PohlCat Golf Course, Mt. Pleasant, Mich., has 80 golf carts in its fleet, according to Justin Brickner, the course's Cart Manager. Though management is generally content with the composition of the fleet, Brickner says, an upgrade will probably happen soon. "I know we're looking into it," he says.
That's because management at PohlCat (named for PGA Touring Pro Dan Pohl, who designed the course) knows the value of staying on top of the latest course-vehicle features and accessories that can not only enhance golfers' comfort and overall experience, but also improve efficiencies and possibly even lead to improved speed of play and increased rounds.
These enhancements can range from the remarkably simple to the latest high-tech gizmos. For example, one recent upgrade at PohlCat was the addition of a device that Brickner says is best described as a divot filler. "It hangs off the side of the cart and contains a mix of sand and fertilizer," Brickner says. "Rather than repair a divot in the traditional way, you fill the hole with the fertilizer and sand mix. It's made things a lot easier for us on the course, and saved us a lot of time."
Brickner says that PohlCat management is also "really looking into GPS"—the global positioning system technology that can find and track the exact whereabouts of a cart (or any other vehicle) by relaying signals back and forth between two points, with a space satellite as a go-between.
While GPS is not new technology, it's one that's constantly revealing and reinventing its versatility, especially as it develops a track record. From law enforcement to lawn care, GPS is becoming more applicable to more industries in more ways every year, and golf course fleet management is no exception.
The Back-and-Forth on GPS
On the golf course, a GPS offers the potential to help managers monitor players and carts from the clubhouse. It can also show players how much yardage lies between their cart and the next hole. "In this way it can really help an owner or superintendent stretch their money," says one advocate of the technology. "(GPS) can help speed up the game by tracking each player, so that more tee times can be booked in a day."
However, others caution that experience has revealed that the technology still has its limitations. "GPS is only going to work with certain courses," asserts an executive with one leading golf vehicle manufacturer. "It seems that resorts are finding better uses for it than private clubs. With a resort, golfers aren't that familiar with the courses, so it helps let them know how far they are from the next hole."
Many clubs still seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude about the technology; specifically, they're waiting to see if members hear about GPS or experience it elsewhere and then express an interest in having it at their own club.
"We've not considered GPS units for our course," reports Jerome Louie, General Manager of Shackamaxon Golf & Country Club, Scotch Plains, N.J. "Our members have not asked for them."
Louie, in fact, has his own reservations about even the perceived notion that GPS can help speed up play. "There's [a school of thought] that GPS units could actually slow down the pace of play, with golfers possibly taking too much time to play with or figure out the features," he says.
"From a fleet management standpoint, yes, it could be advantageous," Louie concludes. "However, at this point, the expense does not justify us going to this option."
But as GPS gets applied at more courses, other potential benefits from the technology are surfacing that need to be looked at. "A cart's GPS unit can also do things like generate that day's dining menu and send food and drink orders to the club or course halfway house, to eliminate [the need to] wait once [the golfers] get there," points out one supplier. "So, in addition to increasing the speed of play, it has the potential to help increase food and beverage revenue, too."
Not Just the Faint of Heart
The real point with regard to GPS, divot-replacing gadgets and the many other features and comforts that are now either being built in to golf course carts and vehicles, or made available as add-ons is this: All members of club management teams—from GMs to F&B directors to golf pros and course superintendents—need to make sure they have both up-to-date attitudes, and knowledge, about what golf course vehicles can do not only for their members and guests, but also club personnel.
Managers who cling to the antiquated notion that carts are "only for the elderly and lazy" may be overlooking a spring of untapped profits or a vein of hidden operating efficiencies. More and more clubs are coming to realize this and taking greater care to shop for the ideal vehicles for their particular course profile.
And studying that profile requires a look at more than just the basic need to get golfers around the course on carts. For example, personnel shuttles—whether they're used for carrying club members and their golf clubs to the parking lot, or grounds maintenance crews to remote parts of a course—are gaining favor as valuable tools for controlling congestion, enhancing productivity, or improving fuel efficiencies (a much more important consideration over the past year).
Investments in mobile snack and beverage carts can also pay off, not only with a boost in ancillary food and beverage sales, but also by providing a nice convenience that enhances golfers' experiences in a way that can lead to more repeat play. At Shackamaxon G&CC, for example, General Manager Louie finds on-course service to be important enough that he'll be investing in a new beverage cart next year, after getting 60 new electric golf carts for the club's fleet of 72 this year.
