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Original Issue

The Golf Cart Is Here for Good

It brought the game to the elderly and infirm, and at Palm Springs it has started a whole new way of life

I can't be absolutely sure about the date, but I think I saw a golf cart for the first time somewhere around 1952 at the Burlingame Country Club near San Francisco. At the time it seemed to be worthy of immediate applause. It made 18 holes of golf possible for a gallant and impetuous friend of mine who had left most of one of his legs on a beach in the Marianas nearly 10 years before. This fellow had been a brilliant athlete in school and college, and it was heart-warming to discover that he could once again use his coordination and grace on the golf course. There were qualifications to my enthusiasm, however. On our way around the course I had a few short rides with Ferdy in his new cart, and the way he drove it down gullies and across bridges, I'd just as lief have been with him on that beach at Saipan.

Not too long after that we all learned how the cart was making it possible for President Eisenhower to resume his golfing after his first heart attack. That was another merit badge for carting, bringing home what a boon this invention would be to those who could still play the game but, for one reason or another, couldn't walk the full 18 holes. I also remember how much criticism we heard at the time on the subject of the President's golfing, and not all of it came from the political type who just spouts to get his name in the paper. I think a lot of people felt, as I did, that 18 holes of golf was too much for a man who had experienced a heart disturbance—that is, if he were going to have any energy left over for his job. But, as I say, I knew nothing about golf carts, and though I knew that it must be easier to ride around the course than to walk it, it seemed to me that 18 holes of golf was still a pretty rough grind for a semi-invalid.

Those of us who must live and play our golf along the northern reaches of the eastern seaboard are accustomed to a somewhat Spartan approach to the game, part of which involves walking around the course on one's own two pins. At one club where I play there is an elderly gentleman—I should judge him to be pushing 80—who trots through 18 holes carrying his own clubs summer and winter, even when the ground is frozen and the course otherwise abandoned, for reasons that have nothing to do with thrift. At another club I visit now and then there is an extremely wealthy lady in her middle 70s who does more or less likewise. In the face of such examples, no self-respecting golfer would dare ride around in a cart as long as he was sound of limb and body.

So it was with some surprise that I discovered golf carts to be as common as citrus fruit when I visited Florida a season or two ago. Younger golfers in their 30s and 40s rode them without apology and even used them—not without protest—during informal tournaments. A set of brothers with no good reason not to walk other than an aversion to unnecessary exercise had even installed walkie-talkie radio sets in their carts so they could communicate across the course with one another when they weren't playing in the same match. You might say that at that point the golf cart had arrived at an advanced state of decadence almost before it had reached maturity.

It is no doubt appropriate that, since the golf cart has been slowly coming into its own—and even creeping inexorably into the hardier climates of the North—it should attain full flower in Palm Springs, that burgeoning California desert resort area that refers to itself as The Winter Golf Capital of the World. With 11 courses serving communities whose populations total only 30,000 permanent residents, the desert enterprisers have truly done more than any other spot in the country to bring what was once a rich man's game to Everyman. When Everyman gets into the act he usually manages to streamline an activity and adapt it to the pace of the times while ignoring the surly mutterings of the traditionalists. "The oldtimers may think they can avoid it," says Jimmy Hines, one of the veteran pros, "but the cart is here to stay. It's got to stay. Just think what it's done for golf."

Hines today is the vice-president and part owner of a country club that may be to golf what gunpowder was to warfare. At Eldorado, in Palm Desert—and before that, down the road at Thunderbird—Hines and his friends in the West have built a golf world that is so completely mechanized that the resort might more aptly refer to itself as The Golf Cart Capital of the World. As of last week the 11 courses were operating 729 golf carts among them, and it is a rare golfer indeed who will set out on one of those courses on foot. In fact, if he does he is likely to bring a few frowns and protests for jamming the traffic.


This saturation of golf by the golf cart raises an inevitable question: What is the cart doing to golf? Since it obviously is no longer simply a Samaritan to the aged and the infirm, the cart must obviously serve some important functional role. Does it, for instance, speed up the game? Does it make golf physically less demanding and thereby improve any given golfer's ability? Does it make golf more fun? You can get a yes or no to any of these questions, but everyone around Palm Springs, whether approving of carts or not, seems agreed that they represent progress. Claude Harmon, who began his new duties as the head pro at Thunderbird in October, expresses the philosophy of the golf cart protagonists with this question: "Would you walk to the market to do your shopping when you could get in your car and drive there?"

