The Push and The Pull

The pull cart is still derided by four-wheeling cowboys and even bag-laden purists. But as one doubter discovered while on a golf tour of Ireland, putting our sticks on wheels may carry us to the promised land.
Vintage Golf Pull Cart
Photo: Geoff Cunningham
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I begged him to leave it behind. There was a list of things I told Chip he need not bring to Ireland: cash (currency exchanges were a rip-off; ATMs had the best rates), an umbrella (useless in the wind; better to invest in a rain suit) and shorts (there was no word in the native tongue for shorts, while there were 100 for rain: it’s a bucketin’, lashing, pissing, pouring, dirty, soft day). But when he insisted on bringing along his pull cart, I could not conjure a convincing rebuttal that did not risk offending my future travel-mate. That Chip even owned a pull cart offended my closeted golf snobbery, and I got busy inventing excuses for how I came to be seen in its company; maybe the Irish would believe he had an old shoulder injury from days of quarterbacking glory, or that he had lost a bet and toting this pull cart was punishment. But as Chip joined me on my walking path around Ireland with his rickety silver wagon resurrected from your grandfather’s garage sale, I did not eye him with suspicion or embarrassment; rather, I envied him for his rolling conveyance. As I hauled my load on aching shoulders, Chip freewheeled smoothly along the roads and fairways of Wicklow and, step by step, taught me to love the trolley.

I had grown up in a golf world where the pull cart was for golfers in cut-offs with six-packs stuffed in their bags, an accessory reserved for public dirt tracks that I, as a refined country-club caddy, dismissed with hegemonic zeal. My looping days trained me to size up a player by a glance at his gear (Iron covers? No chance. I’ll take the Ping bag), learning young that, in golf, appearances mattered. And nothing appeared less player-ly than a pull cart. 

I don’t know where such stigma was born, or why I felt the same way about plastic tees and ball retrievers and those folded bag towels with the brass clip; maybe it was an aversion to equipment you bought in sporting goods stores versus private club pro shops. The latter didn’t abide pull carts, so neither would I. But then I golfed my way around Ireland, circling the island on foot in search of a pure golf experience, and I learned that my pull-cart pretensions were misplaced—nay, they were backwards, a lesson reinforced years later as I played every links in Scotland. More ubiquitous than rain or ruddy faced caddies were pull carts at golf’s most ancient tracks. They called them trolleys, and these golfers of the British Isles to whom I looked to understand their game, they did not golf without one. I don’t think Chip knew this as he jammed his cart into the overhead bin on his way to Dublin to join me, but his trolley earned him local status while this golf snob remained the visitor.

Golf tends to struggle when common sense clashes with tradition, but in the case of the pull cart, both logic and legacy are on its side. Pushing the pull cart into our American golf habit will bear so much obvious fruit: more walkers, getting lighter and healthier by the round; fewer motor carts, meaning less fuel, healthier fairways and fewer of those pricey concrete eyesores they drive upon. When it comes to golf’s three biggest challenges (it’s too hard, it takes too long and it costs too much), pull carts patch two of them: They can knock 30 bucks off your round for the Club Car rental, and walking-only courses always enjoy a better pace. (There is nothing slower than cart-path-only golf.) 

The anti-pull-cart lobby has but a few flimsy arguments based on custom and aesthetics, but pull carts have come a long way in terms of looks. “Pushcart” is a more apt description now—sleek lines and performance tires that glide effortlessly ahead of golfers, far removed from their ramshackle, toppling ancestors. And when it comes to heritage, if pull carts are good enough for Muirfield, a club whose Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers literally wrote the rules of golf (13 of them in 1744), how can we golfing greenhorn Yanks object? And they do love their trolleys; you’ll find well-worn paths in the high rough at Muirfield where golfers trolley ahead as their playing partners drive balls over them. (The speedy Muirfield members play almost exclusively foursomes/alternate shot.) 

The elephant sitting atop the widely banned pull cart is one of American golf’s dirty secrets: Golf clubs don’t want you to walk. Most of them, anyway. Golf’s governing bodies espouse the game’s health benefits and champion the walking golfer, but without motor-cart revenue, a lot of courses might go belly-up. A $5 trolley fee might offset some lost profit, but for a genuine remedy, we need again look to the wisdom of our golfing elders. 

Even more than their trolleys, I envy Scottish and Irish golfers for their cheap golf. Membership at some of the top links in the British Isles is affordable on a postman’s salary, making the local club a hub and heart of the community versus our gated fraternity model. Getting costs down for golf clubs will make them less riding-cart dependent, but doing so will require players to adopt the mindset of golfers over there, who do not demand budget-busting, manicured perfection in their courses.

If we could tolerate layouts that felt a little more natural (one golfer’s ragged is another golfer’s pure), and if we didn’t demand castles for clubhouses (the Scots tend to get by on a bar, a locker room and a roof), the cost of golf might come to resemble that of an actual game. And our empty fairways might become busy once again, populated by pedestrians behind three wheels. 

There is hope for the trolley in North America. Pushcarts are welcome at pure-golf destinations like Bandon Dunes and Cabot, and they can be spotted at college tournaments. (The American Junior Golf Association tour started allowing them in 2009, so a new generation of players has grown up unburdened by pull-cart prejudice.) But it isn’t the flat-bellied youngsters who need them most—it’s the country-club golfer who can’t pry himself from his cart.

To break the private-course barrier, it’s going to take a pull-cart pioneer. It will require a profile’s worth of courage for that first golfer to show up at his brand-name country club outside Chicago or Boston or Philadelphia and wheel his clubs up to the tee.

He will be sneered at. Derided. Lampooned in the grill room. But he will be remembered. I admit that vanity will prevent it from being me, but let us hope that there is a Chip out there somewhere who will keep on pushing. 

Tom Coyne is the author of A Course Called Ireland and A Course Called Scotland, both New York Times best sellers, as well as the forthcoming A Course Called America. He is an associate professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.