They are known as push-carts, pull-carts, caddie-carts and trolleys. They are revered in some locales (i.e., the United Kingdom) and sniffed upon at others (many high-brow American clubs). They began as simple devices made of lawn-mower tires mounted on a steel chassis and have evolved into high-tech gadgets powered by batteries and in some models with hands-free remote control.
But these gizmos that allow a golfer to walk the course but not have to carry his bag or employ a caddie are a key part of the walking landscape.
“At many clubs, players choose the carts because they are annoyed by the kid who smirks when a shot is missed,” noted a 1941 issue of Golfdom magazine.
“Caddies are scarce. Caddies are small. Caddies are arrogant,” noted another article.
Advertisements in Golfdom prove that these carts were available in the late-1930s and into the World War II years, when labor for caddies was restricted. One of the early models was dubbed the Kaddie Kart. Another early cart was conceived by Bruce Williamson in Portland, Oregon, in 1945 and evolved into the company that manufactured the Bag Boy Cart, which is still in existence though under a different owner.
“First a player will timidly try one and may feel a little self-conscious rolling the little cart along the fairways, but then he finds himself fresher and feeling better after his exercise,” a 1947 Golfdom article noted. “His shoulder does not ache and his scorecard shows better results.”
Sunningdale Golf Club outside London is a bucket-list course for me, and a couple of years ago I noticed a Tweet from noted golf photographer David Cannon that showed Ernie Els and three golfers posing under a big tree outside the Sunningdale clubhouse. What caught my eye was the background—easily two dozen trolleys with bags on them idling between the building and the golf course. That’s the United Kingdom for you.
They hate “buggies,” as they call motorized carts. But they love “trolleys.”
“There is something about having a pull-cart on a course like Merion that just doesn’t seem to resonate,” says Mike Harmon, the director of golf at the walking-only Secession Golf Club in Beaufort, South Carolina. “I don’t know what that is. It does seem to echo of a public facility. But that’s certainly not the case overseas. Everyone at Muirfield uses them.”
“I don’t accept this stigma that a push-cart is beneath a private club, because you go to Scotland and Ireland and Australia and all the top clubs have them,” adds architect Gil Hanse.
Trolleys are generally lumped into two categories—push-carts have three wheels and pull-carts have two. They are allowed today at top-rung golf destinations like Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links and Streamsong, though policies vary on whether you can bring your own or use/rent one provided by the club.
They have become more prevalent in junior golf and college golf since 2008, when the American Junior Golf Association announced it would allow them in its competitions. Research by noted golf training entities such as the Titleist Performance Institute has revealed concerns about the constant grinding on the back and shoulders of golfers who carry their bags.
“Carrying your clubs not only places a huge amount of compressive force on your spine, but also causes lactic acid build up in the surrounding muscles, causing fatigue and injuries,” says Dr. Josh Nelson, a sports chiropractor and TPI consultant.
Stanford’s men’s golf team proved that push-carts were here to stay on the collegiate golf level in the 2014 NCAA Championships when four of five Cardinal golfers used them. Stanford’s Cameron Wilson won that year’s individual title pushing a trolley.
“It’s now ‘push-cart nation,’” says University of North Carolina men’s golf coach Andrew DiBitetto with a wry smile. “It’s becoming a thing in college golf and junior golf.”
DiBitetto grew up in upstate New York playing golf in the cold and shoveling snow away for a spot to hit balls. The thought of anything beyond carrying your clubs is beyond his comprehension.
“To me, it’s like, ‘Put the thing on your back and let’s go,’” he says. “But I’m starting to come around.”
Two of his Tar Heel golfers during the spring of 2019 began using push-carts on a regular basis. That Austin Hitt and Ryan Gerard had the lowest scoring averages on the team got their coach’s attention. A seminal moment for DiBitetto was having the team’s strength and conditioning coach accompany the team on a trip to San Diego, where the golfers were playing thirty-six holes a day. DiBitetto thought that Erik Hernandez, who he describes as “big and strong and from an old-school weight-lifting mentality,” would be the first to promote a “man-up” mentality of walking and carrying.
“Instead he pulls up videos and shows the stress on your spine carrying a twenty-five pound bag over eleven hours,” DiBitetto says. “He said, ‘Let them push a cart.’ That conversation was pretty eye-opening.”
At the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in 2018, I met Thomas Reiter, who formed a company called Big Max Golf in 1994 at first to service golfers in Germany and Austria and then expanded across Europe. Reiter named the company after his first-born son, Max, and started with a two-wheel pull-cart. But he soon noted the stress that the pulling motion placed on the arm and shoulder.
“We were the first to weld a third wheel onto the two-wheel cart and turn it around,” Reiter says. “It was a simple change, but one that nobody had ever done before. It was less stressful on the arm and it was easier to direct with the cart in front of you. We’d created the first three-wheel folding push cart.”
I tested the company’s flagship cart, the IP Blade, on several rounds in July 2019 and came away impressed with the engineering and the benefits of pushing a cart.
The IP Blade fits compactly in the trunk of a car, folding to roughly three feet by two feet wide by three inches deep. You take it from the car and the three wheels fold out and the center console pops up. You adjust one lever to lock the console and you’re ready to go. The cart holds golf bags of any size with attachments high and low to keep the bag secure. There is an attachment for an umbrella and places to hold scorecards, tees, a GPS device and water bottle.
The cart pushes smoothly and can go almost anywhere you want to walk, though certainly not through traps or across greens. After eighteen holes, my lower back wasn’t as sore nor my right shoulder stressed.
The company has been the leading trolley manufacturer for two decades now in Europe, where Reiter estimates ninety-five percent of golfers walk, and is gaining traction in the United States after opening a facility in Tacoma, Washington, in 2014.
“We are trying to get golfers to realize is that carrying your golf bag is bad for your body and your game,” Reiter says. “You don’t see Tour players carrying their bags around, do you? By pushing a cart, you have time to contemplate your next shot and you have more energy left over the closing holes. If you want a long, good golf career, you need to take good care of your body.”
The next frontier in the trolley business is the cart that pushes itself. One example is the “Tempo Walk,” which was introduced by Club Car of Augusta in 2019. It’s a hands-free autonomous golf caddie unit with a lithium-ion battery, moving up to seven miles an hour and weighing under a hundred pounds. The device offers state-of-the-art wireless technology, including GPS yardage and hands-free remote control to maneuver easily around the course.
Jim Hamilton of Aiken, South Carolina, is sixty-nine years old and a regular walker and bag-toter at Palmetto Golf Club. He’s committed to carrying as long as he can, but on a recent round noted a fellow golfer with a battery-powered trolley.
“That’s my next stage,” he says. “I don’t know when it’s coming. But it’s interesting all the options that are available today.”
Options, indeed. Anything to stay out of one of those confounded “buggies.”
Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace is writing a book about the experience of walking the great golf courses of the Carolinas. The book is due out in 2020 from the University of North Carolina Press.