As far as the best memories around Palm Springs can reconstruct it, the first golf cart made its appearance there about nine years ago, coinciding with the beginning of the golfing boom in the area. It was a walloping four-wheeled, six-passenger vehicle which had been brought West by a prosperous oilman from Houston named D. B. McDaniels. Its two-cycle gasoline engine chugged and wheezed and spat noxious fumes and shattered the nerves of virtually every golfer on the Thunderbird course except its owner. However, Palm Springs is a youthful, aggressive sort of place, patronized by energetic and successful business people from all across the country who refuse to turn their backs to the future, and many of them were quick to see prospects in this monster. The pros in the golf shop were soon in touch with a Long Beach firm that produced electric carts for invalids, and before long a quiet, electric-motored golf cart was in the making. The outcome of this empirical period was a two-passenger cart called the Autoette, and except for refinements, it varied little from the majority of carts in operation today. The first Autoettes were put into use at Thunderbird during the 1951—52 winter, and that could be called the Year One in the era of the cart.

It should be noted that Palm Springs has a problem—if it can be called a problem—that is endemic among expensive resorts. A high percentage of its best customers have made their nest eggs and are now taking it easy. If these citizens can be mounted, their patronage offers a wonderful source of revenue for country clubs such as those at Palm Springs, where the golf courses have to be raised on an arid desert that previously supported nothing thirstier than sagebrush and now require upward of $100,000 a year for items of maintenance such as 500,000 to a million gallons of water a day.

The elderly people of Palm Springs were understandably delighted with the carts, and it wasn't long before their enthusiasm was shared by many of their able-bodied juniors who went around explaining that that way they could play more golf in a day. Nowadays, with the cart as common as it is in Palm Springs, it is taken as a matter of course that a player will ride one and no explanations are needed. Claude Harmon put the case for the cart as well as anyone when he said, "The most important element in a person's life today is time. Every hour you spend on golf you must take away from something else. It may take as much as four and a half to five hours to play a full round of golf on a crowded course. If everyone uses carts you can shave this by an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half. You can even play 36 holes in one day if you want."


By as early as 1955, the cart population of Palm Springs was in the hundreds. Local residents still note with pride that there were 206 carts following the Ryder Cup matches at Thunderbird that year, and hardly a soul who was there will ever forget the awesome sight of this motorized audience swarming down a fairway like one of Hitler's Panzer divisions invading Poland. So far, no one has seriously disputed the claim that this was the world record for the largest number of golf carts ever operated on one course at one time, but it must be remembered that golf carting is so new that its statistics are kept rather haphazardly.

Inasmuch as everyone in Palm Springs insists that the golf cart is here to stay, traditionalists and those who are still devoted to the ideal of physical fitness might just as well stop fretting and look at the bright side of the picture. For instance, golf carts make money. Although privately owned carts account for nearly half of those in the Palm Springs area, most courses are not partial to them, and some, like the new Indian Wells Club and the new public course, would like to ban them completely. For the fact of the matter is that each golf cart in the rental fleet at a course is capable of earning as much as $700 during a five-to six-month season. It works like this. The going rate for a cart rental for 18 holes is $7 or $7.50. A course that knows its prospective trade and thus is not overstocked with carts can figure to rent each of them at least 150 times a year for a gross of better than $1,000 per cart. A good golf cart nowadays costs about $1,200 new and has a life expectancy of five years if properly maintained During that time it will need only one new set of the six-volt, 170-ampere batteries that power its one-to 1½-horsepower motor (the batteries must be recharged after every round of golf at a cost of about 56 for juice). A good cartman is capable of maintaining and servicing about 50 carts, and his wages should run to about $400 a month—or roughly 30¢ a day per cart. Adding it all up, a cart will gross around $5,000 during its lifetime, and it will cost about $1,500 to purchase and maintain it during that period. Hence the profit of $700 a year. Anyone can quickly see what this means to a club like Tamarisk, whose 61 rental carts represent the biggest rental fleet in Palm Springs.


However, it is only natural in the world of cartifacts that plenty of people should want to own their own. Man's pride in his carriage, which is almost as old as the wheel itself, has a pronounced manifestation in the golf cart—and particularly at Thunderbird, where there are 165 privately owned carts housed in the Thunder-bird Buggy Stable, a wood and cinder-block shack out behind the clubhouse kitchen. There you can see enough cart varieties to satisfy a Heinz. Two partners in a Plymouth agency have fashioned special rear ends on their carts to resemble the hind end of a Plymouth Fury—tail fins, spare-tire housing and all. Many private-cart owners favor gaggy nicknames like Lagniappe or Jambon, which they paint on the front or rear of the machine. One owner, getting right to the heart of the matter, has painted on his cart: "Let's Play Faster!!!" Bandleader Phil Harris and his favorite golfing partner, Milt Hicks, had a built-in bar and ice chest, to say nothing of a radio, in the cart they owned jointly just prior to their present one; also, a bottle of bourbon was painted on the side where Harris liked to sit and a bottle of gin on Hicks's side. Everyone who knows them got the point. Most private carts, however, simply settle for some pedestrian identification like the owner's name or nickname or initials.

