It's Time We Put the Green Back in Green Speed

By DAVID A. OATIS
Director, Northeastern Region, USGA Green Section
Reprinted from the USGA Green Section Record
1990 November/December Vol 28(6): 1-6

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.



Subjectivity

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 are inferior.



Conclusion

The condition of the golf course, in the subjective view of the golfer, is directly related to how well that golfer plays. 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 proclaimed.

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!



Perception

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.



Relativity

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 faster.

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 difficult.

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.



Reality

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.



Conclusion

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
Championship Play
Fast 10' 6"
Medium Fast 9' 6"
Medium 8' 6"
Medium Slow 7' 6"
Slow 6' 6"



GREEN SPEED CHART
Regular Membership Play
Fast 8' 6"
Medium Fast 7' 6"
Medium 6' 6"
Medium Slow 5' 6"
Slow 4' 6"




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