Golf carts are parked, walking is in and, yes, it’s exercise
By Bill Pennington
There is a new movement afoot in recreational golf: walking.
In swelling numbers nationwide, golfers are spurning the motorized golf cart — a standard-bearer of American golf rounds for more than 50 years — and instead choosing to stride or stroll from shot to shot.
It has contributed to a substantial rise in rounds played and spawned another novel phenomenon: The verifiable notion that golf, when a round is walked, is exercise that can supplement a fitness regimen since golfers routinely burn 700 calories or more in an outing that can traverse up to 6 miles.
Moreover, the walking boom, propelled by the advent of lightweight, trendy carry bags and technologically sophisticated pushcarts for golf bags, is being advanced by a legion of young and older players — with an increasing percentage of them women — who hark back to golf’s roots as a walk-only activity.
“Walking is cool again,” said Bob Bullis, 72, who plays four times a week at the El Macero Country Club near his home in Northern California. “I’m out there together with these kids walking, getting a good workout and playing the sport the way it was meant to be played.”
For decades, the stereotypical perception of the sport has been of sedentary golfers zooming around the course in carts with cup holders full of mixed drinks. But many golfers today are purposefully adopting a more wholesome, even Zen-like, vibe.
“Walking the two minutes from shot to shot can be peaceful meditation,” said Kevin McKinney, 51, a musician who plays regularly at the walking-only, municipally owned Hancock Golf Course in Austin, Texas. “You get your heart rate up, something you don’t experience when rattling around in a cart. It’s a beautiful setting if you let it be.”
Interviewed as he played the Hancock course last month, McKinney texted a picture to a reporter of a man and a woman golfing while they pushed a child in a baby stroller.
The increase in walking rounds — some golf courses have seen an upsurge of 300% — is traced to the pandemic and the impact it has had on leisure pursuits.
In 2020, golf was one of the few outdoor activities considered safe from the spread of the coronavirus and American golf facilities hosted 50 million more golf rounds than they did in 2019. During much of last year, because of strict physical distancing guidelines, motorized golf cart use was banned and walking became commonplace, even at country clubs and resorts that once required the use of a golf cart.
“People discovered they liked walking and even when COVID rules were lifted this year and carts came back, people were like, ‘No, we’re going to keep walking,’” said Jerramy Hainline, the senior vice president of GolfNow, an online tee-time service with nearly 4 million registered golfers that provides technology to more than 9,000 golf courses. “Walking is now here to stay.”
If that remains true, it will bring new light to recent studies that have championed golf’s health benefits. In 2018, a consortium of public health experts, with help from several governing bodies including the World Golf Foundation, researched 342 previously published studies on the sport and linked playing golf with better strength and balance and a lower risk of heart disease. A 2008 Swedish study of 300,000 golfers found the death rate for golfers to be 40% lower than for other people of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status, which translated to a five-year increase in life expectancy. Golfers with lower handicaps were the healthiest, perhaps because they played more.
But the most fascinating and enduring study of golf’s creditability as worthy, moderate exercise was conducted 13 years ago by Neil Wolkodoff, the director of the Colorado Center for Health and Sport Science. At a cost of $30,000, Wolkodoff strapped portable metabolic measuring systems to amateur golfers to count calories burned while playing nine holes in a variety of ways: walking and carrying clubs, walking with a pushed or pulled cart that transported their clubs, walking with a caddie and riding in a cart.
It was not a surprise that golfers walking and carrying their bags across the typically undulating topography of a golf course expended the most energy and, on average, burned 721 calories. Walking with a pushcart produced roughly the same caloric output and being accompanied by a caddie burned 621 calories. Even riding a cart while playing nine holes burned 411 calories on average. Just swinging a golf club 100 times, which the average golfer would likely do with practice swings, uses up a significant amount of energy.
The calorie burn would likely double over 18 holes, when a player typically zigzags across fairways chasing errant shots. There have been follow-up studies to the research by Wolkodoff, who said his findings have held up as accurate.
“Golf is not the same exercise as running or using an elliptical, but it’s got appeal as part of a health routine,” Wolkodoff, who has a doctorate in physiology and has trained a variety of professional athletes, said this month. “People ought to expend 2,500 to 3,000 calories a week. If people go to the gym three times a week and play golf twice a week, they can hit that number.”