The pandemic caused many to rediscover the joys of walking. Will the feeling last?
Golf is the perfect activity for social distancing. And with courses opening up amidst the pandemic, walking is getting more traction than in decades past, as captured by our J.D. Cuban at Rustic Canyon Golf Course in Moorpark, Calif., in the beginning of May.
Golf’s return to walking, at least in the motorized cart-centric U.S. market, might be an isolated moment dictated by the necessity of the times. But it’s also a chance to appreciate anew the game on foot and maybe embrace walking as an aspect at least as central to the golf experience as, well, what carts were just six months ago.
Quaint, perhaps. Retro cool, in a way. To some, maybe an inconvenience. Nevertheless, walking brought golf back quicker than any other previously “normal” activity. Whether it was in the chilly Midwest or sunny Texas and Florida, walkers were everywhere, many likely rediscovering the way they first came to the game. Walking golf made social distancing natural, not something to be mandated. In essence, the experience wasn’t all that different from a walk in the woods.
Golf, of course, is more than a Robert Frost poem. So maybe we frame our discussion in less romantic, more practical terms. Science and data are clear: Walking is better for your health, your swing and your score.
Maybe golfers intrinsically knew this. At every state where courses reopened, lightweight carry bags and pushcarts were gobbled up like flat-screen TVs on Black Friday—and back orders stretched to midsummer. Bag Boy, the leading manufacturer of pushcarts in the United States, called the interest level “unprecedented,” with sales projected to be “four to eight times” what they were a year ago. On eBay, “trolleys” were selling for three times their original price (if you could find one), and local shops from New Jersey to North Dakota were looking for trade-ins.
Though it was initially the only option, all sorts of golfers embraced playing the game on foot. Lowell Weaver, owner of The Medalist Golf Club in Michigan, one of the state’s top public courses, says there were fewer than 200 rounds recorded by walkers in all of 2019 at his place, but this spring, he saw more than that number in a single day—on a course that winds up and down hills, across ponds and ravines, over and through 275 heavily wooded acres.
“People were itching to play,” Weaver says. “People found out they could walk our course. I now have people coming out to walk that wouldn’t have before.”
The numbers for walking rounds decreased as Michigan and other states reinstated cart privileges, but that meant leaving behind one of the healthiest aspects of the golf experience. If sitting is the new smoking, playing golf while planted on your keister for 90 percent of the afternoon seems at best counterproductive. Making the biomechanically demanding moves of the golf swing after reclining in cushioned comfort seems a bit like jumping off your couch to suddenly execute a couple squat thrusts every five minutes.
By contrast, walking can be the foundation for a better swing, says Lance Gill, founder of LG Performance and co-director of the Fitness Advisory Board for the Titleist Performance Institute. “What you’re doing on every single step is, you’re going through a golf swing,” he says. “It involves your neck to your shoulders to your mid-spine to your lower spine to your pelvis and, of course, your legs and feet and how they work together as a team. It’s the best warm-up you can do because it involves every part of your body.”
Neil Wolkodoff, the medical director at the Colorado Center for Health and Sport Science, says that though golf on foot is additive to your fitness routine, his studies show that walking burns 50 to 55 percent more calories than riding. “That can be significant in terms of health impact,” he says. How significant? A study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, where the vast majority of golfers walk, showed the death rate for golfers is 40 percent lower than the rest of the population.
Wolkodoff says walking can help reduce injury, too. “Walking the course is like idling the metabolic and muscular engine,” he says, “so the body is partway warmed up to the demands of the actual swing.”
Tour players are better than average golfers for a lot of reasons, but Gill says walking is one of them. “Their ability to be able to control their knees, their pelvis, their ankles, their core is off-the-charts good,” he says. “It’s not necessarily because they work out more, it’s because they walk upward of 50 miles a week.”
Health is nice, of course, but how about something immediate and tangible? Well, Wolkodoff ’s study showed that players averaged three shots better for a nine-hole round when they walked with a pushcart compared to riding.
There is a natural rhythm to the game on foot that goes beyond calories burned and strokes saved. “Walking is a form of meditation,” Gill says. Golf’s sense of escape, especially in times of stress, is best experienced as a walk in the woods rather than a race around a cartpath. (And we haven’t even discussed how course maintenance is easier and less expensive when the majority of rounds don’t involve 1,200 pounds of motorized vehicle compacting the turf everywhere you look.)
Unfortunately, despite all these benefits, despite the rise in popularity of golf meccas like Bandon Dunes or those bucket-list trips to Ireland and Scotland where walking is more or less mandatory, and even the recent surge in walking-related purchases like pushcarts and lightweight carry bags, there is no sense the walking game will fully return to golf in this country.
Lawsuits demanding the use of carts in states that had banned them were threatened before state authorities eventually relented on their no-carts rules.
Furthermore, the cart is built into the economic model of how the golf-course business functions in America. As Weaver says about the business side of his course operation, a riding golfer in a typical outing might generate twice the revenue of a walking golfer, and that’s not just in cart fees. “If you’re in a golf cart, you’re more likely to get a hot dog or a burger, a couple of snacks and a six-pack to go.
“If you’re walking, you might only get a bottle of water.”
Healthier, certainly, but walking seems simpler, cleaner. Probably what we need in times like these. Weaver has seen that change at his course. “There was a willpower to walk,” he says. “I had people who had signed up thinking they were just going to play nine, but they’d come in after the turn and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to walk the back nine, too.’ ”
Maybe this resurgence in walking is a good reminder that the game’s basic appeal lies in a steady progression of steps that seem to refresh more than they fatigue. Steps forward that bring us all the way back to where we started.
These are some of our favorite walking bags to make those rounds walking just a little bit easier on our back.
▶ The aerospace-foam strap self-balances on this three-pound bag, but there’s still room for a four-way top with full-length dividers and seven pockets. $250
▶ That multipart base allows for stability, but most important, it’s hinged to provide extra room at the bottom so your clubs slide more easily in and out. $200
▶ A high-tensile strength fabric helps make this the lightest Hoofer bag at three pounds, and a rain hood fits inside the hip pad. The strap easily converts from double to single. $250
▶ There’s a slot for all 14 clubs in your set because of the capacious 10.5-inch top. (That includes full-length dividers.) Nevertheless, the total weight is less than four pounds thanks to carbon-fiber legs. $240
▶ This updated design features a smaller folded size, a one-latch, two-step folding system and a more upright position for the bag for easier club access. $240
▶ The waxed-canvas accessory bag and whitewall spoked tires give this pushcart a vintage feel, but the anodized-aluminum construction and one-fold handle offer modern simplicity. $400
▶ If your trunk is overstocked already, here’s a pushcart slim enough to fit between the front and back seat of your car, and it weighs just 6.5 pounds. $350
▶ Tired of trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube to unfold your pushcart? This air-powered piston system takes this cart from folded to ready with the press of one button. $260
▶ Like having R2-D2 as your caddie, this ride automatically follows you at your pace, even braking as it goes down hills. It can also be guided via remote control. $2,500
▶ Designed mainly for golf-course rental, this autonomous machine follows your pace, and there’s space for a cooler, plus connectivity features such as on-course GPS, a USB port and a charging pad for your phone.