It's Time We Put the Green Back in Green Speed
Thirteen years have passed since the stimpmeter was made
available to golf course superintendents. The intentions behind
its introduction were wonderful: essentially, the USGA wanted to
have the ability to quantify green speed for the sake of
consistency. There was a great demand among all interests in golf
to know the relative speed of greens. To that end, the stimpmeter
was used during 1976 and 1977 by USGA agronomists to gauge the
relative speed of thousands of greens across the country. Data
from this work formed the basis for the
green speed charts
found in the stimpmeter instruction manual. There has always been
plenty of controversy about green speeds, but the introduction of
the stimpmeter and the publication of quantitative data
stimulated a new round of debate that has not subsided.
For anyone taking up golf, a great deal can be learned about the
game just by asking questions, listening, and observing. It's
a wonderful way to observe the interaction of golf with human
nature. People who follow golf long enough usually come to the
same conclusion: Golfers who are playing well tend to be happy
and are generally complimentary of course conditioning. On the
other hand, golfers who are playing poorly tend to be unhappy and
are often critical of course conditioning. Tired or nervous
golfers leave putts short or blast them by the hole, and green
speed is often blamed for their poor performance. In general,
golfers who negotiate the course with fewer than 25 putts love
the greens, while those with putt totals over 34 feel the greens
The condition of the golf course, in the subjective view
of the golfer, is directly related to how well that golfer
This conclusion is further supported by my own golf career, when
at age 17 I won a local junior golf tournament. The tournament
was played in August on Poa annua greens that were 30-40% dead.
(This happened every year.) After shooting a career round and
winning the tournament, I deliberately sought out the
superintendent and complimented him on the excellent condition of
the course. "The golf course is in wonderful shape," I
The point is, course condition and green speed are very
subjective in the mind's eye, and the stimpmeter was
introduced to eliminate this subjectivity. The speed charts which
were produced gave an accurate picture of relative green speeds
at that time, but they did not (nor were they intended to)
account for the many subtleties that should be considered when
determining a green speed for a particular course.
There is a remarkably direct relationship between fast greens and
dead grass, and most of the practices currently used to increase
putting green speed are detrimental to the health of the turf if
practiced to an extreme. The question is, how fast is fast, and
how do we determine what is appropriate? Should we simply refer
to the chart and pick a number for everyone to follow? "We
want fast greens, so set them at 9' 6"." No, this
is absolutely the wrong way to look at the problem!
It is fascinating to consider just how often golfers playing the
same course will have completely different views concerning the
speed of the greens. A visit made several years ago to a course
renowned for its fast greens provides a case in point. At the
time, the membership was very unhappy about what they considered
inferior green speed, even though the superintendent reported
that it was 11' 6". After much discussion, a stimpmeter
was produced and the whole group of committee people marched out
to a putting green to measure its speed. The speed indeed
measured at 11' 6", yet the committee was not impressed.
During the proceedings, a golfer who had played in the U.S. Open
at a different site the previous week arrived to give his
thoughts on the subject. "I don't care what that thing
says," he said. "I just played in the U.S. Open and the
greens were faster there than they are here." As a matter of
record, the green speeds during that particular Open had been
about 10' 6" throughout the championship.
Maybe it was the pressure or the status of playing in an Open
that made the player think the greens were faster. After all,
Open courses are well known for their firm, fast putting
surfaces. Then again, it may have been the contours of the Open
greens that made them seem so fast. In any event, the fact
remains that the player was absolutely incorrect in his
assessment of the green speed, and this is one of the reasons the
stimpmeter was introduced.
The point is this: The best players in the world cannot determine
green speed with a putter because touch and feel, no matter how
finely tuned, are nothing more than senses. Though it is a simple
instrument, the stimpmeter is very accurate and does not lie.
Using the USGA green speed chart, whether for Regular or
Championship play, does not always do justice to selecting a
green speed range for a particular course. Severely contoured
greens should not be maintained at very fast speeds because the
skill factor is removed and is replaced with a luck factor.
Severely contoured greens combined with even reasonably fast
green speeds (7' 6" to 8' 6" on the stimpmeter)
give the golfer the perception that speeds are very fast. A good
argument could be made that those stimpmeter readings are more
than adequate for those particular greens, but the same
stimpmeter readings on greens with less contour would be
perceived by the same golfer as being quite slow.
