Golf carts have been a major component of golf in the U.S. for decades. They are invaluable for golfers that find it too difficult to walk while playing and they make golf more enjoyable on courses with extremely hilly topography or long distances between holes. Golf carts are also a major revenue source for golf courses, although there are many associated costs that are often overlooked. However, we know there is a detrimental side to golf cart traffic – increased turf damage.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many courses to institute single-rider cart policies to follow social distancing guidelines. Unfortunately, the increased traffic will result in more wear and damage to the course, especially if the grass is growing slowly. The short-term effects are likely to be thin lies and worn out turf in high-traffic areas.
The long-term damage from increased golf cart traffic over a period of weeks or months can be significant. In some cases, the grass cannot recover from the chronic wear and tear and bare spots will develop and expand. Courses with poor drainage or heavy soils – e.g., clay – are particularly susceptible to cart damage and soil compaction that could limit turf performance for years. Addressing these issues will likely require increased aeration and other intensive maintenance practices.
Wear patterns and thin turf will become most prevalent around tees, landing areas and green surrounds so it’s best to spread traffic out as much as possible in these areas. You may see more stakes, ropes, and traffic control signage as a result at some courses, while others have removed these items to increase mowing efficiency and encourage carts to scatter as much as possible. Golf courses that have a limited cart path network will have a harder time controlling traffic and are likely to experience more damage than those with a continuous path network.
Walking instead of riding is the best way to reduce cart traffic. If using a cart, we can minimize the damage by keeping carts on paths as much as possible, especially near tees and greens. Traffic control measures at cart path entry and exit locations can reduce damage. Courses may also restrict carts to paths on a hole or two for a few days at a time to help reduce traffic damage. Courses with continuous cart paths can rotate this restriction to give every hole an occasional break. Keep an eye out for educational materials in the golf shop, locker room, and even in the carts themselves that explain cart rules and help you navigate through the course with the least impact.
Golf carts have become an important part of the game in the U.S., and this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Nonetheless, we must do all that we can to protect courses from added wear and tear caused by increased cart traffic. While superintendents will work to implement effective guidelines and programs to reduce traffic damage, we can all do our part by operating golf carts responsibly and following cart rules when we play.