"Beverage vehicles on the course are often a good investment that managers and superintendents overlook," says one course vehicle supplier. "Even when they have refreshments at the halfway house, golfers still find a roving beverage vehicle convenient."
When it comes to stocking those vehicles, this supplier goes on to suggest that courses can benefit from going beyond the usual basics of pop and peanuts. He's seen the sales of non-perishables, like cigars and golf balls, from roving course vehicles work for some club owners. Whatever the inventory, he adds, "It's important that you track what you're selling. If you sell out of one thing every day and it's sitting next to something else that never sells, you need to be able to recognize that and respond accordingly."
Trying Not to Be Fuelish
The sticker shock that consumers are feeling at the gas pump is also making club management personnel think more about fuel efficiencies when specifying course vehicles. Electric golf carts are immune to rising gas costs, so courses with relatively flat terrain haven't really felt any great impact.
"The price [of gas] is higher, of course, but I don't think it's affected us in any significant way," says David Smith, Superintendent of Abbey Springs Golf Course, Fontana, Wis. "It's just not changed the way we do things yet."
PohlCat GC's Brickner also confirms that "Gas isn't an issue for us, because all of our carts are electric; we don't need to think about that when we update the fleet."
But in more hilly and mountainous regions, where the combustible drive of gas-powered machinery is often required even for carts, higher fuel costs do have to be factored in, both for existing fleets and in specifying new vehicles. And even the flattest courses have their share of larger gas-powered vehicles, both f
or personnel transportation and maintenance, that are now guzzling more gas dollars.
Many course owners remain reluctant to replace their gas carts and vehicles, however, because of concerns about the reduced durability or weaker drive systems of electric or hybrid options. Recognizing this, the spike in gas prices has spurred a new wave of R&D among golf vehicle manufacturers that seeks to address and allay these fears. Suppliers are also moving to offer clubs greater opportunities to customize vehicles according to their specific needs.
For example, new braking systems have been introduced that can now limit the downhill speed of carts as they run on hilly terrain. Warning-beep features have also been added in more equipment, to prohibit cars from doing anything more than creep along until parking brakes are disengaged.
Seeking an Edge
Overall, just as with golf balls and clubs, every detail related to golf vehicles and how they're used—from the size of bag wells and baskets, to the durability of seats, to the protection provided by bumpers and mud flaps for both the golfer, and the cart—is now being rescrutinized to see if a new edge can be gained. Attending to these kinds of details, which can not only improve vehicle operating efficiencies but also extend their life and condition, is becoming increasingly important as clubs recognize the need to maximize the golfing experience and minimize annoyances that can only detract from customer satisfaction.
"Golf courses, whether private, resort or daily-fee, are realizing that in an incredibly competitive marketplace, all bases must be covered," says a division manager with one course vehicle supplier. "The condition of the golf cart is a reflection of the total experience. If the player cannot see well from the windshield, if the car is covered with scuffmarks and the seats look filthy, it can change the perception."
Too often, adds another supplier executive, managers neglect regular preventative maintenance of their course vehicle fleets, leading to unnecessary deterioration of their fleets from both an appearance and performance standpoint. "Every vehicle comes with a maintenance manual that has checklists specific to that vehicle," this executive says, "to let you know when to do important things every X number of miles, like checking the water in a cart's battery, or the air in its tires.
"Golf carts and other vehicles are usually the second or third largest investments that clubs make," this supplier adds. "Attending to the simple things can make a significant difference in getting the most out of that investment. A well-maintained and attractive fleet can also be a great extension of your course marketing efforts, to help generate more golf-related revenue." C&RB
Summing It Up
•Golf cart and course vehicle fleets shouldn't be taken for granted; staying up on new features and accessories can help reveal new possibilities for increasing efficiencies and enhancing the golfing experience.
•GPS technology is still getting mixed reviews; some club managers see its value but others still feel it may be a distraction that can actually inhibit speed of play.
•Resorts currently seem to be getting more value out of GPS than private courses, to help golfers who are unfamiliar with the course find their way.
•Beverage carts are gaining favor as valuable extensions of clubs' F&B operations.
•The spike in fuel costs has spurred a new wave of R&D among golf vehicle manufacturers to offer more efficient options when gas power must be used.