When we asked adults who play sports which one they play the most, golf topped the list. That's right: Our poll finds that a day on the links beat out soccer, softball and tennis.
My first reaction was: Whaaat? Golf is played by people riding around in motorized carts; how much exercise could you possibly get?
So, with a fair amount of skepticism, I ventured out to Sligo Creek Golf Course, a municipal course in Silver Spring, Md., to try to answer this question.
The first golfer I met came striding off the 9th hole, pushing her clubs with a pushcart. Sweat covered her brow. "No cart?" I asked.
Nope, Kelly James told me. "I've gotten well over 10,000 steps playing golf," she said. And that's not all. The game's full of athletic moves.
"You're swinging — big swings — to drive the ball," James says. That uses lots of muscles. "There's even a little yoga," she says, if you consider the balancing, and the turning and twisting of the torso — and the overall meditative aspect of being on the course.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I'd underestimated the game.
But here's the rub: About two-thirds of golf in the U.S. is played in motorized carts. Some resorts and private courses even restrict walking and require carts.
Why is the cart culture so dominant? There are lots of reasons, according to Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation. For example, carts are a source of revenue for golf clubs. They enable golf facilities "to get more people on the course and get them around the course faster," Mona says.
Another reason: Carts can help older people and others unable to walk long distances keep playing the game.
"I started playing when I was 9 years old," golfer Gary Metzger told me. And over his lifetime, he says, he's played a lot of sports. But after two hip replacement surgeries and operations on his knees, "it's one of the few things I can still do." What Metzger loves about the game, he says, is that "it's the one sport you can plan to play the rest of your life."
I clipped a pedometer on Gary's golf partner, his wife, Karen, to see how many steps she'd get during a round of golf using a cart.
She surprised me, clocking 2,880 steps — more than a mile — during nine holes. "Wow, that's great," Karen said, when she saw the number.
Mona says that the distance she covered is pretty typical. The distance can vary — better golfers, with more accurate shots, may walk less than golfers who have to chase after more shots in the rough — but the foundation's research finds that even golfers using a motorized cart can burn about 1,300 calories during an 18-hole round.
"There are lots of places you can't take a cart," Mona explains. You can't take it on the teeing grounds, the greens or in the bunkers. "There's still a lot of walking involved even if you're riding in a cart."
There's also a mental boost for lots of players. "There's rarely a bad day on the golf course," Gary Metzger says. "You're breathing good air and looking around at the nice scenery."
And this stress-relieving benefit, people in our poll told us, is one of their top motivations for staying in the game.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Golf is the sport adults say they play most often, so we wanted to know how much of a workout you get from 18 holes or in some cases nine holes. NPR's Allison Aubrey wanted to find out.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: So here's a little tip for all of you out there who don't play golf. If you want to be friendly with people who love the game, then don't show up at the clubhouse of a golf course as I did and try to begin conversations by asking people do you really think of golf as a sport?
DAVE COHEN: It's officially a sport for us.
AUBREY: That's weekend golfer Dave Cohen. I met him outside the Sligo Creek Club House, a municipal course in Silver Spring, Md., where after playing a round, golfers sipped beer and watch a Golf Channel feed of the European tour playing on a big-screen TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF MATCH)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A very, very good chunk.
AUBREY: The players here aren't competing with Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, but Cohen tells me you don't have to be a pro to play the game with athleticism. He says golf has all of the attributes of a sport. It's competitive, it requires good technique, athletic movements, and yes, he says, you can get a workout, both mental and physical.
COHEN: This exercise, it's not heart racing exercise but certainly keeps me moving.
AUBREY: Unlike a lot of golfers, Cohen skips the golf cart and walks the entire course. He knows precisely how many steps he's taking.
COHEN: I have a Fitbit on my waist, and I've gone about 8,200 steps, so 3.5 miles.
AUBREY: Wow, and that's after just nine holes.
COHEN: I think the first time I was differently surprised. I thought it would've been fewer steps.
AUBREY: It turns out Cohen's distance is pretty typical. Research commissioned by the World Golf Foundation found that golfers who walk the entire course, the traditional 18 holes, burn up to 2,000 calories and clock about 5 miles. But here's the rub. Two-thirds of all golf in the U.S. is played the way this foursome is playing...
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF CART)
AUBREY: ...In a cart. Now this group has just motored up to the first tee. The first player is lining up her drive.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Way to go. Way to go.
AUBREY: Steve Mona of the World Golf Foundation says there are lots of reasons why carts are so dominant. Some resorts and private courses restrict walking and require players to take carts.
STEVE MONA: It allows you to get more people on the course and get them around the course faster. So it's a source of revenue for the golf facility.
AUBREY: They charge a greens fee and a cart fee. But economics isn't the whole story. And increasingly, as a generation of golfers pushes past retirement age into their later years, the use of carts is what keeps them in the game.
GARY METZGER: I started when I was 9 years old.
AUBREY: That's Gary Metzger, who is in his mid-60s. I met up with him and his wife Karen as they were loading their clubs into a cart to play nine holes.
G. METZGER: Having lost two hips and losing two knees, you know, it's one of the few things left that I can do. It's the one sport - I've played many other sports - but it is the one sport that you can plan to play the rest of your life.
AUBREY: So how much exercise will they get when they play the course? Clearly not as much as people walking the whole course, but we asked Karen to track it for us.
Do you mind if I put this little pedometer around your waist here and...
KAREN METZGER: No, that's...
AUBREY: ...And you could wear it while you play the whole round.
K. METZGER: OK.
AUBREY: Is that all right?
K. METZGER: Sure. I'll wear it the whole time and I won't touch it or fiddle with it.
AUBREY: Now we'll check back when their round is over. Meanwhile, the World Golf Foundation research finds that even when you drive a cart, a round of golf can pack in a surprising amount of exercise. Steve Mona says think of it this way.
MONA: There's a lot of places you cannot take a golf cart. You can't take it right up on a green. You can't take it in the bunkers. You can't take it in the hazards. So there's still a lot of walking that's involved even if you're riding in a cart.
AUBREY: Back at the Sligo Creek Golf Course, we check in with the Metzgers who have just finished the ninth hole.
Looks like you guys had fun today?
K. METZGER: Yeah, we did. Yeah, had a great time.
G. METZGER: There's rarely a bad day on the golf course - we have to admit that - because you're out-of-doors. You're breathing good air. You're looking around. You see nice scenery.
AUBREY: And it's gorgeous outside. There's a mental boost here, which people in our polls said is one of the top benefits of playing sports. And as for the physical workout, Karen unclips the pedometer and we check it out.
It looks like you got 2,880 steps.
K. METZGER: Oh, all right. Yeah, that's probably half a mile. Wouldn't you - is that...
AUBREY: That's a mile.
K. METZGER: A mile, OK.
AUBREY: Yeah, it's saying 1.1 miles.
K. METZGER: OK, good. That's great for me.
AUBREY: Metzger's step count lines up almost exactly with what the World Golf Foundation research found. A full round of 18 holes in a cart usually nets about two miles of walking and can burn about a thousand calories. The foundation's Steve Mona says what's encouraging is that lots of golfers the Metzgers' age can look forward to many more years of play.
MONA: We're finding now people are playing golf well into their 80s and playing pretty well.
AUBREY: So even if your game begins and ends behind the wheel of a cart, it's still a good way to get some exercise. I'm Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.