The Obsession with Putting Green Speed and Misuse of the Stimpmeter
The stimpmeter is a device, developed by Edward Stimpson in 1937, that will measure how far a golf ball will roll on a green. This simple mechanism for “quantifying putting green speed” has morphed into a device that is at the forefront in a “race for more green speed.”
As a benchmark for understanding historical green speeds, it was reported by the USGA in the mid-1970’s that the average green speed for golf courses in America was 6 feet, 6 inches. Today, if a golf course superintendent was to offer green speeds of 6 or 7, he would be subject to severe rebuke.
If you search further back in the literature, we find the average green speed changed little from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. During this period major championships were played on golf courses with green speeds in the range of 6 to 8 feet. More recently, during the 1980’s, most tournament speeds were typically no faster than 9 or 10.
The race for more green speed is a result of a combination of improved greens mower technology and the popularity of watching professional golf on TV. Now we see most “tournament golf” green speeds have increased to 12 or 13 feet on the stimpmeter.
In Europe, the obsession with green speeds has not reached linksland golf. Links golf in Scotland or Ireland is played on fescue greens that do not tolerate excessively low mowing. Also, windy days are common on links courses, with the wind greatly impacting ball speed and line.
For both the 2010 and 2015 British Open's at St. Andrews, the target green speed was 10 for the tournament week. During one of the tournament days, for both tournament years, play had to be stopped for a two and four hour “wind delay,” as the players found the wind to be either blowing their ball off the green or not allowing them to address the ball without the possibility of incurring a penalty (the ball is blown, moved, while the player is addressing the ball while putting).
As a result of the wind and the fescue turf, rarely will links courses have green speeds in excess of 10 feet. Unknowingly, American golfers who go to Scotland or Ireland to play golf question why “the greens are so slow.”
Now back to why the stimpmeter was developed. Most golfers do not know that uniformity was “the” major objective for the original creation of the stimpmeter -- first, attempting to attain uniform speeds from green to green; and second, uniform speeds on different areas of the same green. Additionally, one of the goals was to set limits on the speed of severely contoured greens so that the golfer would have fair pin placements.
With the use of the stimpmeter, the golf course superintendents could attempt to adjust green speed by lowering the cutting height, double cutting, or rolling the greens while applying topdressing to the surface of a green to aid in providing a smooth surface.
One argument against faster green speeds include paying “a high biological cost” that includes decreased traffic tolerance, reductions in turf density, increased algae and moss growth, and a decrease in root health.
A non refutable fact is the health of the turf may be in jeopardy with excessively low mowing, rolling, double cutting, and foot traffic. Some turf agronomists preach that “speed may kill or severely damage the health of greens.” Is it now time to say that putting green speeds have gone too far?
What are the facts about golfers and putting green speed? Research has shown most golfers cannot detect differences in green speed of 6 inches or less on adjacent greens. Additionally, the majority of golfers, higher handicap golfers, cannot detect differences in green speed up to a foot.
So, the goal of attaining uniform green speeds is achieved when all 18 greens result in stimpmeter measurements within 6 inches of one another.
Golf course superintendents should be using the stimpmeter as a tool to measure putting green speed with the goal of attaining uniform speeds from green to green.
The stimpmeter should only be used as a tool to guide the golf course superintendent as he attempts to provide uniform speeds on his golf course.
Private club members routinely brag “our greens were 12 last week.”
This most recent obsession for increasing green speed has spread across America, with some golfers demanding their superintendent strive for everyday green speeds of 12.
Today’s continued pre occupation with “green speed” is, in my opinion, not healthy as the golf course superintendent attempts to produce a quality turf on greens.
Too much low mowing, rolling, and double cutting can only cause trouble, at some point, and will harm the turf on a green.
Let’s not forget, the stimpmeter was never intended for course comparisons for green speed. That being said, the popular belief is that most golfers think the stimpmeter reading at “their course” provides them with bragging rights for course comparisons.
For me, 11 feet should be the target for special club events, while striving to maintain a green speed of 10 for “day to day” play. Now is the time to put “sanity” back into the discussion of green speeds.