The brand names of the carts are legion—Autoette, Turf Rider, Golf-mobile, Golf Pony, Marketeer and Taylorcar, to name a few—but their variations are not conspicuous. Most of them seat two people side by side and have an open compartment behind the seat for carrying two golf bags. They generally have one floor pedal for a single-speed throttle, another for the brake, and a hand lever for switching from forward to reverse. Just about all of them have a tiller for steering the single front wheel and are geared to travel about 8 mph. Above and beyond the basic cart it is possible to get extras worth hundreds of dollars, such as a radio, a top, a collapsible top, a top with a white-tasseled fringe, a cigarette lighter, headlights, chromium trimmings, a windshield to fend off bugs and the cold evening air, and terry-cloth seat covers that won't overheat in the sun.

Naturally, the private-cart owner cannot be sure he will always be playing on the same golf course, particularly at Palm Springs, where it is not unusual for one person to belong to several golf clubs within a few miles of one another. So some cart owners have cart trailers they can attach to the rear of their automobiles. Then there is the status-happy type who will maintain a cart at each of his clubs; and perhaps another one at home to take him back and forth to the golf house if, like so many of the new Palm Springs resorters, his house is built somewhere on the club premises. A man named McCulloch, who once manufactured a very fine singleseater cart but abandoned the project when he found he couldn't sell it for less than $800, actually keeps five of these little carts at one of his clubs and four at another for the convenience of his guests.

The single most famous cart now in existence belongs to President Eisenhower. It is a Turf Rider IV, a $1,385 fiber-glass job which the experts almost unanimously rate as the Cadillac of golf carts. All the Palm Springs golf clubs combined to give this cart to Eisenhower while he was vacationing among them last October. It has a cigarette lighter and a radio and a fringed top, and eventually inscribed in dignified lettering on the front are the words "Our President." Ike liked it so much he took it home to Gettysburg with him.

A golfer who finds himself playing in a cart for the first time may discover that for all its comfort it is a mixed blessing. For one thing, a cart lends itself to irrelevant social chatter, and before he knows it the golfer has arrived at his ball and is about to hit a shot to which he hasn't given sufficient advance thought; in other words, his concentration is likely to suffer grievously. Another problem is the meandering cart driver who will dump you off some distance from your ball and then head for his own while you try to decide whether to hit your shot with the wrong club or delay the whole foursome by testily demanding that he bring your clubs back. Nor are injuries unknown to cart riders. Ankles have been instantly snapped when a careless rider has let his spikes trail outside the cart, and rattled drivers have been known to plunge into ravines and come up badly bloodied. Many clubs now demand that carters sign a form releasing the club from all liability, and in at least one case where these forms have been broadly and carelessly drawn up, the carters out playing golf could be held legally liable for almost any catastrophe that happened to anyone within five miles of the clubhouse.

Despite the tremendous success of golf carts on the desert courses of Palm Springs, it would be premature to say that they are ready to take on full-time duty everywhere. Many courses, particularly those in areas of heavy rainfall, would be seriously scarred by a fleet of carts scampering along their fairways every day. But such problems are not insoluble. Right now the cart industry is working on a broad, low-pressure tire with a tread of 12 inches or so—a principle similar to that used by the swamp buggy—and presumably this cart will be able to go anywhere, including through sand traps and across greens without causing the slightest damage. Nobody, however, has yet come up with an idea for a foolproof driver.

Nevertheless, heed the words of Claude Harmon: "The golf cart is a terrific thing for golf. It's brought the game to people who could never play otherwise. It means more people can play more golf in a shorter time. It means the average fellow who isn't in the best of shape can play 18 holes and not come back so exhausted he's no more good to anybody that day. Most people get too much exercise playing 18 holes of golf anyway. I tell you the cart is here for good, and a darn good thing it is, too. Believe me, I never want to walk again when I can ride."


GLAMOUR GAG is a Palm Springs trademark, so it is used here to dramatize some happy assets of the golf cart capital.