The perfect cart girl has a soft smile, but thick skin. All the ruthless flirting and unwanted come-ons—just how bad, and bawdy, does it really get? As a 24-year-old female on the Golf Digest editorial staff, I was the best person to find out. With the tacit cooperation of two courses in Arizona, I went undercover behind the wheel for three days. The names in this story have been changed, but the exchanges with patrons are verbatim, as recorded by the stealthy spy pen that rode shotgun in my front pocket.
The general manager unlocks the beer closet. In a single weekend, this course will go through eight cases of Coors Light, eight cases of Bud Light, four cases of Miller Lite, three cases of Corona and two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Then he introduces my overseer for the day. "Hi! I'm Sally."
Her curly brown hair bounces as she walks, as do the ruffled layers of her skirt. She's tiny, has a cute smile, and looks about 30. She smirks, clearly loving the secret mission.
"We planned on you riding in the passenger seat of the cart, but we've got these margarita machines, so there isn't space for you," the GM says. Sally flips a switch, and the green and silver metal box violently vibrates and spews a greenish liquid from its spigot. "The guys love it," she says.
Just then a golfer walks by and asks, "Who's the new girl?" Without missing a beat, the GM says, "Keely. She's a trainee."
We hadn't talked about how I'd introduce myself. Three minutes into the mission, and I've almost blown my cover. I smile and shake the golfer's hand. "You're going to love it here," he says.
Sally gives a tour of the cart: Coolers on both sides filled with ice, beer, Gatorade, water and juices, with a snack section above. "It only gets tough when guys start asking for beers that are on different sides," Sally says. "You end up running back and forth a lot."
As crowd-pleasing as it might be for me to ride on Sally's lap, the GM hands me the keys to a regular cart. He flips up the top half of the windshield. "You'll need this. You drive backward on the course."
"Once I got hit three times in one day," Sally giggles.
Our gas-powered carts sputter loudly as we take off. We come upon our first customers almost immediately.
"Well, what do we have here?" These guys are regulars; they know I don't belong. Sally jumps in, "Hi, boys! This is Keely. She's a trainee."
"Keely, I'm John. I'm the nice one, and this is my gay friend Chris." Unoriginal and bigoted.
I toss them a half-hearted laugh and smile.
"You graduate school?"
"Yes, sir. Finished up last year."
"What'd you study up there at ASU?"
Arizona State University—the second element of my new identity unfolds. I roll with it. "English."
"Well, good luck getting a job with that," they laugh. Hilarious.
"Can we get you guys something to drink?"
They order, and I help Sally round up the beers. We ask how their round is going. Before they drive away, one turns to me and says, "The new girl's my favorite. I like you, new girl."
Sally parks under a tree and peers through the branches to a tee box 200 yards away. We wait, listening for the tee balls. "It's so hard to tell when they wave," Sally says. "It's like, do you want me to come over, or no? It all comes down to a psychology game, figuring out what the golfer wants. Was that four? I think that was four. Let's go!" She floors it.
After two hours with Sally, I've learned a lot. Most critical is to know if a golfer wants your services. Occasionally they wave you by in disgust, as if you and your loud cart are the reason they're not playing well. If a golfer does want a drink or snack, next is figuring out how to engage. The tone for the conversation is set within the first 30 seconds. Whatever they open with is the way they want the interaction to go. If the guy is going to be nice, he'll be nice from the start; if he's going to flirt, his first sentence will be a gunner. Though the cart girl can set the tone, too. If you immediately divert unwanted attention, guys usually pick up on that and move on. If you allow naughtiness, it continues.
My mentor on day two, Tracy, promotes it.
The first group we come across, I ask what I've decided will be my staple opener: "How're you playing?"
"Oh, don't worry about him," Tracy says, "He's really good at playing ... with his balls." The guys erupt. Regulars. This tone of discourse is clearly long established. However, I would like to change the subject. I notice the target of the joke is wearing a Troon North hat.
"Troon, you ever play there?"
"Yeah," he says, then follows with a shockingly crude remark stamped with a wink. The guys laugh. Tracy hands them their morning beers, and I wonder if the man has a mother. (This was the only truly uncomfortable moment in my three days; the vast majority of guys are either just looking for a drink or are casually flirting.)
After Tracy's shift, I spend the afternoon at the snack shack with the head cart girl, Claire. I show her my recording device that looks like a plain pen, which she loves. As she grimaces loading hot dogs into the cooker, she tells me about her raw vegan diet. Before this job, she worked in human resources for a large corporation. "It was total culture shock. Every single day golfers were saying things to me that would get them fired in a professional setting." Other cart girls stop by the shack to tell me their stories.
"I drove up to a group one time, and the guy holds out a $50 bill and says, 'Let's see your chest.' I was shocked. And a little worried. You're on your own out there, no manager or anything. But I just kind of shut them down. And after that they seemed a little embarrassed."
The prevailing theory among the girls is that this isolation works differently for the golfers: Guys feel free to say anything they want because the golf course is an open space. In restaurants there are other waitresses and bartenders and patrons to quickly fend off animals, but the cart girl is alone.
"Old guys are fine," Sally tells me. "They can be pretty dirty, but you know they're harmless. Middle-age guys are the worst. You can tell when a guy's just caged up at home. He's got his ring on, but you can just sense that this is his only release for any out-of-line behavior."
More advice: "If you're wearing bright colors, you'll get better tips. And a skirt. They love short skirts."
Adds Claire: "I'll never forget this one. I drove up to a group and asked the guys what they wanted to drink. One guy says, I'll take a PBR, a Coors, and a shot of your bath water."
The next day I work at a higher-end course. At over $200, the green fee is more than three times as expensive. I shadow Sam, who spent four years in the Navy, is a mother of two, and worked in bars until she got tired of the late hours. The money from the cart is just as good, she says, and her last sale is typically 4:30 in the afternoon. Her hourly wage is about $5, but in a really good nine-hour shift she can make $500 in tips.
But this morning is chilly, which doesn't portend a good payday. "It's freezing!" Sam says in her gravelly voice, juggling thermoses with a cigarette pressed between her lips. "I can't keep up with the coffee orders. It better warm up so I can start selling more booze."
Because this club has a lot of repeat customers, I can sense the genuine camaraderie Sam has with many of the players. One asks about her kids and a recent trip. She's smiley and bubbly the whole time. She likes this job.
"I have a pretty dirty sense of humor as it is," she tells me. "Whenever someone comes at me with something, it's generally not going to bother me. But once in a while someone says something surprising. People ask for weed, which is stupid. I've also been offered money for ... favors. Which is like, if I wanted to do that, I'd be doing something else. People will offer you $100 to take off your shirt. And when I say no, they say things like, 'Oh, you're not an entrepreneur?' " Apparently, there's a correlation between the cost of the green fee and the rate for going topless.
Sam's biggest pet peeve is when people bring their drinks. Not only is it illegal, it makes it tough to know when they're drinking too much.
"During the round, I'll get to each group three, maybe four times. Over four hours, you're not getting drunk off that. But when guys start bringing their own stuff, that's when we have problems." Sam points to a severe downslope where a participant at a recent bachelor party flipped a cart.
As for outfits, Sam says, "Tight shirts really help. You don't even have to show skin, just curves." She pulls out another cig as we restock the cart. "I've got my Saturday shirt on, but this cold is cutting into tips!" She unzips her jacket to reveal a tight-fitting lululemon top. Later, when the sun warms the air to maybe 50 degrees, she'll remove the jacket entirely. It's nice to stay warm, but we're here to make cash.
The other critical part of Sam's look: The absence of her wedding ring.
"When I first started, one of the girls told me to take off my wedding ring. My husband's in the golf business, and when I told him he was like, Of course, take off the ring! There's just an understanding, this is how things work."
Consciously, Sam played the role of a flirty cart girl to become something that was expected. In turn, the dirty jokes she received on the course were also expected. She seemed at peace with it. I asked why she thought this culture existed. (Not one cart girl I spoke with ever went out with a golfer; they'd accept phone numbers and throw them out.) Sam didn't have an answer. She said she'd never questioned it.
Back at the office, as I transcribed the contents of the spy pen, I remembered something Sally told me. She'd complained about how women golfers seem to not like you when you're out in the beverage cart—as if they're intimidated or something. "But it's funny," she said. "Once you get them talking, they're so sweet. And a lot of the time, when they leave they say, 'You have the best job in the world, don't you?' "
Best in the world is a heavy title, but there are obvious upsides: You're outside, you're often dealing with people on vacation, so they're usually happy, the pay is decent, and the hours are better. And when a guy says something out of line, the motive is almost always humor.
And these girls can take a bad joke.