There's an Old Norse myth about a giant serpent that grows and grows until its coils reach all the way around the world and it is able to take its tail in its mouth. It's a long way from ancient mythology to golf in the twenty-first century, but I think of that greedy old snake every time I drive the winding black cart path that reaches its tentacles into every corner of the daily-fee course near my house in New Jersey. You probably know a course like this one: You start driving right outside the pro shop door, cruise all eighteen holes and arrive back at the pro shop without the cart having once touched anything but blacktop.
Don't worry, this isn't yet another paean to the joys of walking—though God knows, if my mediocre game has to spoil something, I'd rather it be a good walk than a good ride. No, my gripe is what cart paths do to my score—not every round, but frequently enough for me to nurse a grudge against them. I won't pretend I've kept count, but it feels as if my personal ratio of cart-path punishment to reward is about ten to one. That is, for every one time my ball hits a cart path and gets a bounce that leaves me in play and closer to the hole, there are ten times (at least!) when my ball decides to make like a Super Ball and carom high off the path into deep, deep trouble—into the woods or a pond or out of bounds. Cart paths are multipliers of grief, trampolines of misery.
This is not paranoia. That ten-to-one ratio seems about right when one considers where cart paths are located: on the edge of play. If they were situated, say, twenty yards directly in front of the green, they might actually bounce my anemic five-iron right on up to the flagstick. But they're not put there. They're put on the outer limits of play, at least in theory (and knowing that adds insult to injury). If I yank a shot from the middle of the fairway fifteen degrees off-line or ten yards over the green and it happens to find a cart path, it invariably bounces deeper into the rough or whatever worse punishment lies unseen beyond.
What makes it especially frustrating is that neither carts nor the paths we build for them are an integral part of the game. The first golf cart is reported to have been built in 1930, at the Annandale Golf Club in Pasadena, California. The chairman of the club's greens committee was one Curtis Willock, an amputee who found it tough getting around the course on a wooden leg. So Willock designed himself a three-wheel cart whose rear wheels were powered by a twelve-volt battery. The first patent for a gasoline-powered golf cart was issued in 1948, to R.J. Jackson, a Texas oilman. Dubbed the "Arthritis Special" in honor of the disability that inspired Jackson, it was used strictly for medical purposes. Fair enough: I'm not going to begrudge older or physically disabled golfers the chance to enjoy the game. But that describes only a tiny percentage of the golfing public, and according to the National Golf Foundation, two-thirds of all rounds in the United States are now played in a cart. That's a lot of nonessential cart usage, most of it motivated, I've always assumed, by a hunger for more revenue.
Of course, it's not really carts I object to: It's those darn paths. No one hates them more than I do. . . . Or so I thought until I talked to some golf course architects. To them, cart paths are a necessary evil at best, a hideous eyesore at worst."
A lot of architects are resigned to cart paths and just do their best to hide them," says Tom Doak. "It's one of the most important things we work on. We try like the dickens to make it hard to tell where the natural landscape stops and the golf course starts, and it seems like on a lot of projects that line is where the cart path is. It's like a very bad frame to a picture."
"I personally think every cart path hurts the look of a golf course," adds Tom Fazio. "The ideal brand-new 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?'"
Knowing that cart paths are a bone of contention between architect and developer, Doak leaves them to the end of negotiations. When he was hired to build Pacific Dunes, the second course at the Bandon Dunes Resort, Doak feared that owner Mike Keiser would not go for a second walking-only course. "We went over a hundred other things first," says Doak. "The last thing was cart paths. Everybody was holding their breath."
If you've played Pacific Dunes, where carts are permitted only under special circumstances (in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act), you may remember the clifftop snug that holds the tenth green and eleventh tee. "To make a real cart path there and have it not be just butt ugly, we could not have put the tenth green where it is," says Doak. "I honestly think those kinds of decisions are made frequently on courses with cart paths. You sacrifice a good hole because you can't make the cart path work there."
When Doak can't talk his clients out of building cart paths, he tries to make them as short and unobtrusive as possible. At Stone Eagle, a new course he's designed in Palm Desert, California, Doak wanted to blend adjacent fairways in some places. Cart paths would have destroyed the effect, so they run only from greens to tees—but that means carts are going to have to travel on the grass for the length of most holes, so there's going to be a trade-off.
"These days," Doak says, "people expect perfect turf even in areas that aren't in play that much. We'll see whether [Stone Eagle members] accept some wear in less-used parts of the fairway instead of having to look at cart paths all the way round."
Gosh! Are there really golfers who think like that?May they spend eternity wrestling that giant snake. You know where I stand: Much as I loathe those ugly frames, I hate seeing those big bounces even more.