Perhaps it was prophetic that the very month I signed a deal with UNC Press to write a book about the joy of playing golf by foot and foot alone I was presented by the golf gods, neatly wrapped with a ribbon and bow and sweat band, a case study illustrating my renegade approach to the game.
We teed off at 8 a.m. on July 22 at Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill, me walking with my bag slung over my shoulder along with three riders. Did I feel anti-social by leaving a single in a cart? Certainly not, as why should I accede to his preference of riding in lieu of my own desire to walk? I did tell him, incidentally, I’d help with the cart if he got stuck in a jam.
My two primary goals every time I peg it up are to get some exercise and break 80. Studying the golf course and reveling in nature come next. Enjoying the companionship of my playing partners is important as well—all the better if that’s split three ways while walking along rather spending four hours-plus with one guy in a cart. Betting? Lame jokes? Pounding beverages? Way down or even off the scales.
One of golf’s earliest appeals was its health-giving benefits, the player walking some four miles over varied terrain with his strength and endurance a key element of the sport. Too often today that component has been lost with many golfers playing in a default mode of mandatory riding in motorized carts.
“Such uninterrupted exercise, cooperating with the keen air from the sea, must, without all doubt, keep the appetite on edge, and steel the constitution against all the common attacks of distemper,” Tobias Smollett wrote in a 1771 novel of the golf experience in the Scottish town of Leith.
So I knew on this day with the temperature at 76 degrees when we teed off and forecasts for highs in the upper 90s that breaking 80 would be a challenge indeed. Beating the golf course and beating myself were all that mattered. Yet I’d played two weeks earlier, same morning tee time, nearly but not quite as hot, and shot 80. My game was coming into mid-summer form as it always does and, if I’d just make a full turn in good posture and not get quick at the top, I felt I could shave a couple shots and land in lucky-seventies nirvana. I was heartened that day two weeks earlier by having clipped two shots off my front nine total on the back—indicating fatigue was not an issue.
“All I can say is—stay hydrated,” the starter counseled on the first tee.
I stood five-over on the 13th tee, having slaked several bottles of water, a Powerade at the turn and seeking shade when convenient. Some of that shade I found to the left of the 17th fairway when we were looking for a wayward tee shot. I enjoy taking photos of my collection of lightweight, simplistic carry bags juxtaposed against interesting architectural features for social media posts, so I took a quick snap of my bag in the cool shadows (out in the sun it was 92 with a heat index reading of 105) and later posted it on Twitter.
“Surely you’re not walking,” responded one follower.
“I am amazed and aghast at the same time,” another wrote.
To me, it was just another day at the golf course. And it was with no small amount of satisfaction that I played the last five holes plus-one, penciled in a 78 and enjoyed my favorite hamburger afterward in recovery mode. (And look, I’m not stupid; I’m not saying I’d have walked and lugged if my tee time had been at 1 p.m. that day.)
To hell with Mark Twain, who supposedly once said that “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” Poppycock. To me and a passionate and resolute minority, “Carts are great golf ruined.”
“I’m pretty much a traditionalist, I feel walking is the way the game is meant to be played,” says Spartanburg’s Todd White, a top mid-amateur who played in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at Pinehurst in May. “There is so much to enjoy between shots if you’ll just take the time to do it. To me, a golf cart takes away quite a bit from that. In a cart, you rush to your ball to sit there and wait. If you’re walking, you can experience the environment.”
“Walking No. 2 in the evenings is such a peaceful experience,” says Pinehurst member Jason Richeson, a member of the club’s Executive Golf cadre that meets every Tuesday for twilight golf on No. 2. “There’s hardly anyone else out there, you’ve got the sun setting through the pines. It’s amazing. It’s almost a surreal atmosphere.”
Mike Harmon is the director of golf at Secession Golf Club in Beaufort, S.C., which opened in 1992 as a walking-only course (they have two golf carts for players with doctor-verified health conditions). The club has an excellent caddie program and will allow members to carry their bags late in the day. Harmon often goes out with a Sunday bag and nine clubs.
“Obviously walking is the healthy way to play,” he says. “I always play better walking, and I nearly always play nine clubs just putzing around the club. You find out how well you’re swinging when you have nine clubs. You have an eight-iron shot but you’ve got to pick the seven or nine. You have to figure that one out.”
I never begrudge others their preferred method of playing. As golf architect Tom Fazio notes, the invention and proliferation of the golf cart has been in large measure “very positive” for the game.
“I’m not sure we’d have had the growth in golf and as many people playing if not for the golf cart,” says Fazio, who’s designed more than 200 courses over five decades. “We have built courses in hilly terrain, in mountain areas that wouldn’t be accessible if not for the cart. I’d bet there are a couple thousand courses in America that would not be there if not for carts. On a grand scale, you’d have to put a plus for golf carts.”
Yet in the next breath, Fazio will admit to moving heaven and earth to hide the visual pimples of paths on his golf courses and that his No. 1 golf experience is playing Pine Valley Golf Club—where no carts are allowed. In other words, he’ll build what the market dictates.
The market, certainly, will be limited for my forthcoming book. The vision is some 200 pages, coffee-table format, the content built around stories of courses and clubs across the two Carolinas where the course is walkable and a healthy walking culture exists. It’s an acquired taste, as they say, but fortunately the astute numbers-crunchers at the venerable Chapel Hill publishing house are confident the readers and buyers are there.
Case in point is Jay Mickle, a Southern Pines farrier who grew up playing McCall Golf & Country Club in suburban Philadelphia in the 1960s. Carts were not part of the equation.
“Carts were high-society, resort stuff,” he says.
He moved to the Sandhills a decade ago and is a regular hoofing it about Pine Needles and Mid Pines—once walking 18 holes at Mid Pines as a twosome in one hour, 55 minutes—and relishes the late afternoons. One twilight we were walking from the tee on the 15th at Mid Pines, the setting sun at our backs and filtering through the trees to cast a golden patina on the furrows within the ancient fairways.
“It’s the magical time of day,” he says. “This is perfect.”
Mickle notes that many northern courses charge golfers an upcharge to ride, while it’s typical in the Carolinas add it to the greens fee.
“People think, ‘I paid for it, I’m going to take it,’” he says. “Well, they can take it to their grave when their arteries are all clogged up.”
I might not get a better quote than that over the next two years, but I’m sure going to try.
Send Lee Pace an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you share his passion for walking golf and have a story to tell.