S.P.E.E.D. - Consider What's Right for Your Course
Unfortunately, high Stimpmeter readings are often used today as
the sole criterion for evaluating putting quality when, in fact,
many greens simply were not designed or built with high readings
in mind. Depending on such variables as the principal resources
available for course maintenance, environmental conditions, the
expertise of the golfers who play the course, and the annual
volume of play, maintaining smooth, consistent putting greens at
slower Stimpmeter readings may be a more practical and worthy
A review of putting green conditions over the past one hundred
years reveals how green speed became the focal point of most
discussions about putting quality. For without some knowledge
about how putting green turf was maintained and evolved, it would
be easy to lose sight of where the turfgrass industry stands
In the spirit of the centennial year of the United States Golf
Association, a good place to start looking at the history of
putting conditions is at the turn of the 20th Century. As there
are no detailed records of putting quality, and putting green
speed in particular, the condition of the putting greens can be
considered only by examining the golf clubs and mowing equipment
used in the late 1890's.
To control long putts, early American golfers needed to get the
ball airborne over the tall grass. For this reason, putters were
made with a loft as high as twelve degrees. During the past 75
years or so, this measurement has been steadily declining, and
today the average loft is between two and four degrees.
Mowing equipment also has changed considerably in the last
century. Before the introduction of the motorized mower in the
1920's, greens were cut with crude push mowers set at a
quarter of an inch or higher. As a consequence, the quality of
the cut depended greatly on the training and physical condition
of the maintenance staff.
Using information about vintage golf clubs and mowing equipment,
it's a sure bet that the quality of putting greens when
Charles Blair McDonald won the first U. S. Open Championship at
Newport Country Club was a far cry from that of the putting
greens on which the U.S. Open is played today. To illustrate the
difference between then and now, imagine putting a golf ball on a
poorly maintained tee with a one-iron versus putting on the
greens at your home course.
Agronomically speaking, much in the past one hundred years has
changed, from the species and cultivars of turf being grown to
the kinds of fertilizer used to nurture its growth. In the
beginning, there were no fungicides to control diseases like
Dollar Spot and Brown Patch, no 2, 4-D to kill dandelions, and
crabgrass had to be plucked from the putting greens by hand or it
would have taken over by Independence Day. It was quite simply a
bare-fisted superintendent against an irate Mother Nature, with
golfers putting on the battlefield.
From the 1920's to the 1950's, things started changing
for the better. During this era, new products for controlling
major pest problems, new turfgrass varieties, new equipment, and
synthetic fertilizers gave superintendents the means to maintain
putting greens similar to what golfers see today. For the first
time, golfers could begin to recognize the difference between
well maintained putting greens and sparse turf damaged by disease
and infested with weeds.
One individual who wrote to the USGA to describe a procedure to
distinguish good putting greens from bad was Mr. Edward S.
Stimpson. In 1936, Mr. Stimpson developed a prototype of the
Stimpmeter that is used today.
The Stimpmeter is a 36-inch extruded aluminum bar with a grooved
runway on one side. A notch in the runway is used to support a
golf ball until one end of the Stimpmeter is lifted to an angle
of roughly 20 degrees. The average distance the golf ball travels
after two opposing rolls down the Stimpmeter is referred to as
the speed. The farther the ball rolls, the faster the green.
Mr. Stimpson learned through personal use of his prototype
Stimpmeter that there was great variation in the speed of greens
where competitive golf was played. He also found great variation
in the condition of greens on the same course, and between hole
locations on the same green.
He believed, and the Green Section staff agrees, that without
some form of quantitative measurement, superintendents and course
officials cannot evaluate playing conditions, discuss maintenance
practices, and establish reasonable goals with respect to green
speed. Indeed, superintendents who wanted to do a better job of
managing the putting conditions on their courses were the first
to approach Mr. Stimpson for his device.
After the USGA introduced the current version of the Stimpmeter
in 1978, it was not long before a new philosophy developed.
"The faster the better" became the rallying call that
bonded golfers across the country. The basis for this new
philosophy was the observation that as speed increased, the roll
of the golf ball across the surface was more true. A meaningful
translation is that the greens became more enjoyable to putt as
they got faster, at least to a point.
