‘Gotown’ rivalry puts Augusta on fast track

Bobby Jones drives a three-wheeled golf cart with Elivera Doud, the mother of former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, in the 1950s at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo: Augusta National via Getty Images

Editor’s note: This story on metro Augusta, Georgia, golf car makers, which originally ran on April 6, 2022, is the third in a series of special GGP/Biz pieces during the week of the PGA Show in Orlando, Florida.

detroit became the automotive capital of North America when the Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – settled in the industrial heartland to create the Motor City.

Augusta, Georgia, had its own Big Three cement its global reputation as a golf town, but the Masters city is also the “Motown” of the golf car industry with EZ-Go and Club Car calling the metro Augusta area home.

EZ-Go and Club Car – only 14 miles apart in neighboring counties – manufacture more than 80 percent of golf cars in the world, while the Yamaha plant not far down the road in Newnan, Georgia, takes up most of the remaining percentage.

Just how the home of the Masters tournament became the hub of motorized golf conveyance is a story all its own. It starts with two names – Dolan and Stevens.

Beverly Dolan and his older brother, Billy, created EZ-Go – the industry’s oldest golf car brand – after they saw Bobby Jones driving around Augusta National Golf Club in a three-wheeled “Autoette” during the 1954 Masters. Jones used his little golf cart to get around as the effects of his syringomyelia left him unable to walk the course.

“The true answer is that nobody really foresaw what the golf car would grow into. We were neophytes in a neophyte business.” – Bev Dolan

The Dolan brothers began building their vehicles by hand in a one-room machine shop on Greene Street in east Augusta. They used surplus electric B17 bomber wing-flap motors in their 24-volt three-wheelers. The first one sold in 1954 to Valdosta Country Club.

As the business expanded, they moved to a larger facility in nearby Grovetown before eventually settling in south Augusta near the airport on Marvin Griffin Road, where EZ-Go’s main manufacturing facility and corporate offices are still located. In 1960, the brothers sold the company to Rhode Island-based Textron, but Bev kept running the operation in Georgia and eventually became Textron president and CEO before retiring as chairman in 1991.

They weren’t the first to make golf carts, but EZ-Go was the first to gain large-scale production traction. Bev Dolan, who died in 2018, had no idea their novelty item would become standard golf course equipment across the world.

“The true answer is that nobody really foresaw what the golf car would grow into,” Dolan told The Augusta Chronicle in 2002. “We were neophytes in a neophyte business.”

They weren’t alone in Augusta, however, in thinking this golf car seemed like a good idea. Across town at Stevens Appliance Truck Co., the senior and junior William Stevens decided there was room for two golf car companies in town. Bill Sr. bought Texas-based Landreath Machine in 1962 and moved it to Augusta, renaming it Club Car.

Bill Stevens Jr. drove an early Club Car golf cart from Augusta, Georgia, to Dunedin, Florida, to show off the product at the 1962 PGA Show. Photo: Courtesy Club Car

To let the world know who they were, Bill Jr. spent six days driving 450 miles down the back roads from downtown Augusta to Dunedin, Florida, in their new 36-volt, three-wheel Club Car to show it off at the 1962 PGA Show and let EZ-Go know it had competition.

“We got a lot of strange looks from people,” Bill Jr., who died in 2017, told The Augusta Chronicle of the publicity stunt, also noting that a Florida state trooper pulled him over for driving too slowly. “He let us go after we explained what we were doing. But he told us not to tell anybody he stopped us.”

The Stevens family brought innovations such as the first steering wheel to its Club Cars in the 1960s instead of the rudder-like bar that turned the front wheel. After moving the company to Augusta and getting it going, Bill Jr. sold out to building-parts company Johns Manville in 1973 after Bill Sr. died: “It was probably a really good idea at the time,” Bill Jr. told The Chronicle.

The crosstown rivalry of the two golf-car makers officially became a thing in 1978 when a group of eight EZ-Go executives, including Billy Dolan, left the company and purchased Club Car to compete head-to-head with their former outfit.

