Speed Carts: An Exercise in Utility

By: Blaine Newnham

I've really never been a good player. Once, maybe seven or eight years ago, my handicap was single-digit but, predictably, that lasted only a couple of weeks. Still, if I couldn't play the game very well I could cherish its traditions and spirits. And at least look like a player.

I slung a bag over my shoulder. If it hadn't worn out, I'd still be carrying that white canvass Sunday bag. My father pulled a cart. Not me. But all that changed this winter.

I gratefully accepted a Sun Mountain Speed Cart - the SVI model - as a Christmas present from my wife. She'd rather see us spend the money on the cart than on my back or shoulder. I think she was right.

I'd rather carry my bag. It looked better and just seemed more golf-y. I'd done what I could to keep packing, cutting back to 12 clubs, buying the lightest bag I could that still had retractable legs and two shoulder straps. Anything to walk.

I've always said those walking versus those riding in a cart was inversely proportional to the age of the player. The young bucks work out at the gym, not on the golf course. But isn't the round better when you can walk the hole talking easily with your buddies, keeping warm on a winter's day, sizing up a hole not with a GPS but with your instincts and experience?

Aren't there a few of us who don't need the exercise a six-mile walk can bring? Or can afford to spend 30 percent more for a round of golf? That's what carts cost. But the pull cart has never looked a part of golf tradition. You don't expect to see Steve Williams pulling - or now pushing - a cart. Not now or ever.

And yet the Brits - who invented the game - embrace them. You seldom see anyone at Royal County Down carrying clubs. They are either using trolleys or caddies.

Despite all this waxing about the virtues of walking, the majority of players in the U.S. ride around the golf course in power carts, especially at fancy resorts and courses that are part of far-flung residential complexes where it could be hundreds of yards between holes.

In some cases, you are forbidden to walk. According to the Wall Street Journal, power carts are the second-leading source of revenue for a course where a cart rented for $75 a month can return upwards of $500 a month.

But with the advent of places like Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay - where carts are allowed only for those with special medical needs - and the acceptance of the new golf pushcart, times may be a changing.

The tide turned first in 1999 with the introduction of the speed cart by Missoula, Mont.-based Sun Mountain, a company that earlier had come up with new materials and stitchings for stronger, lighter golf bags and integrated that with retractable legs, and later straps for both shoulders to carry them.

The technology was based on the fledging outdoor industry, the idea to use new materials and shoulder straps coming from backpacking equipment, the speed cart from the three-wheeled, baby jogging strollers.

"I saw a baby jogger going down the street and thought, 'That's probably a good idea,' " said Rick Reimers, the founder of Sun Mountain. "So I bought one, threw a golf bag in it, and it was unbelievable."

As Steve Snyders, a spokesman for the company explained, "The challenge to make the stroller work for golf was to make it lightweight and collapsible so it would fit in a trunk."

In today's market there are many choices, from the very compact Clicgear, to the four-wheel Bag Boy to Sun Mountain and a lot in between. No longer do I have to carry fewer clubs. Or pass on taking an umbrella, or a bottle of water. Or even limit myself to four balls; now that's pressure, especially if you lose one of them on the first hole.

The modern speed cart comes with extra storage, which in some cases includes gloves attached to the push bar for particularly cold weather. What can't you take?

But the real reason for the switch to the speed cart was so I could play forever. First, 50 years ago, it was a golf bag slung over my right shoulder, then for work a portable computer in the days when computers were far less portable.

My lower back was stiffening and an unhappy muscle behind my shoulder blade was causing numbness and pain in my right arm. A Feldenkrais yoga instructor said it was my neck that was the problem, and that I needed to stand taller and look to the horizon, not at my feet when I walked.

The speed cart forces me to walk taller and look up. So far, it's worked beautifully.

And I don't care if I look like a player or not. I suspect no one else does either.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's par putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.