One of the more interesting television shows I’ve watched in recent months is Netflix’s “Abstract: The Art of Design.” Each episode features a specific commercial artist and explores his or her medium, and its impact on the nexus of art, culture and commerce. The series’ creators even managed to make the episode on typefaces, focused on designer Jonathan Hoefler, fascinating.
It got me thinking about golf carts.
Much as I prefer to walk the course whenever possible, there’s no denying the prevalence and importance of the golf cart, especially here in the United States. The golf cart portion of the American golf industry accounts for more than $1 billion per year, and is expected to surge past $1.5 billion by 2026, according to a report published last year.
As it pertains to golf cart fleets owned by specific courses, the market is dominated by three companies: Yamaha, Club Car and EZ-GO. All three are divisions within corporations that make much more than golf carts; Yamaha is part of Yamaha Motor Company, Club Car is part of Ingersoll-Rand and EZ-GO is owned by Textron.
Together, their market share is massive, but their individual shares are relatively even, making the golf cart space very competitive.
“Aren’t all golf carts pretty much the same?” you may ask. My answer: yes and no.
To me, newer models of gas or electric carts by all three brands seem to perform comparably, so any appreciable difference comes down to design. And for most golfers, that means the user experience up front. How well does the cart store the items you need to access repeatedly throughout a round? For me, a cup, my rangefinder and my phone are the main concerns.
Having played several rounds using carts from each brand, and after having learned a bit more about their respective design philosophies at the 2020 PGA Merchandise Show, I’m ready to render my verdict.
For my purposes, Yamaha and EZ-GO have the best-designed golf carts. They both work off of what Yamaha national account manager Greg Robison described to me as an “automotive-style dash.” “Everything’s right in front of you…it’s not down below, not to the sides,” he said. This general design principle has been part of Yamaha’s golf cart offerings since 2007, when Yamaha “blew up the blueprint on the golf cart.”
In addition to the standard four cupholders – two smaller, two larger – Yamaha’s cart console includes rear slits into which golfers can slip their smartphones, even larger ones with protective cases.
One particularly clever wrinkle inherent to Yamaha’s design: on carts that use GPS, the screen is no longer positioned hanging down from the roof of the cart, but rising up from that center console. There’s a good reason for this. Per Yamaha’s automotive experts, when driving any sort of vehicle, the eye tends to be drawn downward and to the right.
The reason for relocating Yamaha’s cart GPS screens was not purely ergonomic, but also safety related. Golfers will occasionally hit their heads on the roof-mounted units and then get litigious about it.
A third advantage to dash-mounted cart GPS becomes apparent to a golfer standing behind the cart, contemplating with club to pull. A roof-mounted GPS unit is not visible unless a golfer crouches down or walks back around to the side of the cart, but the dash-mounted screen is plainly visible while standing at the back of the cart. Optional built-in Bluetooth speakers come in some fleet models of Yamaha’s carts, too.
“What separates ‘good’ from ‘great’ is attention to fine details,” said Matt Zaremba, EZ-GO’s director of golf product and design, about his company’s newly-redesigned cart console. Like Yamaha, EZ-GO concentrates everything in the front-middle of the cart. One ingenious detail in EZ-GO’s new design is a small notch in the compartment built to hold golfers’ smartphones. That notch allows a USB charger cord to bend smoothly, reducing stress and the potential for fraying.
Another feature I particularly like on the EZ-GO cart is also up front, but has more to do with the driving experience. It’s their proprietary Intellibrake system, which removes the need for a secondary parking brake on the golf cart. Zaremba describes it as EZ-GO’s “single most recognizable feature” among day-to-day golfer-users.
"The gold standard" in golf carts is still strong
Doug James, owner of Florida-based distributor Total Golf Cart, refers to Club Car as “the gold standard” in golf carts, especially as it pertains to materials and mechanics. And he’s not alone – a lot of higher-end public, resort and private clubs rely on Club Car for their fleets.
From a pure user-experience perspective, however, I found that relative to the modern Yamaha and EZ-GO concepts, the design of Club Car’s cart console may be due for an upgrade. Save for the addition of USB ports to their new carts, relatively little has changed about their design as long as I’ve been playing golf.
Rather than in the middle, Club Car places two low-slung cupholders on each side of the front of the cart, leaving a cart-width open front storage area. This is in contrast to Yamaha and EZ-GO's central consoles, which require shutting off that front-middle storage area, leaving left and right compartments instead. If you’re wanting to load up the front of the cart with towels, valuables and anything else you’ll want handy, you may prefer Club Car's larger shared space.
Another storage feature that Club Car offers is an overhead setup with corner cubbies and even a centralized compartment for a rangefinder or wallet. I’ll admit to not knowing what to use this space for, but many Club Car fleets I’ve seen have them, so golfers clearly are using them.
For what it’s worth, Club Car doesn’t lag behind its competitors in terms of comfort and mechanics. In fact, their lithium batteries have helped make electric carts more reliable and longer-lasting than ever.
The fact that three companies dominate the market seems to ensure healthy competition and one-upsmanship. Some golfers are more tuned-in to what kind of cart their course uses than others, which speaks to the across-the-board quality of the "Big 3." The difference is in the details.