Along the same lines, golfers playing in tournaments at other
courses often return home with stories of "lightning
fast" greens, and respond by putting even more pressure on
their own superintendent to do the same. What the golfers fail to
realize is that the tournament greens were more than likely
peaked for that special event and were not kept that way for
long. Carrying this one step further, visiting players are
usually not as familiar with the greens as they are with their
own, and this lack of local knowledge makes the greens seem
Weekly televised golf tournaments fuel the demand for fast
greens, yet golfers fail to take into account that these events
are prepared for weeks, months, or even years in advance. The
U.S. Open Championship provides a classic example of selective
viewing. Spectators and viewers do not see the course the week
following the event, when the greens are usually fertilized, the
cutting heights raised, and mowing postponed for a few days.
It should be noted that in 1976 and 1977, the years during which
the stimpmeter was tested, the average speed across the country
was 6' 6". Furthermore, anything over 7' 6" was
considered excitingly fast by the Green Section agronomists doing
the testing. These same speeds today would be considered very
slow by some, and courses remaining at the same level occupied 13
years ago would have lost ground relative to most other courses.
Green speed is much like playing golf: The worse (slower) you
are, the easier it is to improve (faster). It is also true that
it is tougher for a good player to improve. Increasing the speed
of greens from 7' to 8' is relatively easy, but taking it
from 9' to 10' and beyond is progressively more
Essentially, some of the elite clubs that were once recognized
for their fast greens have been caught or passed. But who says
faster is better? The fastest three-lap average speed wins the
pole position at the Indy 500, but consistently good speed,
without mechanical failure, wins the race.
Many of the great old golf courses have a green or two which is
so severely contoured that it has little usable cupping area,
especially at faster green speeds. Some greens have mounds or
ridges which cannot be mowed without scalping, and the comments
and questions from the green committee in both scenarios are
often the same: "What can we do? Should we rebuild the
green? Can we raise the front or lower the back? Why don't we
remove the mound?" The list goes on and on. Wonderful old
courses by the late, great architects such as MacKenzie, Ross,
Tillinghast, Banks, Flynn, and others have been completely
changed or modified over the years for the sake of
"modernization," and now they are being changed for the
sake of green speed. Does this make sense? Is it right? Many
would argue that it is not!
The value of fast green speeds is being greatly overemphasized.
It should not be the only factor in determining changes in
architecture. Within reason, architectural style should be an
important consideration in determining green speed ranges on
these courses. Having one or more severely contoured greens
should be a factor in setting green speeds for the entire golf
course, and a green should not necessarily be rebuilt or
recontoured just to facilitate faster speeds. There are
exceptions to every rule, and some of these severe greens may not
be fair or reasonable even at relatively slow speeds. These
greens may need adjustments, but great care should be taken not
to confuse reasonable contours with excessive ones.
Maintaining very fast green speeds for a prolonged period of time
can be detrimental to the health of the turf, and it greatly
affects natural selection. Practices involving very close mowing,
excessive verticutting, frequent grooming, low fertility, etc.,
leave the turf weak and subject to weed grass infestation. This
effect is compounded by heavy play.
Weed grass invasion may come in the form of crabgrass and
goosegrass, but their encroachment can usually be controlled with
applications of preemergent herbicides. Unfortunately, these
herbicides have their own detrimental side effects. The other
weed grass which presents a problem is Poa annua, and this one is
more difficult to control. The drawback to having Poa annua as a
main constituent of greens is that it is an inconsistent grass
when subjected to weather extremes.
It is no secret that moss and algae can be major problems at
courses with fast greens. Low cutting heights and low fertility
practices reduce the recuperative ability of the turf as well as
its competitiveness. We've all heard that the best defense
against weed grass invasion is to grow a healthy stand of turf;
and this is true. The most effective way to control moss and keep
it controlled is to increase fertility and raise cutting heights.
In short, increase the vigor of the turf.
Weather has not yet been mentioned, yet this is surely the most
significant variable superintendents must deal with. When
rigorous cultural practices for improving speed are combined with
extended periods of stressful weather, it can have a detrimental
effect on the turf. The result can be loss of density, increased
disease activity, or outright loss of turf.