This one-size-fits-all mentality, having evolved from an era when
green speeds were considerably slower than today, has grown into
a real problem. Many golfers fail to realize the importance of
the fact that no two golf courses are physically alike, and that
the players at each course are different with respect to their
Given the major differences between courses and their players,
what factors can be used to evaluate how fast is fast enough? To
help you analyze your situation, consider the following five
criteria represented by the acronym SPEED. The limit for putting
green speed should be set by using the two or three criteria that
produce the lowest speeds.
The acronym SPEED stands for:
tatus of the turf
xpertise of the golfers
To illustrate how the five letter acronym SPEED can be used in
various situations, Table 1 shows the optimum putting green speed
for two examples. Example one, showing an optimum speed of eight
feet six inches, is a new course planted with a new creeping
bentgrass variety. The moderately contoured putting greens were
built according to USGA Specifications and the resources
available for course maintenance are not limiting. The expertise
of the large majority of golfers is characterized as less than
accomplished, and the prevailing environmental conditions are
somewhat unfavorable. The optimum speed in this example is set by
the contouring of the greens and the expertise of the golfers.
Example two, showing an optimum speed of eight feet, is a course
built in the late 1950's that was established with Colonial
bentgrass which has given way to Poa annua during the past forty
years. The contoured putting greens were built with soil native
to the site, and three inches of sand has accumulated from
regular topdressing. The resources available for course
maintenance are not limiting. The expertise of the average golfer
is characterized as accomplished, and the prevailing
environmental conditions are somewhat unfavorable. The optimum
speed in this example is set by the status of the turf as
dictated by prevailing weather conditions.
: Optimum speed set by the contouring of putting greens and the
expertise of the golfers.
: Optimum speed set by the status of the turf as dictated by the
prevailing weather conditions.
To determine the optimum Stimpmeter reading for each course,
analyze the criteria represented by the acronym S.P.E.E.D. The
limit for putting green speed should be set by using the lowest
speed of all five criteria.
Historically, the agronomic Status of the turf has set the upper
limit for green speed. For decades superintendents under the
direction of course officials did everything in their power to
increase Stimpmeter readings until they reached the biological
limit of the turf. Beyond this limit the turf would perish.
In 1977, when detailed records of putting green speed were first
kept, most courses measured between five feet six inches and
seven feet six inches. Some find this difficult to believe, as
the speeds at several famous courses were purported to be so fast
that stopping a putt near the hole was like rolling a golf ball
down a staircase and stopping it on the last step. But by
examining putting green mowers used in the mid-1970's, it is
known that they were adjusted to a height-of-cut between
3/16" and 1/4".
It is not so much that superintendents twenty years ago were
concerned about killing the turf by mowing lower than 3/16",
but the bedknives available for the mowers were so thick that
they could not be adjusted any lower. The only exception was when
the golf course mechanic used a grinder to reduce the thickness
of the bedknives. As a point of reference, the "thin"
or "championship"bedknives used by most courses today
were not sold until the 1980's.
Some believe that the introduction of the Stimpmeter in 1976
produced a speed war. This war was fought by mowing greens lower
and lower and practicing other techniques in order to establish
bragging rights for having the fastest greens in the territory.
There were many casualties in the so-called speed war.
Eventually, greens slowly deteriorated from low mowing and
excessive grooming; in some cases, they died completely. In some
areas of the country, it is sad but true that battles in this war
are still being fought. With human pride being what it is, this
war could rage on into the 21st Century.
In the 1990's, advances in technology have significantly
increased the tolerance of the turf to those practices that must
be used to produce high Stimpmeter readings. Probably the most
meaningful technology is the bulldozer, which has transformed
poorly drained putting greens, incapable of supporting turf at
speeds greater than eight feet, into ones that can be groomed to
roll nine feet plus if necessary, other conditions being
Determining the biological limit of your own greens can be
difficult and has been the subject of many articles in the Green
Section Record. But rest assured that if your greens die every
other summer while rolling nine feet six inches, you have gone
too far. At that point, there are two choices. The first is to
raise the height of cut on the mowers and grow healthy turf at a
slower speed. The second is to reconstruct the greens with the
goal of maintaining faster speeds in mind. Depending on what the
golfers expect in regard to speed, either choice can be
As important as the current status of the turf are the Principal
resources available for maintaining the greens. To produce greens
that are both consistent and fast requires intensive maintenance
using the most sophisticated technology available. It cannot, and
should not, be accomplished by simply lowering the mowers one
afternoon and going out the next morning to shave the greens down
to the crowns.
