in the classic days we would have seen many great architects developing courses on rugged land otherwise not suitable for golf. Today that is a common practice. And, carts are the means to the solution in many cases. I was just at the Kapalua Plantation Course and it is certainly not a walking course, yet it is regularly cited as one of Hawaii’s best. Mathematically, if carts open the door to more possibilities on some land – and some suitable types of courses – then the skills of routing must be finer by the architect as there may be many, many more possible solutions. In the end, it may – and I repeat MAY – mean that there are many more great holes found on sites when carts are allowed to tie up the occasional slack created by gaps between holes.”

The late Mike Strantz’s Tobacco Road course in North Carolina is an excellent example of this trend. A magnificent, quirky golfing experience on a relatively tight piece of property without massive changes in elevation, Tobacco Road really should be a comfortable walk. But because of two or three long transitions between greens and the following tee – notably the very lengthy hike between the par three fourteenth and the tough par four fifteenth – to walk the course would be very difficult. At Bulls Bay Golf Club in South Carolina, Strantz embraced the cart path and used it as a feature of the design; rough tracks snake up a hill to the clubhouse – set on the highest point in Charlestown County. Palmer Course Design’s K Club in Ireland – another course that has a high rate of cart use – also features a number of extended walks. Ryder Cup viewers may have noticed the long delay between players leaving the famous par five sixteenth green (the seventh on the non-tournament routing) and arriving on the seventeenth tee. Given the frequency with which balls find a watery grave on this hole, the walk is even more sadistic!

The conundrum of routing is to get the best possible holes out of the property while linking them together in a coherent way. Sometimes, though, architects can favour one of these objectives over another, and the prevalence of cart use allows them to get away with routings that might have been rejected in a past era.

Which is not to say that lengthy walks are always a bad thing. Canadian designer Stanley Thompson incorporated a 500 yard walk along a riverside in his design for Highlands Links on Cape Breton Island, and the resultant stroll is regarded by many who play there as one of the highlights of a great course. To interact with the natural environment in this way is a key part of the golfing experience in this wild, isolated location.

Tom Doak, whose best known course, Pacific Dunes in Oregon, is walking only, is prepared to put his money where his mouth is. Doak has said to potential clients that he is prepared to reduce his design fee by US$50,000 if the customer agrees not to build a cart path. Where cart use is inevitable, such as his recently opened course at Stone Eagle Golf Club in the California desert, Doak’s solution was to minimise the paths – they run only from greens to the following tees. Thus, the paths are not in play, and their visual impact is reduced. But this option is only practical because of the special circumstances of Stone Eagle – a small membership private club in a very dry environment. Try to do the same at a high-end public or resort course in a wet environment – Celtic Manor in Wales springs to mind – and the result would be turf carnage.

In the end, though, the anti-cart path brigade are fighting a battle up a very steep hill. The unholy alliance between clubs wanting to improve their revenue, developers wanting courses to spread over larger parcels of land to allow for more housing and golfers reluctant to walk is very strong. All the architects can do is make the best of what they are offered.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2007.

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