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Shelter Island Sports Column: How golf carts hurt the game

When Mr. Clancy, our Shelter Island Reporter editor, asked me to pen another column regarding golf, I was reticent.

The last time I placed quill on parchment and waxed lyrical about the benefits of golf for one’s mind, body and soul, we went to print on April 9. That very day, due to the pandemic, the governor’s office closed all golf courses in New York State. I tried not to take it personally.

But sober judgment has got the better of me, surely lightning can’t strike twice, all my body parts are crossed. In hindsight, I truly believe the golf course closure order was a good thing.

It gave us golfers a warning. During the initial days of the pandemic, thousands and thousands of golfers swarmed onto the links of Nassau and Westchester and could be observed behaving far too nonchalantly about social distancing.

It was a well-timed slap on the wrist for New York State golfers, and we emerged with greater respect, vigilance and most importantly, more grateful for our golf.

As I mentioned in April, golf’s good walk spoiled has recently been exactly that, a walk. With the absence of motorized golf carts for many months, thereby curtailing the spread of coronavirus, we’ve been able to return to a principle of the game, walking. In my opinion, a terrific turn of events.

I arrived in America, an immigrant from the U.K. where motorized golf carts are a rarity and everybody walks the course. I’ve now been stateside for over 20 years, and I am grateful to have been so. However, I feel qualified to cast an aspersion — golf carts ain’t real golf.

Let’s look at the facts: golf carts are bad for grass, the very entity of the surface we play our beloved game upon. Since the recent restrictions, many members of Gardiner’s Bay have enjoyed the absence of golf carts, and I agree. It’s been refreshing to cast one’s eye across our links, devoid of golf carts.

These busy little buggies are a blight on the landscape and detract from the pleasure of our wandering eyes gazing unhindered across the course, across nature. The last time I checked, I didn’t spot any golf carts in a prized Turner, Constable or Monet.

While the golf cart is an understandable necessity for some, its endemic use has had murderous consequences. If video killed the radio star, the golf cart has almost killed the caddy. The caddy, once a staple across America in the first half of the 20th century, is now an endangered species, found languishing only in a few pockets of private clubs.

As a worthwhile side note, Gardiner’s Bay once had caddies, and we lost our most famous caddy recently. Sid “The Ironman” Beckwith passed away last week at 101. Sid’s caddying at GBCC began in 1931, aged 13. In 1961 he became president of the club.

Many of you know that Bob DeStefano and I have written many words about Sid, as has John Feinstein and The New York Times. Sid was an amazing age-shooting golfer and phenomenal joke-teller. Sid, may you sink many putts upon entering the pearly gates.

Back to the golf cart versus caddy battle and this bombshell, in my opinion, that golf carts are a reason the USA Ryder Cup team has lost so many matches over the last 40 years. “Wait, what?” I hear you cry. “Leigh, how on earth are golf carts to blame for the USA’s more recent decades of Ryder Cup decline?”

I know it sounds crazy, but roll with me like a Tiger Woods putt on this one.

Here’s my case: First the raw data: In the 19 Ryder Cups since World War II, a period of 38 years, the USA only lost one Cup. That’s amazing. However, beginning in 1985, the USA has only won five of the last 17 cups. That’s a turnaround.

Consider this: The golf cart was invented in 1932, when American JK Wadley observed a three-wheeled electric cart being used in Los Angeles to transport senior citizens to the grocery store.

This light bulb moment for JK led to the golf cart being employed by golfers with disabilities. It wasn’t until the mid- to late-1950s when the golf cart became more widely used. Several manufacturers entered the fray including Cushman, Club Car, and believe it or not, in 1963, Harley Davidson.

By the 1970s golf carts were prolific across America with only a handful of the most elite clubs not electing to utilize the golf cart. They didn’t need to rely on the income, and wanted to uphold the traditions of the game. Who could blame every other golf facility in America for accepting the golf cart? It’s a very large revenue generator for clubs, and it’s difficult to give up the almighty dollar.

Golf’s birth in America at the end of the 19th century was initially only for the super wealthy. It was the same across the Atlantic in Britain. The only access to golf for most kids was a job as a caddy. Many youngsters developed a love for the sport and discovered an affinity for the game. Caddying was the conduit that spawned many superlative players.

Golfing greats such as Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Lee Trevino and Billy Casper all began their golfing journey as child caddies. These guys were the greats of their eras. They came from nothing, born into poor, working class families. Caddy programs across the country were the catalyst for the birth of many of America’s greatest golfers and the dominance of the USA Ryder Cup team.

I believe the popularity of the golf cart has slowly eroded the need for caddy programs across the nation for several decades, causing a massive decline in the opportunity and development of grass roots (excuse the pun) golfers from lower income households. This has significantly reduced the pool of talent the country’s population provided, leading to the decline of the supremacy of American golf professionals in Ryder Cup Matches over the last 35 years.

Ironically, as America was ditching their caddies, the European charge was led by a young Spaniard in the works, a caddy emerging from Pedreña Golf Club, Spain, named Severiano ‘Seve’ Ballesteros. But that’s, as they say, another story.