Golf on Foot
The delights of having a bag on your shoulder
By Lee Pace
Howard Lee was an administrator in Gov. Jim Hunt’s administration in 1977 when he initiated what would become a walking trail of some 1,200 miles from the North Carolina mountains to the Outer Banks. “To be able to get out here and see the trees and the flowers and to be able to see the animals and the natural areas is just so relaxing and so soothing,” Lee said on the 40th anniversary of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in 2017.
Lee finds exercise and solace on another trail, too — a golf course.
One April afternoon in 2019, Lee and I were walking the fifth fairway at Old Chatham Golf Club just east of Chapel Hill, with the green complex set amid a hillside resplendent in white and pink azalea bushes at full bloom.
“If you can’t be relaxed looking at this kind of beauty, I don’t know,” said Lee, 84 at the time. “And that’s the beauty of walking, whether it’s a trail or the golf course, you learn so much when you can commune with nature. There’s always something to appreciate, a bird or flower or something in nature.”
Over four hours and 6 miles you come to understand how Lee, the former mayor of Chapel Hill and N.C. state senator, is a poster boy for playing golf the old-fashioned way — on foot.
Slinging the bag over his shoulder after one tee shot: “I enjoy carrying the bag, so I just think as long as someone my age can walk, it would be a sin not to do it.”
Strolling up to another shot: “I’ve been struck by the number of young people who are riders. They just jump in the cart and off they go. I hate to see that.”
And on his surprise at seeing newfangled golf carts equipped with a means to power up a cellphone: “For what good reason would you put a USB port in a golf cart? Isn’t the whole point of golf to get away from your cellphone for a few hours?”
Howard Lee and I sing from the same hymnal — with choruses abounding on the joys of walking the golf course and avoiding, at all costs, planting your bum in an artificial contraption. And I found over the last three years there are many more of our ilk.
Which is why I’m delighted this month with the release of my book Good Walks — Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at 18 Top Carolinas Courses. The coffee-table format volume was published by University of North Carolina Press and is built around essays, photographs and historic artifacts from a blend of private, resort and daily-fee courses around the Carolinas. The goal was to weave the architecture, ambience and culture into an essay about each of the courses, tipping the cap to those already in the choir of the walking golfer and offering a welcoming gesture to those on the outside.
That there is even a hook for a volume like this is a sad commentary on the state of golf in America. Walking golf? What’s the angle? Of course you walk when you play golf. I played Mid Pines in Southern Pines one afternoon in June 2019 with Ran Morrissett, an avowed walker and traditionalist and co-founder of the Golf Club Atlas website built around stories, photos and conversation about golf architecture. We arrived at the golf shop, checked in and were on the way to the first tee when a young attendant approached and offered to put our bags on a cart.
“It’s a walking sport,” Morrissett told him in a pleasant but direct and matter-of-fact tone and never broke stride walking toward the first tee. Later we were striding down the first fairway, enjoying the day. “I get nothing out of riding through corridors of condos or houses. That will not lift my spirit. Walking will.”
I play golf for a myriad of reasons. One is the never-ending challenge and the occasional pat on the head from the golf gods with that sub-80 score. Another is exercise. A third is the meditative quality of walking the ground and embracing nature. Enjoying the companionship of my playing partners is important as well — all the better if that’s split three ways while walking along rather than spending four hours-plus with one guy in a cart. Betting? Lame jokes? Hearing a guy tell some careworn story when it’s his turn to hit? Pounding beverages? Those don’t even register.
One of golf’s earliest appeals was its health-giving benefits, the player walking some 5 to 6 miles over varied terrain, making strength and endurance a key element of the sport. Too often today that component has been lost, with many golfers playing in a default mode of mandatory riding in motorized carts. I remember setting a last-minute round in Pinehurst many years ago, getting a tee time and two others to play. One of them showed up and said he’d invited a fourth, which was fine.
“Might as well fill up the carts,” he said. Apparently, it did not even register that someone would prefer to walk.
The book tells the stories of a handful of top golf experiences across the Carolinas, beginning with the oldest, Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, S.C, and ending just as the 21st century beckoned and Eagle Point in Wilmington and Old Chatham were christened. Eighteen seemed like a good number for a golf book, right? The front nine clubs are pre-World War II, the so-called “Golden Age” of golf architecture when Donald Ross and Seth Raynor and their contemporaries had neither the handicap of modern environmental restrictions nor the convenience of dynamite and dozers. The back nine begins with the story of Myrtle Beach’s Dunes Club, a course that helped ignite that coastal area’s meteoric golf growth over the second half of the 20th century and continues with many of the upper-echelon clubs that mirrored the Carolina’s sporting and economic evolution into 2000.
The blend of courses leans toward the vintage, as many modern courses are stretched out for real estate purposes and lack a passionate roster of golfers treading on foot. I wanted to canvass all nooks of the Carolinas and weave in the great architects — from Ross to Raynor, from the Joneses (Robert, Trent and Rees) to Pete Dye and Tom Fazio.
I was gratified over the three years I spent writing and editing the book to see more and more clubs relaxing policies on mandatory carts and restrictions on trolleys. Pinehurst, Kiawah and Sea Pines, the venues of three courses featured in the book (No. 2, the Ocean Course and Harbour Town) all allow walking on any course, any time, any mode. Roaring Gap in the North Carolina mountains now allows walkers on weekend mornings. Biltmore Forest in Asheville has always had an outstanding walking culture and now devotes one room in its already cramped clubhouse to trolley storage.
“Mandatory carts is just not the way to do it,” says John Farrell, Sea Pines director of golf. “If you’re physically able, the way to play is to walk. It’s the easy way to roll. Here we’re at sea level, the proximity of greens to tees is good, it’s better socially, and obviously it’s better physically. There are so many benefits to walking I can’t see why you wouldn’t.”
The benefits, indeed:
Converse with everyone in your group, not just your cart mate.
Cool your emotions in private after a bad shot.
Notice every nook and cranny on the course and all the architectural details you miss from the edges.
Feel ravenous after four hours of stout exercise.
I could go on and on. Which I did, actually, in Good Walks.
I’ll leave you with the dedication and an invitation to pick up the book and enjoy the game as those old gnarly Scots did before combustion engines:
“To fellow golfers who’ve cherished the ground underfoot, the clink of clubs on their shoulder, the sun on their face and wind in their hair, the ducks by the lake and hawks in the sky — and to those waiting in the wings.” PS
Lee Pace’s Good Walks is available at bookstores and golf shops across the Carolinas and from uncpress.org/book/9781469662862/good-walks/.