Hitting the Fairway on A Segway
Friday, May 5, 2006
It's a beautiful day out at the Norman Course at Lansdowne Resort, with a high sun and a flutter of breeze off the Potomac. I'm having one of those rare rounds when I feel like a natural: My stance is relaxed, my body balanced, my movements smooth and sure. I can barely suppress a smile as I work around the fairways.
Oh, I'm not talking about my game, which is ugly as usual. It's this Segway GT I'm riding. The two-wheeled, electric-powered, computer-driven, gyroscopically balanced transporter, occasionally spotted on the streets of tony urban neighborhoods where trust-fund Gen Xers gather, has been tricked out for the golf course. I've arranged to play 18 holes on the thing.
And this is the most memorable round of golf I've played in . . . well, probably ever. My playing partner is Josh Herman, the PR guy for Lansdowne, who agreed to pull strings to let us Segway around the much-talked-about new course, designed by Aussie golf superhero Greg Norman, provided he got to ride, too.
Josh will verify that it wasn't my play that made the day special. It is the odd joy of tooling around on this silent new-millennium chariot, hovering about eight inches above the turf, the golf bag strapped on like a nylon sidecar.
Let me say quickly that it's not all George Jetson-at-the-links on a Segway GT. Josh and I each fell twice (unhurt; more on this below), and we realized at some length that, geez, we sure were standing up for a long time. My calves hurt the next day.
We played quickly, though -- none of this cart-paths-only, 90-degree-rule, I'll-drop-
look-for-mine-in-the-holly nonsense. In a Segway GT, you cruise right up to your ball, step down from the platform and pull the unit back by the handlebars, using the golf bag as a kickstand. Hit your shot and it's back on the fun machine.
The folks who made this all possible are with Capital Segway, a dealership on I Street NW. (The operation also provides Segway tours of the city for around $70 a head.) Dave Cannon, vice president for business development and an old Marriott hotel hand, said he's working on deals to place small fleets of Segway GTs at golf resorts. No Washington area clubs provide Segways yet. (Lansdowne doesn't either, so put the phone down, bucko.) But Cannon said a few folks have bought them for use at private clubs.
It's all part of Segway's corporate challenge, which (not to put too fine a point on it) is to figure out what people might actually want to do with this incredible breakthrough in transportation technology. The U.S. Postal Service operates a fleet; some resorts and corporate campuses put security guards or messengers on them; others are in use by military bases, factories, utility companies, colleges and residential communities. Law enforcement organizations use them to elevate their foot patrols. Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport's security patrols use several Segways.
The technology is a delight. After about 10 minutes of training, just about anybody can maneuver safely on a Segway. Though it has handlebars like a motorcycle, there's no throttle or brake. You simply lean forward ever so slightly to go forward, lean backward a bit to reverse, and stand straight up to stop. As Cannon told me, "It's so sensitive you really can just think about moving forward and you go." I found this to be true.
But my two tumbles were not so smooth. There is really just one key thing to know about riding a Segway. When you step onto the platform with one foot, a green smiley face will appear on a round window between the handlebars. But if the unit is tilted too far forward or back, it will grumble and glow yellow, telling you to straighten up before you step on. This is not difficult to learn.
But let's say you just slapped your 10th Maxfli Noodle into another one of the Norman Course's gorgeous and maddeningly numerous environmental protection areas, and you're a bit addled by the sun and the natural beauty, and you don't notice the grumble and the yellow icon and you step up anyway . . . well, you sort of tip forward and hit the ground and spring up quickly, feeling like a dork. Josh did that once, too. Another time he took on a 40-degree side slope in an admirable display of topographic bravado. He tumbled off like a stuntman exiting an exploding Boxster.
Even without such theatrics, Josh and I were regarded as quite a spectacle during our round. When I looped a ball into an adjacent fairway too close to a threesome, they seemed to be glaring at me more than the offense called for. Then I realized they were just taking in the view of my scooting noiselessly in their direction at 12 miles an hour. Once, when we passed some construction guys installing a roof on a resort building, they all stopped working and turned to look at us in unison. I felt like we should toss beads or something.