The Benefits of Walking the Golf Course

In St. Andrews, motorized golf carts are about as abundant—and esteemed—as tennis players. Here, everyone walks. Chalk it up to the town’s origin a millennium or so ago as a religious mecca. Back then, penitent pilgrims dragged themselves cheerfully across continents—braving plagues, wars, bandits and brutal weather—for the heavenly thrill of setting foot in this town. Not much has changed.

Oh, a couple of those insufferable “buggies” are rumored to exist, but word is they’re restricted to the royal family, double-amputee war vets and the Pope. Everybody else hoofs it, and not just on the golf course. Eighty-year-old ladies trundle to town and back; university students hustle a daily circuit of classes, eating halls, residence halls and pubs; sightseers wander the harbor and ancient ruins; dogwalkers parade down gorse-lined paths within the Old Course (and sometimes help you find your ball); and couples young and old stroll romantically along the broad “Chariots of Fire” beach.

Most significantly, each day 600 or so people head off the tees of the six courses in town (exception: the Old Course on Sundays), 99 percent of them on foot. You see, the canny Scots know a thing or two about golf that we Yanks are still learning. First, walking is the most efficient way to play. Whether you’re carrying your own clubs or accompanied by a caddie (and in St. Andrews it’s strictly one lad per bag—no double loopers), you stride purposely toward your ball and your ball alone. There’s none of that insane tacking and zigzagging from one cart partner’s ball to another. As a result, even when a course is full, the average round takes fewer than four hours. Recently at the nearby Elie Golf Club, I played in a threesome and finished in just over three hours. The group in front of us—a quartet of bag-carrying septuagenarians—left us in the dust.

Secondly, the price is right. One of the reasons I feel so comfortable in Scotland is the fact that I’m congenitally cheap. We moved to St. Andrews in part because, as a card-carrying resident of this town, I’m entitled to unlimited play on the Old Course and five other courses for a yearly fee of roughly $450, about what I’d pay for one round with caddie at Pebble Beach. And there’s something pleasant in knowing that, once my annual fee is paid, I’ll be hit with no hidden extras (such as cart fees).

Or, for that matter, caddie fees. Although St. Andrews caddies are justly celebrated for both their knowledge and their entertainment value, I’m afraid a payment of 50 pounds minimum (close to $100 at the current execrable exchange rate) is an absurd amount for me to hand someone for toting my featherweight bag and telling me to aim at a distant steeple. Still, I’m always pleased when one of my companions hires a caddie, for the brogue-laced banter that invariably ensues.

All the natives carry their own, and while a few of them take trolleys (pullcarts), the great majority sling their clubs over their shoulders. In contrast to the steamer trunks full of superfluous haberdashery, groceries and medicine lugged around by many Americans, the Scots travel light, most of them favoring the modern double-strap kickstand bags, and a few opting for a glorified flyrod case that holds half a dozen clubs, four or five balls and nothing else. Upon being paired with one of the latter, a chap in his 40s who appeared hearty enough to handle something more substantial, I inquired as to his preference for minimalism.

“Oh, it improves my game,” he said.

“How so?”

“Aye, well consider having to blast out of a pot bunker when your most lofted club is a 9-iron. Or tough out the last few holes in the pouring rain when you have no umbrella and your only glove is soaked. Or hit over an acre of gorse when you’re down to your last ball. Either you find a way or you pay a dear price.” And no self-respecting Scotsman wants to do that.

Thirdly, the people in the cradle of golf know that motorized carts are extremely dangerous. You see, in the first moment or two after hitting a particularly terrible shot, a seething Scot should not be allowed to sit in close proximity to another human. He needs some time and space to himself. Walking solitarily from shot to shot provides just that, a cooling-off period when he can put his troubles behind him and get a feel for the next assignment to be foozled.

Truth be told, I’ve historically hated the act of walking. A wise man once said, “Never stand if you can sit, never sit if you can lie down.” I just wish he had added, “Never walk if you can ride.” After all, during the last century or so, we have developed something called the automobile. Why would anyone plod painfully over terrain that could be covered in a fraction of the time while sitting in a climate-controlled, CD-equipped, GPS-guided, leather-lined, carcass-warming, 200-horsepower machine?

There’s also the bus, the subway, the streetcar, cable car, monorail, minivan, motorcycle and, if you must, the bicycle. Not to mention rickshaws, dogsleds, bobsleds, palanquins, pickup trucks, motorbikes, dirt bikes, skateboards, rollerblades and Segways. Why, I always wondered, would anyone walk anywhere? Oh sure, it’s all about the exercise, the fresh air, the joy of a good stroll. Sorry, strolling was never my thing. Strolling was for rheumy-eyed, tweed-jacketed old gits, homing toward the sunset with their hands behind their backs.

Even on the golf course, I’d allowed myself to be seduced by the motorized cart. After all, most private clubs and resorts in the U.S. don’t permit you to tote your own, and few offer caddies, so when given a choice between a caddie and riding, I’d increasingly begun to plop my ample butt behind the wheel.

Now that I’m in Scotland, however, that’s over. Free of American constraints—and excesses—I’ve joined the local legion of confirmed walkers, bag on my shoulder, wind at my back, lilt in my step as I cross the soft, sandy linksland. With apologies to Mark Twain, golf is still a very good walk. In fact, it’s the only good walk.