The “Original Eight” – or the “Infamous Eight,” depending on which side of the golf cart you’re on – brought in a new designer named Dom Saporito, who developed the more powerful DS model that launched in 1982 and became Club Car’s staple for decades and helped its sales inch past EZ-Go in the 1990s to become the top seller of electric golf carts in the world. It was acquired by Ingersoll Rand in 1995.

Click on images of long-ago Club Car (left) and EZ-Go models above to enlarge.

Both companies have brought innovations to the genre through the years, from four wheels and canopy tops to four-seater models. While each makes gasoline-model engines, the electric models remain the core, with EZ-Go introducing the first lithium-powered models at fleet scale that are far lighter and require little maintenance compared with the old lead-acid batteries.

What the Dolan brothers first started in 1954 was recognized in 2012 when Bev Dolan received the PGA of America’s Ernie Sabayrac Award for lifetime contributions to the golf industry.

“Bev Dolan’s commitment to excellence resulted in one of the remarkable success stories in the business of golf,” then-PGA president Ted Bishop said. “Bev’s vision for a piece of equipment that we take for granted today had a monumental impact upon the golf experience.”

While golf sales remain central to both companies’ business – and between the two of them, they churn out close to a quarter million per year – golf cars have become much more than just “golf” cars. Both companies have found the biggest growth for their “off road” versions that are sold directly to consumers – a trend for personal transportation vehicles (PTVs) that accelerated even more since the start of the pandemic. They’ve developed new product lines of vehicles that don’t look like typical golf cars and serve everything from farmers to ranchers to sportsmen to homeowners.

Click on images of EZ-Go’s Liberty (left) and Club Car’s Onward PTVs above to enlarge.

“When COVID lockdowns hit, that demand for individual consumers who were looking to purchase vehicles went up significantly,” said Brandon Haddock, the director of communications for Textron/EZ-Go. “We saw demand across the golf business, too, go up as rounds played went up significantly.”

“The golf car has expanded even beyond transporting golfers and carrying their clubs – it’s turned into a lifestyle and we’ve seen this trend since early 2020 as demand has increased for our Onward personal golf car, which you can use on and off the course ,” said Tammy Cillo, spokesperson for Club Car.

A rivalry certainly persists between the two companies just 14 miles apart – EZ-Go inside Augusta-Richmond County limits and Club Car in Evans, just up Washington Road in neighboring Columbia County. In 2001 when Club Car celebrated its 1 millionth car, Augusta Mayor Bob Young landed himself in hot water with constituents when he said “Take that, EZ-Go!” The political lesson wasn’t learned by Young’s successor Deke Copenhaver (who grew up in Columbia County) when he declared April 22, 2010, “Club Car Day in Augusta” after it hit the 2 million mark.

Despite bristling from those slights, EZ-Go has been a good community steward as well as long-running employer in Augusta. In 2016, it imported a program it calls RPM – Reaching Potential Through Manufacturing – to provide more opportunities for students at risk of dropping out of Richmond County schools by offering an alternative path to graduation.

Click on images of cart-riders Tiger Woods (left), Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen to enlarge.

The program combines four hours of daily school instruction in an onsite classroom with a four-hour shift at a manufacturing facility, for which they’re paid part-time employees. It allows students to make progress toward getting their high school diploma and earn valuable work experience and income. It also provides life skills, tutoring resources and services such as food, clothing, housing and medical care from local agencies and not-for-profit organizations.

Nearly 270 students have graduated through the RPM program since its inception, and many of them have gone on to college, entered the workforce or received full-time employment at the manufacturing plant.

“The RPM program is a cornerstone of our workforce strategy in Augusta … a beacon for what our companies, our schools and our community can accomplish when we share a common vision and a commitment to winning by working together,” said Gunnar Kleveland, president and CEO of Textron Specialized Vehicles.

Augusta long ago won the golf car wars, even if its two brands constantly battle for their own share of the market. Every April, Club Car displays colorful golf cars up and down Washington Road, as timely as the blooms of azaleas. Inside the gates at Augusta National, you’ll typically find EZ-Gos scooting around.

But whichever brand you come across wherever you find a golf cart, it’s probably made in Georgia and more likely than not it started in “Gotown.”

© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *