A memorandum in March 1969 from Peter Tufts, son of Pinehurst Resort & Country Club co-owner Richard Tufts, to the management committee at Pinehurst noted that golf carts had accounted for a net profit of more than half a million dollars from 1963-69. But storing, charging and servicing them were becoming a major burden on the club staff.
“The electric cart operation at the club is a thriving, growing, leaping, profitable monster that now might be best described as Excedrin headache #264 (the number of cars we must service to supply the demand),” Tufts wrote. “There appears no letup in the trend of increased usage of these vehicles in the next few years.”
Fortunately, for those who prefer to sling a bag over their shoulders, push a trolley or hire a caddie, the pendulum is swinging back in the early 2020s, both in how the game is played and how courses are designed and maintained. Many new golf venues of the 21st century are walking oriented, and less reliant on irrigation and chemicals for course maintenance. Courses that two decades ago required golfers to ride a cart are leaving transportation to choice — Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, with its nine courses, included.
“So many other places allow you to walk and carry your bag,” says Ben Bridgers, director of golf at Pinehurst. “People would ask us and we’d have to say no, and it became a negative. I like to get out and walk, and carry. It’s good exercise and it’s refreshing. Walking is an important tradition in golf and something we should support. More and more we’d hear it. It just didn’t make sense to say no.”
Two golf architects whose thumbprints are felt at Pinehurst are Bill Coore, who with partner Ben Crenshaw restored Pinehurst No. 2 to its rough-hewn texture in 2010-11, and Gil Hanse, who redesigned Pinehurst No. 4 in 2018 and built the popular Cradle short course in 2017. Both are unabashed fans of walking and ditching the motorized mode of transportation.
“I, for one, am happy to see significant movement toward encouraging walking,” Coore says. “We’re all into this thing of, ‘We’ve got to speed up golf.’ I’m convinced you can walk and play golf faster than you can ride — assuming the course is closely knit and walkable. You don’t slow down the time it takes to play the round, but you slow down the process of getting from one shot to another. You’re able to take in nature that’s unfolding right in front of you, step by step. For a game that began in nature over very natural landscapes, it seems like to this day that should be an important part of it.”
“Cart paths. I hate cart paths,” adds Hanse. “I just absolutely abhor them. That’s probably the most unfortunate aspect of American golf. I’m a big believer that unless you need a cart to play golf from a physical standpoint, you should be walking. The course is intended to be felt through your feet; it’s intended to be observed and absorbed at three miles an hour, and not 40 miles an hour.”
Many courses in the Sandhills are walkable and have vibrant walking cultures, and I featured three of them in my book, Good Walks — Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at Eighteen Top Carolinas Courses. Pinehurst No. 2, Mid Pines and the Dogwood Course at the Country Club of North Carolina are prime exhibits.
Tom Harmicar lived in Pinehurst from 2007-18 and was a Pinehurst Country Club member and part-time caddie on the No. 2 course. He often noted the inconvenience and wasted time for golfers choosing to ride the course, with carts restricted to the extremities of the fairways and greens.
“This golf course was not meant to be played out of a golf cart,” he says. “Riding a cart here is like going to ‘31 Flavors’ and ordering vanilla.”
“You get to the ball too fast when you’re riding,” caddie Willie McRae said on one of his thousands of treks around the course throughout more than 70 years, before his death in 2018. “There’s no time to think.”
Joe McCullough had played decades of walking golf in the Philadelphia suburbs as the early 2000s unfolded, when he began scouting for places to retire. Having a quality golf venue he could walk was at the top of the list. He’d heard of the Pinehurst “Walking Club,” a group of members who gathered on weekday afternoons to walk No. 2 and thought it perfect. He and his wife bought a house and joined Pinehurst in 2012. At an orientation gathering, he was told the “Walking Club” no longer existed.
“I panicked,” he says. “I thought I’d made the biggest mistake in my life.”
He was quickly told by a pro on the golf staff that the club was disbanded because Pinehurst now allowed members to walk all its courses at any time. The resort has subsequently extended that privilege to guests, as well.
