A Life On The Road

The Hidden Costs of Cart Paths

By Tom Doak

Originally published in Michigan Golfer, September/October 2002 issue

In 1989, with two courses in northern Michigan under my belt, I bought a house in Traverse City. In the years since, I’ve spent nearly half my days out of town, and I haven’t worked within 200 miles of home. Why? I place a lot of the blame on cart paths.

I have nothing against golf carts -- for Casey Martin, for seniors, or for anyone who needs them on a hot and humid day. A few carts a day won’t do as much damage to the turf as the maintenance vehicles do. But I just hate building concrete roads through the middle of my courses because so many American golfers are too out of shape or too lazy to walk. When I pass by the local par-3 course, I see teenagers playing out of carts.

For golf course architects, cart paths are a distraction -- a half-million-dollar budget item which takes our concentration away from making the golf holes more interesting. If we locate them ourselves, a freewheeling golfer might crash and sue us; if we don’t, the odds are they’ll scar the landscape. Even if they’re out of sight, by the developer’s rule of thumb, building those paths adds five dollars to every green fee thereafter, whether you ride or not.

Worse yet, paths can be an actual barrier to good design. When I designed Stonewall in Philadelphia, a walking-only private golf club, I located a couple of green sites between the edge of a pond and a steep hillside background. Later, I realized we couldn’t have done it with carts, because there’s no place to put a cart path around the green to the next tee. And, while most people credit the setting and the design for the success of Pacific Dunes, I believe that the ambience -- no asphalt, no concrete, no golf cart noises -- has a far bigger impact than people realize.

There aren’t many cart paths on the top fifty courses in the world. So maybe it’s no wonder that we’re more popular overseas than we are in the Motor City. We’ve just started new golf courses on coastal sites in New Zealand and Australia, where golf carts aren’t yet part of the golf culture, and we may also get to build one in Ireland, where you’d be asked to leave if you inquired about a buggy. They’re calling because they know we focus our attention on the golf first, instead of the paths.

I’m not complaining, because we’re getting the chance to build golf courses on some of the most beautiful properties on earth. But we sure would love another opportunity to ply our trade without changing planes at Detroit Metro. Especially since every time I go through there, I bump into Steve Smyers or Warren Henderson or another of my peers on their way to design a course in northern Michigan.