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Putting the cart before the course?
In a game once rich with caddies, it's the owners who are getting rich from their replacements
By Paul Harber, Globe Staff, 4/18/98
Golf carts were much maligned during the Casey Martin affair, but they have been good for the game in many ways.

They've transported countless players around, and given an invaluable boost to tens of thousands of seniors and medically challenged golfers.

They also have quite a history.

Carts have evolved over the years. Although motorized carts didn't come into public use until the 1950s, they were invented in 1935. Lyman Beecher, an electrical engineer from Clearwater, Fla., put together a contraption that looked like a rickshaw with two wheels and a seat. Two caddies were needed to pull it.

Beecher used it at his summer home in the North Carolina mountains at Biltmore Forest CC in Asheville because he didn't think he could walk the hilly course.

Five years later, Beecher modified his design, creating a four-wheel cart that was powered by electricity. However, he needed six car batteries to last 18 holes.

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After World War II, Texas oilman R.J. Jackson applied for and received the first United States patent for a cart. It was called the ``Arthritis Special.'' He designed the three-wheel, gas-powered vehicle so seriously ill or older golfers could continue playing the game.

However, it was noisy and smoky, and many courses banned it.

These days, three companies in the United States produce the majority of carts. They are E-Z-Go, Club Car, and Yamaha. All are based in Georgia, and E-Z-Go and Club Car are located in Augusta, home of the Masters. Some 125,000 carts are manufactured in the US each year.

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E-Z-Go is the oldest continuous manufacturer of golf carts in the US, and its manager of communications, Ron Skenes, is a cart historian.

``In the 1950s, when golf carts began appearing at public courses, not everybody could rent them,'' said Skenes. ``At many courses, you needed a note from a physician saying you needed one so that you could play.''

But that soon changed. Course owners quickly realized these motorized vehicles were an easy source of income. Soon it was goodbye caddie and hello cart. The numbers tell the story: In the 1950s there were approximately 1,000 carts in use. In the 1960s, that skyrocketed to 120,000, and today there are more than 2 million in America.

In 1955, 40 percent of golf courses had carts available. By 1967, a whopping 92 percent rented carts.

There is money in carts.

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While you might have needed a physician's note to use a cart when they first rode onto the scene, today many courses require you to use a cart when you play.

The retail price of an electric cart is $5,100 and a gas-powered cart goes for $5,700. However, most courses lease carts for the season instead of purchasing them. The national average for a monthly lease of a cart is $65, which means once it is rented three times a month (at an average of $25 per twosome), it begins to turn a hefty profit for the course's owner.

``Our research has concluded that cart revenue is the second-biggest source of revenue for golf course owners,'' said Skenes. ``After greens fees, nothing brings in more money than carts.''

On average, if a cart is used twice a day during a month, it can bring in as much as $1,500. Multiply that by a fleet of 100 carts and one realizes how much revenue carts can produce.

How do course owners determine what they will charge for cart rentals? One former owner said it mostly is determined by what the public is willing to pay.

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In a study completed 10 years ago by the National Golf Foundation, cart rental fees account for nearly 20 percent of golf course revenue -- an estimated $1.08 billion.

The usage of carts has increased since then. According to the NGF, 61 percent of all rounds played in Massachusetts are by golfers who use carts. The national average is 66 percent. Carts are used more in the Sun Belt than in any other region of the nation. Golfers using a cart play 92 percent of all rounds in south Florida.

There are an estimated 800,000 course-owned or leased carts rambling across America's 16,000 courses.

``In many Sun Belt retirement communities, many aging Americans have purchased their own carts,'' said Skenes. ``Not only do they use them for golf, but they use them almost as a second car.'' Instead of filling them up at night, people plug them into an electrical outlet to recharge.

That is the cart industry's growth market, according to Skenes, with so many Baby Boomers preparing for their retirement years.

In the southern California communities of Avalon on Catalina Island and Palm Desert, near Palm Springs, golf cart lanes have been installed on many city streets. Of course, many of those vehicles have been stylized and upgraded.

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Luxury Carts of Hawaii is one of several custom-made cart providers. The company has a full line that replicates some of the finest automobiles, including fancy grille work. Among the models they offer are the Rolls-Royce, the Cadillac, the Mercedes, the '57 Corvette, the Mustang, and the '57 Chevy. The carts have everything from deep pile carpeting to cellular phone hookup, to AM/FM/CD player, to custom chrome wheel covers, sunroof, and an in-dash clock.

However, the two-door Rolls-Royce model sells for $8,960, while the four-door Cadillac model costs $10,425.

Another custom cart company, Western Golf Car, produces eight basic models, each built on an E-Z-Go chassis. These vehicles cost as much as $20,000 and many celebrities have purchased them.

Brothers Billy and Bev Dolan founded E-Z-Go in 1954. Rhode Island-based Textron purchased the company in 1961, and Bev Dolan eventually became CEO of Textron before retiring a few years ago.

The Dolan brothers' biggest rival, Club Car, was a Texas-based company that held a small share of the market in the mid-1970s. That's when Billy Dolan and seven other E-Z-Go executives resigned and purchased Club Car, moving its headquarters into the old Stevens Trucking Company factory in Augusta in 1978.

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``Augusta is a small town,'' said Skenes. ``You can't help but know folks who work for our competitors.'' However, there is a heated rivalry between the two, much like the war that exists between the golf ball manufacturing companies in Massachusetts, Top-Flite and Titleist.

E-Z-Go enjoys its No. 1 status. They have been the longtime suppliers to Augusta National, home of the Masters. ``It's an honor to service a club like Augusta National, but we service most of the top clubs in the country,'' said Skenes. ``Eight of the 10 top-rated courses in America are our customers. Half of the Top 100 courses in America have E-Z-Go carts. That's as much as all our competitors combined.''

E-Z-Go and Club Car have approximately 75-80 percent of the market. Yamaha has approximately 15 percent. Smaller companies, such as Melex of Raleigh, N.C., Columbia of Reesburg, Wis., and Elmco of Cooksville, Ill., make the rest of the carts.

``Our goal is to make a comfortable and enjoyable ride for the golfer in an easy-to-use cart,'' said Skenes.

Electric carts always have been favored over their gas-chugging brethren. In the early 1960s, electric-powered carts outnumbered gas ones by a 3-1 margin. In the 1980s, it was about 4-1, and today it is almost 5-1. Gasoline-powered carts are used more in the North, where there are hilly courses.

Mass production of electric carts began after World War II, but the early models were not very reliable. Many times they suffered from battery failure and had to be recharged after nine holes. Finally, in 1951, the Wonch Battery Company of Okemos, Mich., developed a battery that lasted between 18 and 27 holes on a single charge. In the 1980s, an electric cart could go about five 18-hole rounds without needing to be recharged. Today the average electric cart will operate for seven or eight trips around the average 18-hole course before needing recharging. Gasoline-powered carts have a 5- or 6-gallon tank and need to be filled about once a week.

``However, it is recommended that courses with electric carts have a shed where all the carts can be stored and recharged at night. The electric cart is like any other electric appliance. You don't want to leave it outside in the rain and the snow,'' said Skenes.

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