“I thought, ‘man, I’ve just won the lottery,’” says McCullough, who at 72 years of age in 2021 plays all of Pinehurst’s courses by foot.
Tom Pashley, president and CEO of Pinehurst Inc., said in the spring of 2020 after his resort’s nine courses had reopened under strict virus-containment protocols: “One of the things I hope comes out of this is that more people will enjoy the walking game. I think that can be a nice outcome — more people walking the golf course.”
Pine Needles, Mid Pines and Southern Pines Golf Club are three vintage Sandhills layouts designed by Donald Ross that have long been favorites of walkers, and are now under the same ownership group. Jeff Loh lives on the eighth fairway at Pine Needles, a 1928 Donald Ross design, and picked his house only after he learned that the cart paths were on the opposite side of the fairway from his backyard.
“Who wants golf carts passing out your window all day?” he muses.
Loh enjoys playing both Pine Needles and Mid Pines (opened 1921) with hickory-shafted clubs, and generally carries six to eight clubs in a vintage “pencil” bag.
On any given hole on the back nine at Mid Pines, he’ll survey the pine trees, the fairways, the wiregrass and all the exposed sand and marvel how it stands in contrast to the look prior to a 2013 course restoration by golf architect Kyle Franz — less a blanket of grass tree line to tree line, and more a mosaic of the native sand and its accompaniments of pine needles and cones and assorted vegetation.
“Your heart rate picks up a beat or two on this part of the course,” he says. “This routing is ludicrously good. They say good wine has a sense of place — terroir. This course has quite the sense of place. It’s unique to the Sandhills. When it was all Bermuda, it could have been in Connecticut, it could have been anywhere.
“And to appreciate it more, you walk.”
Walking Mid Pines on a summer morning, Loh speaks of his connection to the game, and finding and maintaining it on foot.
“I grew up caddying,” he says. “It’s natural. It’s the way I learned the game. It’s the way it should be played. Exercise to me is a huge part. I do try to exercise anyway, but golf is a big component of that.”
Jay Mickle is another regular walker at Mid Pines, Pine Needles and Southern Pines. He grew up playing McCall Golf & Country Club in suburban Philadelphia in the 1960s. Carts were not part of the equation.
“I’ve never done anything but walk,” he says. “Carts were high society, resort course stuff. The kids at the bag drop here make fun of me. It can be 90 degrees and they’ll say, ‘Mister Mickle, you want to take a cart today?’ No, thank you. I’m a confirmed walker.”
World Golf Hall of Fame member Peggy Kirk Bell and her family have owned Pine Needles since 1953, and they purchased Mid Pines in 1994. Though Mrs. Bell passed in 2016, her family and their partners have continued to emphasize traditional golf experiences. In 2020, the group added Southern Pines, which opened with 18 holes in 1912. Frantz has been renovating the course during the last year, and it will be completed by the fall of 2021.
“I have long believed Southern Pines is the best routed course in Moore County,” says Ran Morrissett, who lives nearby and plays Southern Pines regularly. “It’s an outstanding course and a terrific experience. And you have to walk it to understand how great the land is. I always leave more invigorated than when I arrived.”
Dr. John Ellis joined CCNC, which in July 2021 will host the U.S. Junior Amateur championship, in 1973, and has served on numerous boards and committees, and in officer roles. He remembers the USGA’s initiative in the early 2000s to promote walking and took the lead within the club to develop a policy to encourage members to walk.
“We developed a policy that said we think walking is a part of the game and should be allowed,” says Ellis, an orthopedic surgeon. “You can really enjoy the game walking. As a doctor, obviously it’s the right thing to do for your health. We realized we would lose some income on the carts, but felt it was the right thing to do. Allowing walking better met the needs of our members, which is what a private club is supposed to do anyway.”
Ellis remembers one member standing up a meeting and suggesting they apply a “trail fee” to walkers.
Ellis told the gentleman: “We encourage people to walk and hope you will, too.”
Lee Pace has written about the Sandhills golf community for more than three decades and is an avowed walking golfer. His “Good Walks” books is available from UNC Press and wherever books are sold.