These should be the best of times for recreational golf. More people are playing more rounds than ever before. Though only a handful of new courses are coming online each year, many of them are true gems. Like the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes, or Payne’s Valley at Big Cedar Lodge in southwest Missouri. In addition, top designers are artfully restoring a number of Golden Age greats, such as Pinehurst Nos. 2 and 4, and Fox Chapel outside Pittsburgh. Then there are the advances in modern equipment that are making it easier for golfers to maintain their levels of play much later into life.
But many observers discern a Dickensian dichotomy in golf these days, seeing these as the worst of times as well.
Specifically, their concern has to do with the speeds at which greens at many courses across the U.S. run. Not those tournament venues on which top amateur and professional golfers compete, mind you, for they are understandably set up to test players of that skill set. Rather, it is what is happening where average golfers play most of their games. The putting surfaces on those courses, critics aver, are often too fast for the slopes and contours they possess – and much too slick for the mid-range handicappers who are three-putting them time and time again.
The results are longer rounds and higher scores. Inflated course maintenance budgets, too, because it takes more money and manpower to tend to greens that are running on the speedy side. Putting surfaces are regularly put at risk and sometimes lost in the heat and humidity of summer just so they can run as fast as PGA Tour greens. And usable hole locations are lost.
This need for speed also has a way of stirring conflict at previously congenial clubs between golfers who want their putting surfaces to be as rapid as those at Oakmont or Augusta National and those who prefer their greens run at much more manageable paces.
“ ... people don’t seem to understand how much harder fast greens are to play for average golfers ... . And to make fast greens more playable, you have to soften them, flatten them and take tilt out. Where is the design interest in that?”
The onus for this development falls largely on the low-handicap players who chair golf and green committees throughout the land, and who believe that the best golf courses are those with the quickest putting surfaces. And they are abetted in many cases by course superintendents who also see fast green speeds as a way of distinguishing their course and themselves, or who are cowed into embracing this dogma for fear of jeopardizing their job security if they don’t.
Course owners and operators are sometimes at fault, too, believing that fast greens sell green fees. So, they set up their layouts accordingly.
Nelson Long, Jr., the longtime head golf professional at the esteemed Century Country Club in Purchase, New York, and agronomist William G. Buchanan describe the situation as a “tyranny of the minority.”
Course architect Tom Doak sees it as “an arms race.”
“And we do not understand why some golfers want to make their greens faster and faster,” added Doak, whose work at places like Pacific Dunes, Tara Iti and Ballyneal is regarded among the best of the modern era. “Especially when you are talking about recreational players and the courses they play every day. These people don’t seem to understand how much harder fast greens are to play for average golfers, how much more expensive they are to maintain and how much more vulnerable they are when they are constantly stressed. And to make fast greens more playable, you have to soften them, flatten them and take tilt out. Where is the design interest in that?”
Architect Bill Coore – who with his partner Ben Crenshaw has established an equally exalted spot in the course design realm thanks to original creations like Sand Hills, Bandon Trails and Cabot Cliffs – concurs.
“There is no question that the pursuit of faster green speeds has gotten out of hand,” Coore said.
Course architects are not the only ones who feel this way. “It has become a problem throughout the game, but we work hard to ensure it is not an issue at our courses,” said Michael Keiser, the co-owner of the Sand Valley Golf Resort in northern Wisconsin, and the son of Mike Keiser, the one-time greeting card magnate who created Bandon Dunes. “When greens get too fast, rounds get slow, and we hate slow rounds. Fast greens also lead to more three-putting, and three-putting is no fun for anybody.”
And more than anything else, PGA professionals like Long, who is also a member of the Metropolitan PGA Hall of Fame, want their members to have fun. But he feels it is impossible to do so when greens are as slippery as freshly waxed linoleum.
His friend Mark Mulvoy, a longtime resident of Rye, New York, and member of the historic Apawamis Club in that same Westchester County town as well as the former managing editor of Sports Illustrated, shares that sentiment. “What’s the average handicap for a lot of these clubs?” Mulvoy asked. “Maybe 15? So, why are they making their courses so much harder?”
To be sure, many of those mid-handicappers are quick to complain about this trend. But some seem perfectly and strangely content to let it be.
“That’s what is most surprising to me,” said Ned Steiner, a leading amateur competitor from Mountain Ridge Golf Club in New Jersey who for many years chaired the Green Committee for the Metropolitan Golf Association. “Guys brag about how fast their greens are, yet they three-putt them all the time.”
Difficult as it may be for some golfers to believe, green speed is very much a present-day issue. “The Golden Age architects of the 1920s and 30s were not thinking about that when they were designing greens a century ago,” said Steve Smyers, a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and a good enough player to have qualified for more than two dozen USGA championships. “Rather, they were looking for slopes and shapes that added interest to putting surfaces and caught a player’s eye.”
