Planet GolfApril 1, 2012

The Australian Way

Why dragging a pushcart over a green is a good thing (and other secrets to make golf more fun and affordable).

Following proper cart etiquette at Huntingdale Golf Club in Melbourne.

Following proper cart etiquette at Huntingdale Golf Club in Melbourne.

When playing golf in Australia, understand that the "sockettes" we Americans have foisted upon the world and which leave the ankle horrifyingly exposed will get you booted out of most clubs. But taking a pushcart across the putting surface? That's strongly encouraged!

This latter bit of laxity--a shocking act of defiance for those of us reared to believe the putting surface holds eggshell status--speaks to a vital difference between golf Down Under and the game in the United States. We Americans have much to learn from golf in Australia, particularly as the game stagnates at the club level and the golf model is (thankfully) re-evaluated. Without question, the Australian way should provide inspiration--minus the dress-code peccadillos. Just ask the USGA executive director.

"They're a little bit like golfers in the U.K. in the sense that they just don't overdo their maintenance, and the expectations of golfers aren't quite as high in terms of having perfect wall-to-wall conditions, which directly is reflected in the cost to play the game," Mike Davis said after making his first visit Down Under for last November's Presidents Cup. "Because their standards aren't as demanding for things like the rough, they don't over-irrigate or over-fertilize, and it's kind of how I remember golf being where I grew up. We've certainly gotten away from those values in this country."

Australian golf is amazingly affordable to those of us in a country where just about every basic purchase makes you feel like you're edging one step closer to bankruptcy. A few elite, big-city clubs in Australia top out at $20,000 (U.S.) for initiation fees, but most are much less, and annual dues are in the $3,500 range. Even at Tasmania's sparkling new Barnbougle Dunes resort, a Down Under Bandon Dunes where 36-holes of world-class links golf await, all-day unlimited golf will cost you $140. Then there's the Australian attitude. Think California cool. Without trying so hard.

The Aussies love their sports, they love their outdoors, and though some of them can be insufferably competitive at times, most have a better golf sense than any other nationality when deciding what's most vital. The resulting Australian version is a dream hybrid of the best links-golf attributes, but played at glorious inland settings with sensible values: pleasurable walking, a sense of fun, genuine affordability and even decent accessibility to the best courses, including some nifty reciprocal relationships between big-city clubs. All of these common-sense values are merged effortlessly with the elements Americans have come to desire in their golf: modernized facilities; quality course maintenance of greens, fairways and tees; and strong design aesthetics.


Initial impressions can be deadly, however, especially after the 15-hour flight from L.A. to Melbourne. If you arrive via the main entrance of just about any clubhouse on the continent (and there are some stunning architectural shrines), you'll be greeted with a pamphlet outlining club dress and etiquette. Some of the bizarre rules can be traced to Her Majesty's "Royal" clubs in the United Kingdom, but because of the Australians' kindness and sense of cool, the quibbling seems contradictory. Particularly when the rules are featured in a TSA-style brochure of do's and don'ts, replete with "acceptable" and "unacceptable" fashion photos.

For instance, boat shoes and no socks, the uniform for American men over 40 arriving for a summer round of golf? No way, Paul Hogan. Golf shoes that look suspiciously like tennis shoes? Those are OK. But actual tennis shoes not made specifically for golf? How dare you! The obsessiveness reaches its zenith with sock fetishes that allow for "anklets" slightly covering the ankles, but sockettes giving the impression of mere foot and shoe fall into the "unacceptable" category. And for those wearing utterly awkward long socks, there's the color issue (just white!), with only club logos allowed. And what about the corporate branding often found on today's socks or one of those subversive stripes displaying a hint of color? Head to the golf shop for replacements, mate.


The fashion histrionics leap out only when contrasted with the core strengths of Aussie golf: walking with pushcarts, and different maintenance priorities that combine to reduce the overall price dramatically.

Now, about the dreaded pushcart. Or the "three-wheel." Or the "micro-cart." Or the "golf-bag cart." Or the "one-click collapsible." Down Under, they are buggies. In the U.K., they're trolleys. Frankly, I say whatever name floats your boat will do.

Regardless of branding, Aussies express none of the inexplicable American vitriol still channeled toward those electing to get much-needed exercise while pushing or pulling their bag around a country-club course. (Because healthy and grown adults of means sputtering around in a motorized cart is so much sexier, healthier and agronomically sensible?)

The "pullcart" was an American invention, traceable to Bruce Williamson of Portland, Ore., in 1945. Desiring a way to walk while keeping his bag dry, Williamson devised his movable golf-bag-holder out of lawn-mower wheels mounted on a spring-suspension chassis. To make Williamson's American-dream story complete, he eventually partnered with E. Roy Jarman to create a successful pullcart-making company that refined their product line before a series of purchases and mergers over the decades left us with today's Bag Boy Company.

Yet it wasn't until 2002 that trolley designers broke the sound barrier of golf neuroses and shifted to new-look "push" vehicles. Pushing put us behind the wheel, dictating where we are headed and when we're getting there. Whereas the word "pull" too closely connotes an act of manual labor, as if we've been asked to drag a wheelbarrow full of horse manure for 20 cents an hour instead of our shiny clubs on a pristine ground designed for the Royal and Ancient game?

In a practical sense, shifting from pull to push has greatly reduced the number of embarrassing flip-overs that tend to occur with pulling your clubs. Regardless of modus operandi, pushcarts get people walking. And here's your monster Golf Digest news flash: AMERICAN GOLFERS NEED TO WALK MORE

Ask longtime Aussie golfers--few of whom appear even slightly overweight--how long pushcarts have been around, and they can't remember an era of Australian golf without them. Since Americans have started pushing instead of pulling, such carts seem to be growing in acceptability nationwide, especially now that manufacturers like Bag Boy, Sun Mountain and Cart-Tek have added amenities, new colors and, most of all, amped up the wheels to exude an element of sports-car cool. "For the life of me I can't figure out why there's always been a disdain for them," says the USGA's Davis. "Though if you go to the Pacific Northwest it seems like everyone uses them. It's a very geographically centric notion that [pushcarts] are acceptable."


Here's the best part: heftier-wheeled manual carts have been around Aussie links forever and are even considered part of the maintenance plan. At every elite club I pulled into, you're not met by a pretty-boy Disneyland greeter, but instead by a row of free buggies. Very few golfers Down Under carry their bag, and caddies appear almost nonexistent. (Motorized carts are discouraged, though sadly they're appearing at more and more courses.) Most of the standard buggies feature a small sand bucket dangling from the center rod for filling divot holes. And when golfers approach the greens, they're encouraged to push the unit right on across. That simple act--which never feels right to an American no matter how many times you do it--toughens and smooths the greens in the thinking of Australian superintendents. And in a practical sense, it saves an immense amount of pushcart time avoiding the annoying circumvention of what Americans coddle: the putting surface. With less of the chemical dependence that can lead to thatch build-up and the need for frequent aerification, it's no coincidence that Australians sport firmer, faster, smoother and more disease-resistant putting surfaces that are a fraction of the American price to build and maintain.

Then there's the overall lack of turfgrass wear and tear typically induced by motorized golf carts, a dreadful, understudied and not-fully understood agronomic side effect that Americans consider minor because cart revenue is believed to be essential to sunrises and sunsets.

"There's always been this sense that owners and operators liked motorized carts because of the revenue," Davis says, "but what they don't account for is how much extra wear and tear they put on the golf course, and how that increases the cost of maintaining a course."

Australia's austere-but-still-excellent maintenance approach means more attention can be focused on keeping fairways tightly mowed and green approaches maintained more lovingly than in America. The common-sense Australian way can be traced to one man and his simple axiom.

"You in America try to grow grass," Royal Melbourne superintendent Claude Crockford once told Ben Crenshaw. "We try to keep it from growing here."

"He was light-years ahead of most people in his field," says Crenshaw, a huge admirer of the Australian practices retained and spread by many of Crockford's descendants.

Kingston Heath


Perhaps no more magnificent contribution to the game was Crockford and friends' sensible approach to bunkers. Instead of trying to keep two to five inches of sand in the faces so that golfers will not be exposed to the horrible sight of contrasting soil colors, Aussies believe in firm faces with just a splattering of whitish granules. If a little of the bunker floor shows through, it's no big deal. The resulting firm faces regularly send incoming balls to the base, where Aussie maintenance crews rake and maintain these flatter bottom areas as needed, only touching up the faces sporadically. The effect is stunning.

For starters, the plugged lie--next to the root canal as one of life's least-enjoyable exercises--has almost no place in the Australian game. Incoming balls pinball around the firm bunkers before typically settling on the flat floor, offering a reasonable chance at recovery most of the time. To some, the word "reasonable" might be a stretch because the Australians embrace bunkers as authentic hazards where the firmness requires a precision of strike with which Americans are not familiar. Although the Aussies' virtual hardpan takes some getting used to, patience will be rewarded with big perks: no fried eggs, easier-to-hit bunker shots when you learn to let the sole of the club do the work, and very little effort expended raking your way in and out of the bunker.

Don't forget the relief this brings the bunker crew. Not only does Crockford's approach cut down on the unfathomable number of hours American crews spend primping our so-called hazards to perfection, the staff can devote time to things that matter: fairways and greens. And these days, the only things that matter are fresh ways to make golf cheaper, faster, more fun and more sensible. So look to the Aussies to show us the way. Just watch your socks.

Contributing Editor Geoff Shackelford, who has consulted on design and restoration of classic courses, visited Australia for the first time during the 2011 Presidents Cup.