Golf carts have made the game accessible to many golfers who otherwise couldn't play the game, they give access to the course when conditions would otherwise be unbearable (like 115 degree days), they can be fun to drive and for the most part they have helped the game grow to the level it is now. However, like most other things in life, with the good comes the bad, and in this case the bad is damage to the turf which is also vital to a good game of golf.
Most folks don't realize the impact on soil and turf conditions caused by carts. I can find areas of cart damage on every single hole we have here at Mountain Brook Golf Club, some areas that are quite significant. Damage can occur in two different forms, soil compaction and turf injury. Soil compaction can happen instantly on a wet area, or over time in dry areas. Turf damage happens much quicker, however, depending on the time of year it can usually heal quicker too.
Soil compaction creates a unique problem for turf grass. As soil becomes compacted by the weight of a cart, or even by humans walking on it, the ground becomes hard and dense. As compaction increases it reduces air and water porosity in the soil as well as the ability for water to move through the soil. This reduces the shoot growth rate of turf grass and the recuperative properties of damaged areas. In addition, it allows invasive weeds that favor compacted areas to grow there instead of grass. Walking and riding both affect compaction, and interestingly enough walking actually puts more pressure on the ground than a cart traveling in a straight line does. The problem is that cart wheels travel on about 50 times more surface area than walking does, and when the cart turns and weight is shifted to the outside of the tires compaction increases in that area dramatically. At Mountain Brook you can see compacted areas near the cart paths, particularly around the tees and greens, that are so bad we just can't get grass to grow there at all. The only way to get grass to grow there again would be to rope it off, curb the path, or otherwise somehow prevent any traffic on those areas, and then spend many man hours repairing the damage. There are other places that are on the edge of becoming barren areas, again most of these are around the greens as that is where most golf shots occur and are therfore subject to the highest traffic volume. I know the temptation to drive up to your ball in these areas is great, we all get a little lazy, in a hurry, or think that if we do it just this one time it won't really matter. Of course, the groups behind and in front of you are thinking the same thing and if we all did it the damage would be significant.
The other form of damage is turf injury. While the weight of the cart is a factor just as it is in compaction, starting, stopping, and turning are the larger problem here. Under these conditions the grass is not only crushed flat, but also twisted and pulled. This bruises the leaves and ruptures the cells in the grass leafs, eventually causing the damaged blades to die. Consequently we end up with grass that is dead, patchy, or matted flat, and these areas are much harder to chip and pitch from than a fluffy, pristine patch of grass. Since more turning, starting, and stopping occurs in high traffic areas, which again leads us to around the greens, this is why most courses including ours discourage the use of carts around the greens. Again, please utilize the cart path any time you are near the greens, and avoid sharp turns, and fast stops and starts anywhere on the golf course.
The above information is why we have specific rules on cart usage out on the golf course. We want to keep the carts away from sensitive areas such as tees and greens completely. Rule of thumb is at least 30 yards away from any green, or farther if a section is roped off. The majority of all shots on the golf course are closest to the green so we want to protect these areas as much as possible, nobody wants to chip and pitch off hardpan or damaged turf. Tee boxes are critical too as they receive traffic in very confined areas from every golfer who plays and are easily subject to damage. In addition, dropped, broken, or spent tees can cause flat tires on the cart fleet.
Bottom line is this: Keep the cart on the cart path around the tees and greens, don't pull off at all when you park, maintanence vehicles and the beverage cart can go around you if necessary. It makes a difference for every player on the golf course, the long term health of the golf course depends on it. If you are asked by anyone on the golf course staff to avoid parking in various areas, we make this request because we invest hundreds of thousands of dollars every year trying to maintain a playable turf. Overseed alone costs almost $100,000, we want to protect our investment and give you a golf course worth playing. For those of you who obey the rules, thank you very much for your effort, we really appreciate your cooperation.
If you have any questions regarding cart operations on the golf course, please check with the Pro Shop staff.