Why are carry bags so bad?

A plea to bag manufacturers by Warren Montgomery

I've been playing golf for 50 years and play enough that I've played thousands of rounds, mostly walking and carrying my clubs.  During that time I've gone through at least 2-3 dozen golf bags, and now play enough that looking for a new bag is almost a continuous process.  When bags designed specifically for those who walk and carry the bag were introduced in the early 1990s they were a real innovation.  Comfortable dual straps and a stand to keep the bag off the ground were real innovations.  Unfortunately, things never got much better after that and in many ways got worse.

What I really want in a golf bag.

The real problem is that when it comes to most things -- Simple is better, and Manufacturers just don't seem to get the concept of simple and high quality, instead feeling they have to compete on the basis of lots of "features" that are mostly only a distraction.  What I'm really looking for in a bag is the following:
I don't think my needs are unique, but again, manufacturers just don't seem to get it.  Bags fall short in many areas, but especially in the ones that follow:


The first stand bags from Sun Mountain had a unique system some hated, but I loved.  The legs were connected to bungie cords that extended them as soon as you put the bag down and took weight off the straps.  The system never failed.  It was also quite durable (and if anything ever did fail, Sun Mountain would send you the replacement parts with easy to follow instructions to fix it.  Some had trouble with the fact that the legs wanted to extend when the bag sat on a cart or in a car trunk, but I was more than willing to deal with that for the sake of something that really worked.  Instead, now all the bags I've seen use some kind of lever on the bottom of the bag to extend the legs.  The biggest problem with that is that when you put the bag down on soft or uneven ground, many don't get the legs out reliably.  In addition, manyhave hardware to restrain the legs when the bag sits in a cart, which would be okay, if it didn't sometimes interfere with the legs and keep them from extending.  My Calaway bag occasionally goes over with a crash because one of the legs got stuck behind two little plastic fingers that are supposed to hold the legs in front of them. 

Aside frome reliability, the new stand mechanisms often don't seem to extend the legs far enough or wide enough to make the bag stable.  If the bag stands too tall or the legs aren't far enough apart, it easily gets knocked over in the wind.  One bag that I had did this so often it broke the shaft on my driver when it fell. 

The other problem with lever operated stands is that the lever hardware tends to wear out.  That's mostly a matter of construction -- wearable plastic instead of durable metal or other materials, but sometimes it's design.  The more complex the mechanism the more likely it is to develop problems.


This is the biggest problem area in most bags.  The original double straps which were full length straps attaching to rings on the bag fit my requirements nicely.  A full length strap with a long and wide pad will rest comfortably on your shoulders without requiring adjustments other than length, and with secure attachment points on the bag you can easily carry it on one our two straps.  The full length left strap is also very easy to get on and off.  Unfortunately, that design is now rare -- instead, most bags have "strap systems" -- custom made harnesses that fit only that bag.  Most of these have some kind of fabric crossover piece where the straps cross behind your back, and that's a huge problem:
Other strap systems involve large padded "horse collars" that go over your shoulders and behind your neck.  That's comfortable, but doesn't work on one shoulder, and again all that material on your back gets hot.  Ping bags almost get it right, with two full length straps, but they integrate one end into the top of the bag.  That sounds nice (nothing to slip), but my experience is that the straps rub against the plastic grommet that they slip through eventually wearing through.  When that happens the bag is virtually impossible to repair, and they aren't cheap. 

Companies seem to be locked into a struggle to figure out who can come up with the most complicated and least functional strap system.  One new design has the two straps merge into one behind your back and end in a clip you attach to one of several points in thee bag.  Maybe it works, but the plastic clip looks quite fragile and non repairabble.  One bag I had seemed to have 2 full straps, but in fact both straps were a continuous piece of mesh slipped through a channel in the bag.  The strap was designed to slip back and forth a bit to self adjust when you carried on both shoulders.  That was fine, but what it meant was when you put it on only one, the strap slipped to the end of its range, making the bag hang lower and making the left strap loop now too short to just slip over your shoulder to get it on.  Every time I put on both straps on that bag I'd have to go through a few seconds of twisting my arm and shoulder to get it on, then shaking to get it to resettle, and if I didn't put the second strap on the bag hung low and bounced on my hip.

I don't know whether this explosion of design creativity comes because these folks really think they are improving their bags or simply because they are trying to avoid the patents of their competitors, but in my experience nobody has beaten the original two strap system.


Here's where durability comes in. In the interest of having the lightest bag out there many manufacturers have replaced metal with plastic and used thinner materials all around.  When the plastic piece is replaceable, like a circular ring, that's not too bad, but I doubt it saves enough weight to matter and there's little worse than having one of these things bust out on the course leaving you to carry the bag the rest of the way with the handle.  More often the plastic piece is of some unique design (a D-ring, a clip, a buckle, etc.) that can't be replaced with a substitute when it fails, forcing you to dump the bag instead.

Those early Sun Mountain bags had solid hard plastic sides.  All modern bags have abandoned that in favor of nylon fabric sides stretched by 2 or 3 struts top to bottom.  The hard plastic may have been a little heavier, but it had lots of advantages over struts and fabric.
Dividers are another area where manufactures have gotten very creative.  Unfortunately, int's mostly all fluff (literally).  Those "full length dividers" on most bags are simply nylon fabric strips stretched top to bottom, but they don't attach to the sides, allowing your clubs to sneak around the divider and jam anyway.  Worse yet a little stress causes the fabric to detach from the bottom and then it is constantly tangling in the clubs.  The anti-wear padding on the top is never durable and quickly wears through, allowing your shafts to rub against the dividing bars.  Those bars on newer bars are often just thin plastic, and prone to breakage.  Personally I've never seen the purpose of more than about 4 club compartments anyway.  With more compartments the openings are smaller and won't accomodate the long headcovers you need to protect your shafts from rubbing.  Some bags force you to organize clubs "their" way, even if that's not where you want them. 

Just like dividers, manufacturers seem to be going hog wild on Pockets.  That's okay as long as the result is still functional.  It's nice to have a place to stick a plastic drink bottle and enough pockets that I can have one for new balls, one for old balls, one for miscelaneous small stuff, and one large one that will pack extra clothing, but beyond that things get gimicky.  I've never understood why I wanted a "valuablees" pocket lined with fuzzy material.  Those pockets are never waterproof and often positioned on the outside of the bag where they are especially vulnerable.  I'd rather stick my "valuablees" in a zip lock bag and stuff it in the bottom of the main pocket where it's not going to fall out or get casually swipeed and I don't need to worry about it getting wet.  And finally, don't put little tags on everything telling me what it's for.  Give me a little book explaining it all but I don't need that stuff stitched on the bag.  I feel like a four year carrying a bag like that.

Waterproofing is another issue.  Why can't manufacturers routinelly use water tight fabric on a bag?  I doubt it costs more.  If not for the bag itself, why not at least for the pockets.  I keep a rule book, extra gloves, league rosters, score cards, as well as my wallet in the bag and all of this gets soaked when it rains.  Not good.  Recently I saw that Sun Mountain has a bag they claim to be waterproof -- nice, but for 2-3 times the price of an ordinary bag it ought to be.

One more thing I wish manufacturers would do -- make fewer models and keep them longer.  Even when I find a bag I rather like, a year later when it's time to buy another there's never one anything like it unless I find some store still closing that model out.  These days it's hard to find the same bag in two stores. 

The bottom line here is keep it simple, pay attention to function, and make it last. 

Warren Montgomery (wamontgomery@ieee.org)