Green speeds started to become a topic of conversation among golfers in 1935 with the invention of a device called a Stimpmeter. The brainchild of Edward Stimpson, a Massachusetts amateur golf champion and one-time captain of the Harvard golf team, it employed an angled track that released a ball at a known velocity so the distance it rolled on a relatively flat portion of a green’s surface could be measured (with a ball that stopped rolling at, say, eight feet, being described as measuring 8 on the Stimpmeter). The designer came up with the idea after watching Gene Sarazen hit a putt off a green at Oakmont during the 1935 U.S. Open, when the winning score was 11-over par. Stimpson felt those greens were rolling too fast, but had no way of validating that belief.
The Stimpmeter languished in relative obscurity for the next four decades, and green speeds remained more or less a non-issue during that stretch. Then in 1976, the USGA decided to use a slightly modified version of that tool at that year’s U.S. Open, held at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Soon after, the device became available for the first time to golf course superintendents around the country.
What’s interesting, according to Cole Thompson, the director of turfgrass and environmental research for the USGA, is that the impetus for those moves was to help create consistency of speed on greens, not help to make them faster.
Just as fascinating were the numbers that greens on some of America’s best known golf courses were running at that time. The East Course at Merion Golf Club, for example, was a positively sluggish 6 feet, 4 inches. Shinnecock Hills and Pebble Beach were both 7-foot-2, Pine Valley was 7-foot-4 and Augusta National 7-foot-11. As for the putting surfaces that ran the fastest of those measured in the U.S., they were rather unsurprisingly found at Oakmont, a place where a premium has always been placed on fast greens. That number was what today would be considered a very sedate 9-foot-8.
According to Buchanan, who served as a tournament agronomist for both the USGA and the PGA Tour, the average “Stimp” reading for an American country club course in the late 1970s was between 6-foot-6 and 7 feet. As for the AAC when it hosted the 1976 Open, those greens ran just a touch over 7 feet.
By comparison, the putting surfaces at Oakmont last week when it hosted the U.S. Amateur were twice as quick at 14.
At some point in the years after the Atlanta Open, the Stimpmeter went back to being used as its founder had originally intended – to gauge green speed. And along the way, having faster greens became all the rage. That development was undoubtedly the result of golfers who watched the major championships on television. They saw how quickly balls skittered across the greens at Augusta National during the Masters – and at places like Winged Foot and Oakmont when they hosted the U.S. Open or PGA Championship – and heard commentators talk with great admiration about the slickness of those putting surfaces. The implications were clear: The best golf courses had fast greens, and those greens were a big reason why they hosted major golf championships.
Suddenly, green speed was seen as something to set a club apart, and maybe even make it elite, even if they were never going to host a golf tournament of consequence or have the maintenance staff or budget of a championship venue. And green committee chairs wanted those at their courses to run as fast as Augusta’s. They started increasing the mowing frequency of their putting surfaces, going to five times a week, say, instead of three. They had their supers lower the blades of their Toros and John Deeres so the grass on their greens were more closely cropped than ever before.
The arms race was on. And it continues to this day. So, the question becomes: Is it possible for common sense to prevail in what is, in many ways, a wholly nonsensical battle?
“I am not sure,” said Doak. “We have never been able to stop the real arms race. And a lot of golfers seem to support what their clubs and courses are doing to sustain this one.”
But others are more optimistic.
“The key is appreciating that every course has a number,” explained Keiser. “A number at which their greens should roll based on their design as well as their day-to-day conditions as far as wind and weather is concerned. We’re committed to the ones at our courses running at a maximum of 10 on the Stimpmeter for everyday play. Some courses have greens that were built to handle speeds of 6 or 7, and maybe you can get away with running them at 7 or 8. But certainly not at 12 or 13, which is what some places seem to be doing.”
Thompson of the USGA agrees, and believes there is hope so long as golfers know their courses and understand just how much they can push them. “Greens have speed limits, too, and there is much to be taken into account when determining the right speed for each course,” he said. “Their design. The type of grass, or grasses, they have. The resources one has for maintenance.”
A longtime member of the R&A and Pine Valley, Mulvoy is also heartened by the way those clubs have handled the situation.
“The greens at Royal St. George's at this year's Open Championship never ran faster than 10," said Mulvoy. "And Pine Valley does not let theirs get above 11."
Coore is hopeful, too, and not only because he is an optimist at heart. “I feel we are going back to the foundation of golf, which is a game played in nature and not a botanical garden, and see more emphasis on the health of the turf on the greens, on the firmness of the putting surfaces and the smoothness of the roll of the ball across them, and much less on their speed.”
As far as he and others are concerned, we cannot get there fast enough.
Top: USGA agronomist Elliott Dowling uses a Stimpmeter at the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur.