Small carts, big business: Golf course staples leaving links behind

gmartin@islandpacket.comDecember 26, 2011 

It looks, at first blush, like any other auto mechanic's garage.

Scruffy, tattooed workers tinker with headlights and hubcaps as alternative rock blares from a radio perched atop a stack of auto batteries.

They operate under the watchful eyes of David Nettles, a mechanic seemingly straight from central casting, complete with day-old stubble, a grease-stained shirt and a cigarette dangling from his lips.

He's dedicated to his customers -- "Whatever they want, I do," he says -- and speaks about his vehicles with obvious affection and clinical detachment, using the same opaque jargon as a NASCAR pit crew chief.

Only Nettles doesn't work with race cars -- or any other kind of conventional car, for that matter.

His humble garage, just off Burnt Church Road in Bluffton, is home to a uniform fleet of vehicles that, once Nettles and his men are through with them, are transformed into unique expressions of their owners' fashion sensibilities and sports-team-rooting interests.

Nettles customizes golf carts, and his garage is part of a business steadily spreading -- at no more than 25 mph, of course -- throughout Beaufort County.

Margie Donley is eager to show off Nettles' work to visitors to her office at Coastal Custom Carts in Bluffton, where she fields requests for a variety of customizations.

Many customers ask for paint jobs to reflect their sporting interests -- she says the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ohio State University are especially popular -- and others ask for simpler add-ons, such as decals or script bearing the owner's name on the cart's front apron.

But other requests are more unusual.

One client wanted his golf cart to match the trim on his beach house. Others want custom upholstery, or faux-wood paneling along the sides. Some want $800 stereo systems or chrome designer rims.

"We had one guy request a body kit to make his cart look like a '57 Chevy," Donley said. "We've made carts look like old roadsters, Humvees, Volkswagen Beetles, you name it."

But customizations can come at a steep price.

Nettles said it's not uncommon for clients to spend upward of $8,000 for their customized carts, adding that one sold for about $20,000.

Terry Sutcliffe, who owns Sutcliffe's Golf Cars in Port Royal, credited warm weather and a slowly improving economy for this year's strong sales.

"We've been busy," he said. "Folks that didn't want to spend on a golf cart during the recession are doing that now."

Are customers ever worried about damaging their carts if they should stray from the cart path during their rounds?

"No," Sutcliffe said, and laughed. "I bet only about 20 percent of my carts ever even see a golf course."

Demand for customized carts is especially high on Daufuskie Island -- where cars are prohibited -- and in retirement communities such as Sun City Hilton Head.

Nearly one in every two Sun City homes has a golf cart, according to Martin Smith, the community's director of communications.

"The carts aren't just customized, but extensions of people's personalities," Smith said.

Sutcliffe agreed, citing the near limitless options his clients have at their disposal.

"We can do pretty much anything you want to a golf cart," he said. "The question is, how much do you want to spend?"

Follow reporter Grant Martin at

Related content:

Quintessentially Lowcountry: Golf carts go far beyond the links -- to the store, to the bank..., Nov. 13, 2009

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