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COURSE CARE
Things We Can Learn From Courses Without Carts August 14, 2020 By George Waters, USGA

Managing the courses at Bandon Dunes is unique because of the limited availability of golf carts. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)

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There’s a lot to see at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore., host site of the 2020 U.S. Amateur Championship. There are dramatic ocean views, massive dunes, steep cliffs and links golf holes in every direction. One thing you won’t see much of, however, are golf carts. Carts at the resort are restricted to golfers with a medical necessity and a caddie must drive to ensure that carts only travel the proper routes. While such limited cart use is unusual in the context of modern American golf, similar policies are common among the classic links courses of the United Kingdom and Ireland that provided the inspiration for Bandon Dunes.

A lot of golf courses depend on carts to get players around and generate revenue, but Bandon Dunes enjoys some unique circumstances that make cart-free living easier. The courses were all designed with walking in mind, so tee-to-green walks are typically short and there are very few steep uphill climbs. The cool coastal climate means that the difficulty of walking on a hot day is not usually an issue. There are also caddies and push carts available should golfers prefer not to carry their bag. The resort never planned to rely on carts as a revenue source and, perhaps most importantly of all, golfers know what to expect regarding carts and have made the trip anyway.

Fred Yates has been superintendent of the Bandon Dunes course since 2018 and worked on the resort’s Old Macdonald course from 2012-2017. With more than 20 years of experience in golf course maintenance, he has seen plenty of the issues that come with golf carts.

“It’s amazing how much time you can spend on traffic control at a typical golf course,” said Yates. “It felt like I used to spend half of my mornings as a superintendent moving cart signs and ropes trying to spread out traffic. The mower operators would also be constantly hopping off their machines to move ropes so they could mow an area, then they would have to replace them all before moving on. It takes up a lot of time, actually.”

“Right now, I don’t think I have a single rope or stake out on the course. That is such a luxury because it lets us spend more time on other things,” said Yates.

Along with not having to purchase, manage and maintain all of the usual traffic-control accessories, Yates and the other superintendents at the Bandon Dunes resort don’t have to worry about the various maintenance practices required to prevent or repair cart damage. There is no need to make additional fertilizer applications in high-traffic areas, no need to annually resod cart path ends or parking areas near greens and no need to spend time edging, maintaining and repairing cart paths. At a typical golf course, these hidden costs of cart use are often overlooked in the cart revenue calculations.

All this is not to say that traffic management isn’t important at Bandon Dunes. Rather than carts, the superintendents keep their eyes on the walking patterns of golfers and caddies and the traffic that comes with routine maintenance.

Ken Nice, director of agronomy at the resort, notes that walking patterns on and off greens lead to wear and tear at all the courses. “We certainly see traffic damage on the grass between bunkers, at the normal walk-off points from the greens – the spots that would be problematic at most golf courses. Our predominantly fine fescue fairways and approaches are surprisingly durable when it comes to taking traffic, but one major limitation I’ve seen in 20 years of managing fine fescue is recovery. When those areas get worn down, the fescue isn’t coming back unless you make a repair with sod.”

“What often happens in high-traffic areas is that Poa annua fills in,” said Nice. “While that’s not necessarily our preferred turf species, it’s the grass that’s happiest in those locations and our focus is on creating a playing surface. If Poa annua gives us the best playing surface in those areas, we’re comfortable with that.”

Maintenance traffic is another source of potential damage because the same tasks and travel routes are repeated on an almost daily basis throughout the year. Limiting wear and tear on the primary playing areas often means that the staff need to accept some inconveniences, and maybe get a little extra exercise. On the Bandon Dunes course, Yates limits where the bunker raking and divot repair teams can drive, trying to keep them on a network of maintenance trails in out-of-play areas as much as possible. They walk the fairways as they perform their tasks, leaving the cart behind to prevent wear from a repeated traffic pattern.

“We’re also mindful of how often we mow,” said Yates. “We’re especially careful in the winter, when we’re still seeing a lot of golf traffic but much slower grass growth. It’s easy to cause damage with unnecessary maintenance in those conditions. If we don’t need to mow an area, we’re not going to do it just because it’s on our normal schedule.”

Like most golf courses, the area around each green is especially challenging to maintain because there is so much concentrated golfer and maintenance traffic. Yates frequently skips mowing around the putting green edges to limit wear and tear. The resort also employs a rather unusual policy with push carts to limit damage around the greens.

“We actually let golfers take push carts right across the greens on all the courses,” said Nice. “It can be surprising when people see it for the first time, but otherwise golfers would always take their push carts in a loop around the green and that grass would quickly get worn down. Allowing them to go across the greens before leaving their push cart in the surrounds means that we’re changing a major traffic pattern each time that we move the hole. It also speeds up pace of play.”

“I can’t take credit for the idea,” said Nice with a laugh. “I stole it from the Sandbelt courses around Melbourne, Australia, but it has certainly worked well for us.”

While Bandon’s no-carts policy might not be something that would work at most golf courses in the U.S., there is still plenty of food for thought in this unique situation. The hidden costs of cart traffic seem to become more obvious when they’re taken out of the equation. The fact that carts aren’t the only traffic that requires management on a golf course and the benefits of dispersing all types of traffic are also clear. Regardless of whether we’re walking or riding during our round, sometimes taking the road less traveled can make all the difference.

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.

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