The Golf Course Cart Path: Its History and Function

The "cart path" is the designated route around a golf course that golf carts are expected, or in some cases required, to follow. A cart path is usually paved in concrete, but asphalt might be used. More rudimentary cart paths are also sometimes seen — ones that are actually just paths worn by traffic, or paths topped with crushed shell or wood chips or some similar material.

When a course has a paved cart path, the golfer should keep the golf cart on the paved cart path at all times, unless he or she knows that it is OK to drive the golf cart off of the path. A golf course's rules for it carts and cart paths are often printed on the scorecard and/or posted inside the carts themselves; you might also see signage around a golf course (such as "cart path only today") or in the pro shop.

Golf goes back (at least) to the 1500s; cart paths have only been part of golf course architecture for a relatively short time. The reason is easy enough to deduce: golf carts only go back to the 1930s. No golf carts, no need for cart paths.

Motorized, riding golf carts only became commonly used in the 1950s in the United States. From then and there, their use has become ubiquitous around the golf world. With the use of riding carts so common, most golf courses that allow carts (there are still those that don't) now have designed, paved cart paths for those golf carts to follow. Such dedicated cart paths mostly arrived in various ad-hoc forms in the 1950s, but it wasn't until the mid-1960s that courses began designing purpose-built, concrete paths specifically for cart traffic.

But cart paths aren't just about leading golfers around the golf course. Their most important function is keeping those riding carts off the golf course grass. Carts can (and do) damage the playing surfaces of golf courses. That is especially true during and after rainy weather: golf carts can really tear up a wet golf course.

So cart paths quickly followed the introduction of golf carts, to help protect the golf course from those carts.

An article on the USGA website details another role that cart paths can play on the course:

"Another added benefit that cart paths provide is their ability to capture and divert water when it is raining. Since the cart path is a hard surface that does not absorb water, it can be used to steer water into drainage basins and away from key playing surfaces. This is particularly important in low areas where ponding can occur. The curbing along the edge of a cart path can serve a dual purpose of directing water to a catch basin and helping to steer traffic away from areas where carts are not permitted to drive."
The greenskeeping crew can also use cart paths to move equipment around the golf course without having to drive over the grass. One of my first jobs was working on a golf course grounds crew, and the superintendent of that course would drive around it in his pickup truck to check our work, driving over the cart path. For these reasons, cart paths are typically built a litter wider than they need to be just to accommodate golf carts.

Golf course architects also pay attention to the location of cart paths when designing golf courses that will need them. It is more common at upscale courses for architects to including mounding or shrubbery or other means to help hide (at least partially) the paths from being out in plain view. Of course, that's not always possible, and many golf courses don't make the effort.

Because cart paths are so common in golf today, golf shots bouncing onto or off of cart paths is also common. A golf ball that hits a paved cart path on the fly might take a wild bounce; a golf ball that rolls onto a cart path might keep rolling for quite a ways, for good or bad. (In fact, there was once a drive on the PGA Tour of more than 700 yards after a ball bounced along the cart path.)

A golf ball might also come to rest on a cart path, or in a position where the cart path interferes with the golfer's swing or stance. In those situations, the golfer is entitled to free relief, to move the ball by dropping at the nearest point of relief, although there may be circumstances when the golfer chooses to play the ball off the cart path rather than move it.

As for proper driving etiquette on cart paths? Follow the rules of the road: Watch out for other traffic and other golfers, and be safe. Always follow the golf course's posted instructions for using the cart paths (such as "cart path only" or "90-degree rule"), and keep the cart on the designated paths at all times unless you are certain driving off the path is allowed. And never drive the cart past another golfer who is about to play a shot.

To sum up: Paved cart paths entered golf in the 1950s after the use of golf carts became more common. Their primary functions are protecting the golf course from those carts, and leading golfers around the course.

Photo credit: "Golf cart path at the course" by winecountrymedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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