In preparation for U. S. Open Championships, greens are placed on
an intensive schedule of light topdressing, vertical mowing,
brushing, rolling, spiking, aerification, fertilization, . . .
you name it. It's all required to produce a consistently fast
putting surface. Such a schedule requires manpower, a large
stockpile of materials, and plenty of equipment.
Under no circumstances should "life on the edge" turf
management be attempted without the required resources. The
results will always be short-lived, because the turf will
invariably experience problems. The best managed courses use the
resources available to them, and they do so to their fullest
Ask any superintendent who has been knocked out in the first
round. The true champion of the turfgrass industry is Mother
Nature. During certain times of the year, depending on location,
prevailing Environmental conditions can dramatically reduce the
ability of the turf to survive. During these periods, Stimpmeter
readings should be reduced without hesitation by raising the
When common sense doesn't prevail, some people desperately
want to believe that because today's technology can place a
man on the moon, greens can be maintained at a speed of eleven
feet regardless of the stress on the turf. This assumption is, of
course, ridiculous. At the time of year when Mother Nature is in
control of the fight, it is clearly unwise to consider risking
the survival of the greens for a few extra inches of speed.
Because at the present time there are still no guaranteed means
of successfully maintaining fast putting speeds during
unfavorable environmental conditions, a few words seem in order
about scheduling special events. Ideally, it would be best to
plan tournaments, such as the Club Championship, during a time of
year when the turf can handle a temporary increase in speed. The
U.S. Open Championship, for example, is scheduled in mid-June.
Mindful scheduling would create an opportunity, if desired, to
give the greens the extra attention required to bring them into
championship condition. If tournaments must be scheduled when
Mother Nature is in control, than playing the greens at a slower
speed would be better than jeopardizing their condition through
excessive mowing or grooming.
Clearly, a few golfers at every course have a higher level of
Expertise than the majority of golfers. When highly contoured
greens are maintained at Stimpmeter readings in excess of eight
feet six inches, the expertise of a professional golfer can be
required to sink a putt in two strokes. Taking this into
consideration, it stands to reason that greens should generally
be maintained in a manner that best suits the vast majority of
users of the course.
At courses where the handicaps of many golfers are in the single
digits, it would be appropriate to maintain fast putting greens,
other conditions being favorable. But at courses where the large
majority of golfers have high handicaps, the greens would be more
enjoyable to the majority if they were maintained at or near
eight feet six inches.
Because the game of golf has become so popular, the damage caused
by traffic should always be considered when determining the
optimum putting green speed for the course. According to their
Design, the number of available hole locations decreases as the
speed of the greens increases. The reason is that some contoured
or sloped areas of the putting surface can no longer be used for
hole locations. In short, a putt that misses the hole placed on a
slope on a fast putting green will not come to rest near the
hole. By reducing the number of reasonable hole locations, the
greens can become subject to damage caused by heavy golfer
And, if the number of reasonable hole locations drops below seven
or eight per green because they are being maintained too fast,
the course may become less enjoyable to play regularly because
the setup is always similar. For example, a green that would have
seven or eight hole locations at a speed of eight feet six inches
might have only three to four at a speed of ten feet six inches.
For a three- or a four-day tournament a speed of ten feet six
inches, this would be adequate. However, for daily play the hole
would end up in a particular location more than once per week.
In conclusion, every golf course is unique because of its
agronomic Status, Principal resources, Environmental conditions,
golfer Expertise, and physical Design. In determining the optimum
green speed, course officials should seek input from the
superintendent, the golf professional, and outside sources, such
as the USGA Green Section staff.
It is incorrect to state that only fast greens are good and that
all slower greens are bad. Also, because the hallmark of a good
course is consistent putting, the Stimpmeter is as important for
maintaining putting greens at ten feet as it is for eight feet.
Gone are the days when fast was always good, and faster yet was
Since the humble beginnings of the game, golfers have maintained
an immense interest in the quality of the putting surface. This
should come as no surprise, considering that almost half the
strokes recorded on the scorecard by most golfers are taken on