Wet weather can completely change the character of a golf course
by softening green surfaces and reducing green speed. When an
extended period of wet weather occurs in an area, golf course
superintendents have to be concerned about the health of the turf
as well as the speed of the greens. Saturated soils and heavy
play can cause root dieback and enhance disease activity, and the
last thing the superintendent wants to hear is the members'
requests for faster greens.
The geographic location of the golf course has much to do with
how easy it is to develop fast green speeds. Maintenance
practices which produce smooth, fast greens in cooler climates
will likely produce dead turf in hotter, more humid areas. What
can be done at one latitude or elevation cannot necessarily be
done in another. How long is the stress period at your location?
Is August normally the only bad weather month, or does your
course experience three months or more of stress? How does your
course come out of the winter? Is it healthy, or is winterkill a
real problem? Sometimes we should just be thankful to have decent
turf, let alone fast greens.
Turfgrass root systems play an important role in the turf's
ability to withstand stress. Healthier, deeper roots translate to
better stress tolerance. We have become more aware of the value
of healthy roots in recent years, partly because unhealthy,
weak-rooted turf is so often observed. The response has included
innovations in aeration equipment and an increasing variety of
fertilizers and growth-related products introduced to improve
rooting and stress tolerance.
All of this is in direct response to a persistent trend in
putting green management: The amount of stress being placed on
putting greens increases every year. The stress comes in the form
of heavier play and increased demand for faster green speeds. It
is no wonder that two of the most commonly observed diseases on
greens in many parts of the country in recent years have been
anthracnose and summer patch, both stress-related diseases.
It is not hard to find fairway turf that measures more than
4' 6" on the stimpmeter today. Keep in mind that such
speeds were not uncommon on some greens just a dozen years ago.
Fairways have improved immeasurably because we have finally
discovered how to reduce the amount of stress they receive. The
trick has involved changing to lightweight mowers.
Why haven't we seen a similar response on the putting greens,
where many clubs have gone back to using lighter, walk-behind
mowers? The answer lies in the height of cut. There is little
doubt the bentgrass existing in our greens would become more
competitive if cutting heights were raised back to 3/16" or
1/4"! Speed would suffer, but the bentgrasses would begin
crowding out the Poa annua. Wouldn't that be something!
Realistically, we all know this will not happen until tighter
water restrictions or the loss of pesticides forces the issue.
Nonetheless, proceeding with moderation as far as green speed is
concerned will yield healthier turf.
There is a wonderful new trend in golf course architecture,
especially with respect to some of our classic golf courses. That
trend, or theme, is preservation. A new level of appreciation has
emerged, and golfers are finally beginning to realize what some
have known for a long time: The older courses are some of our
best. Aided by computers and laser measuring devices, the
contours of older courses are being measured and mapped with
incredible accuracy. Our older courses are a part of the history
and evolution of the game of golf in this country. As such, they
should be treated with respect and they should be preserved.
Changing anything but the most unreasonable contours for the sake
of a few inches on a stimpmeter is a mistake.
Ultimately, each club must decide what green speed is reasonable
and appropriate for its golf course. When warning signs appear
(loss of density, shortened root systems, appearance of moss,
scalped knolls, etc.), action should be taken. Increase
fertility, raise the cutting height, eliminate verticutting and
grooming, and switch to solid rollers. Some of the symptoms can
be relieved through sound cultural practices such as proper
fertility, aerification, etc., but sometimes the towel should be
thrown in as far as green speed is concerned. Agronomics and
architecture must take precedence over green speed.
In short, too much emphasis is being placed on the value of
extremely fast green speeds. The health of the turf is being
compromised all too often, and this leads to turf failure or the
risk of failure. Heavily contoured greens maintained at too great
a speed reduce the amount of usable cupping area and leave some
greens unplayable. Use the stimpmeter as it was intended: to
measure speed and improve consistency between greens. Put the
emphasis on consistency and smoothness, where it belongs.
It's time we put the green back in green speed.
|GREEN SPEED CHART
|GREEN SPEED CHART
Regular Membership Play
Few golf course management topics attract greater attention or
controversy than speed of greens. It is a constant source of
debate, and Green Section agronomists are regularly bombarded
with comments and questions about this volatile subject. Though
some may feel the topic has been beaten to death, a good argument
could be made that green speed is beating the game of golf to
death. Too much emphasis is being placed on the importance of
having ultra-fast greens, and many golfers fail to realize just
how much green speed is related to subjectivity, perception,
relativity, and reality.