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I can't be absolutely sure about the date, but I think I saw a golf cart for the first time somewhere around 1952 at the Burlingame Country Club near San Francisco. At the time it seemed to be worthy of immediate applause. It made 18 holes of golf possible for a gallant and impetuous friend of mine who had left most of one of his legs on a beach in the Marianas nearly 10 years before. This fellow had been a brilliant athlete in school and college, and it was heart-warming to discover that he could once again use his coordination and grace on the golf course. There were qualifications to my enthusiasm, however. On our way around the course I had a few short rides with Ferdy in his new cart, and the way he drove it down gullies and across bridges, I'd just as lief have been with him on that beach at Saipan.
Not too long after that we all learned how the cart was making it possible for President Eisenhower to resume his golfing after his first heart attack. That was another merit badge for carting, bringing home what a boon this invention would be to those who could still play the game but, for one reason or another, couldn't walk the full 18 holes. I also remember how much criticism we heard at the time on the subject of the President's golfing, and not all of it came from the political type who just spouts to get his name in the paper. I think a lot of people felt, as I did, that 18 holes of golf was too much for a man who had experienced a heart disturbance—that is, if he were going to have any energy left over for his job. But, as I say, I knew nothing about golf carts, and though I knew that it must be easier to ride around the course than to walk it, it seemed to me that 18 holes of golf was still a pretty rough grind for a semi-invalid.
Those of us who must live and play our golf along the northern reaches of the eastern seaboard are accustomed to a somewhat Spartan approach to the game, part of which involves walking around the course on one's own two pins. At one club where I play there is an elderly gentleman—I should judge him to be pushing 80—who trots through 18 holes carrying his own clubs summer and winter, even when the ground is frozen and the course otherwise abandoned, for reasons that have nothing to do with thrift. At another club I visit now and then there is an extremely wealthy lady in her middle 70s who does more or less likewise. In the face of such examples, no self-respecting golfer would dare ride around in a cart as long as he was sound of limb and body.
So it was with some surprise that I discovered golf carts to be as common as citrus fruit when I visited Florida a season or two ago. Younger golfers in their 30s and 40s rode them without apology and even used them—not without protest—during informal tournaments. A set of brothers with no good reason not to walk other than an aversion to unnecessary exercise had even installed walkie-talkie radio sets in their carts so they could communicate across the course with one another when they weren't playing in the same match. You might say that at that point the golf cart had arrived at an advanced state of decadence almost before it had reached maturity.
It is no doubt appropriate that, since the golf cart has been slowly coming into its own—and even creeping inexorably into the hardier climates of the North—it should attain full flower in Palm Springs, that burgeoning California desert resort area that refers to itself as The Winter Golf Capital of the World. With 11 courses serving communities whose populations total only 30,000 permanent residents, the desert enterprisers have truly done more than any other spot in the country to bring what was once a rich man's game to Everyman. When Everyman gets into the act he usually manages to streamline an activity and adapt it to the pace of the times while ignoring the surly mutterings of the traditionalists. "The oldtimers may think they can avoid it," says Jimmy Hines, one of the veteran pros, "but the cart is here to stay. It's got to stay. Just think what it's done for golf."
Hines today is the vice-president and part owner of a country club that may be to golf what gunpowder was to warfare. At Eldorado, in Palm Desert—and before that, down the road at Thunderbird—Hines and his friends in the West have built a golf world that is so completely mechanized that the resort might more aptly refer to itself as The Golf Cart Capital of the World. As of last week the 11 courses were operating 729 golf carts among them, and it is a rare golfer indeed who will set out on one of those courses on foot. In fact, if he does he is likely to bring a few frowns and protests for jamming the traffic.
WHITHER THE CART?
This saturation of golf by the golf cart raises an inevitable question: What is the cart doing to golf? Since it obviously is no longer simply a Samaritan to the aged and the infirm, the cart must obviously serve some important functional role. Does it, for instance, speed up the game? Does it make golf physically less demanding and thereby improve any given golfer's ability? Does it make golf more fun? You can get a yes or no to any of these questions, but everyone around Palm Springs, whether approving of carts or not, seems agreed that they represent progress. Claude Harmon, who began his new duties as the head pro at Thunderbird in October, expresses the philosophy of the golf cart protagonists with this question: "Would you walk to the market to do your shopping when you could get in your car and drive there?"
As far as the best memories around Palm Springs can reconstruct it, the first golf cart made its appearance there about nine years ago, coinciding with the beginning of the golfing boom in the area. It was a walloping four-wheeled, six-passenger vehicle which had been brought West by a prosperous oilman from Houston named D. B. McDaniels. Its two-cycle gasoline engine chugged and wheezed and spat noxious fumes and shattered the nerves of virtually every golfer on the Thunderbird course except its owner. However, Palm Springs is a youthful, aggressive sort of place, patronized by energetic and successful business people from all across the country who refuse to turn their backs to the future, and many of them were quick to see prospects in this monster. The pros in the golf shop were soon in touch with a Long Beach firm that produced electric carts for invalids, and before long a quiet, electric-motored golf cart was in the making. The outcome of this empirical period was a two-passenger cart called the Autoette, and except for refinements, it varied little from the majority of carts in operation today. The first Autoettes were put into use at Thunderbird during the 1951—52 winter, and that could be called the Year One in the era of the cart.
It should be noted that Palm Springs has a problem—if it can be called a problem—that is endemic among expensive resorts. A high percentage of its best customers have made their nest eggs and are now taking it easy. If these citizens can be mounted, their patronage offers a wonderful source of revenue for country clubs such as those at Palm Springs, where the golf courses have to be raised on an arid desert that previously supported nothing thirstier than sagebrush and now require upward of $100,000 a year for items of maintenance such as 500,000 to a million gallons of water a day.