ORLANDO, Fla. - It was the strangest sensation.
I had qualified for the 2016 Florida Open, easily the most prestigious tournament I'd ever competed in. The pristine range at Orange Tree Golf Club in suburban Orlando buzzed with dozens of really good golfers. The putting green was roped off, open only to competitors. Florida State Golf Association signage announcing the event abounded. In other words, there were all the trappings of serious competitive golf.
But there was something extra: rows and rows of golf carts, loaded not only with competitors' stand bags but plenty of cart and bulky staff bags, too.
I knew about this going in, having read the entry information that appears on the FSGA website:
The cost of a cart fee is included in the entry fee. All players must ride and their bags must be on the cart. Caddies are welcome but must walk.
That's right - the golf association with America's most extensive schedule conducts all of its events, except for junior tournaments - with players riding, not walking.
Having grown up in Connecticut, I had assumed all other associations' events were walking-only, too. That this wasn't the case was was a surprise at first, but it makes some sense on further investigation.
"Carts are a near necessity in Florida," said FSGA executive director Jim Demick, who told me the association has provided carts for players for more than 30 years. He added a fairly comprehensive defense of the policy.
The mandatory-cart policy's chief concerns have to do with Florida's aforementioned climate. "Florida is the lightning capital of the U.S. and we must frequently evacuate all players very quickly," Demick said. "Carts are the most dependable method."
And, he added, when the storms hold off but heat and humidity beat down on golfers,"carts provide shade, can carry extra drinking water and provide cooling when moving."
Course routing (particularly distances from one green to the next tee) and pace of play are other reasons Demick cites as motivation for the policy. But the most telling one regarding Florida's general golf culture is that players who compete in state tournaments simply prefer carts "by a very wide margin...particularly during the extended summer months in Florida."
In light of John Daly's denied application to use a cart in next week's Open Championship, Demick feels the FSGA's policy is helpful, especially in allowing players with health issues to compete because they "feel more included and don’t have to ask for any special accommodations."
I find it hard to argue very spiritedly with any of these points. Still, despite Demick's cogent argument, I doubt playing scorecard-and-pencil, grind-it-out competitive golf from a cart will ever feel totally comfortable to me.
Since threesomes are used for most tournaments and qualifiers, I'm often hoping that I'll be the odd player in the group who gets his own cart for the day, not because I'm antisocial but because I find it easier to deal with the emotional roller-coaster of a competitive round of golf when I can keep to myself. And when I end up being part of the cart with two players and am in the passenger's seat, my inner control freak gets antsy. None of these concerns crop up when everyone is walking; players can walk and chat or separate whenever they wish. That said, I will happily continue playing in FSGA events because I would rather compete from carts than not compete. I will get my steps in elsewhere.
One historical argument against carts in competition stems from the assumption that players play better from carts than on foot. When Casey Martin requested dispensation to use a cart in the 1998 U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus said, "I am concerned for Casey Martin; however, I very much believe that to play the sport, you have to have the physical part of it, too," speaking in opposition to Martin's petition.
For what it's worth, I actually find I play a little better when I walk. The physical exertion helps slow my tempo down - I can't jump in a cart and speed off angrily after a poor shot - and I take in the course in a more logical, linear way than I do when zigzagging and looping from station to station and approaching greens unnaturally, from the sides or rear.
"Those who walk in golf," says my colleague Bradley S. Klein, "have a fuller experience of the game - and of life."
Living in a state whose main tournaments require carts has given me a newfound appreciation for my opportunities to walk the course, in competition. If I play in a 2019 U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier here in Florida this August, it will be on foot, because even though the FSGA will oversee the round, the historically cart-averse (just ask John Daly) USGA's policies supersede those of any state association, though they do permit caddies to use carts to carry players' clubs at several qualifying sites.
For my part, I look forward to the exercise, but I'll be sure to drink plenty of water.
(Note: the Golf Channel Am Tour does not have a strict carts-only policy. When its events visit courses where walking is allowed, competitors have the option to walk or ride during play.)