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Avoiding the Perils and Pitfalls of Green Speed

September 9, 2020 Liberty Corner, N.J. By George Waters, USGA
Green speed requires careful management at Winged Foot because of the steep and challenging contours. (USGA/Russell Kirk)

Putting green speed might just be the most dangerous topic in golf course maintenance. Plenty of grass has been killed in pursuit of green speed, and more than a few jobs lost as well. Countless rounds of golf have also been made slower and less enjoyable because green speeds were too fast for the putting surfaces or the golfers playing on them. Most of the issues surrounding green speed come from the misconception that faster greens are somehow better, or that speeds can be consistent on a daily basis.

USGA agronomist Paul Jacobs visits golf courses throughout the Northeast and emphasizes that faster does not mean better when it comes to green speed. “Speeds must be tailored to fit the putting green contours, grass type, growing conditions and maintenance budget at each individual course. They will also change throughout the year based on environmental factors like temperature and humidity.”

At Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., host of the 2020 U.S. Open, director of golf courses Steve Rabideau has to balance a desire for fast greens with the fact that Winged Foot’s West Course has some of the steepest, most severe greens ever created by famed architect A.W. Tillinghast. As a result, faster speeds can quickly limit the options for hole locations and create playing conditions that are way too tough for most golfers.

“We aren’t trying to push our greens for the fastest speeds possible,” said Rabideau. “We ramp up for a few events, but those speeds wouldn’t be enjoyable for the vast majority of people who play golf here. This golf course is hard enough. Narrow fairways, healthy rough, steep greens – it’s hard. We don’t need to let speed get out of control and we don’t want to risk damaging the greens by pushing them too hard for too long.”

“Listen, speed kills,” Rabideau said. “Trying to get a certain speed when the environmental conditions don’t allow it means that you’re not doing what’s right for the greens or the course.”

Misunderstanding and misuse of green-speed measurements play a big role in the issues some courses encounter. The Stimpmeter is a tool for measuring green speed that was developed in 1935 by Edward Stimpson after he observed what he thought were excessively fast greens during that year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont. The USGA tested and refined the tool, eventually bringing an improved version to market in 1978 to help superintendents measure and manage green speeds more effectively. Unfortunately, Stimpmeter readings are sometimes wrongly seen by golfers as a way to measure a course’s putting green quality or to compare one course with another.

“Faster does not mean better,” said Jacobs, “and green speed numbers do not travel from course to course. A speed that is fine on a course with flat greens could easily be too fast for a course with steeply sloped greens. It’s also important to understand that there can be a lot of misinformation about green speeds, so golfers shouldn’t put too much value on any particular number.”

“Honestly, the best way for golfers to find out the green speed before their round is to head over to the practice green and roll a few putts,” said Jacobs.

At Winged Foot, Rabideau doesn’t worry too much about Stimpmeter readings and only takes the measurements periodically. He focuses more on the growth rate of the grass and the amount of clippings that come from each mowing as a way to manage green speed and playing quality.

“If we keep growth under control by managing our water and fertilizer very carefully, we don’t need to perform aggressive maintenance practices to deliver the desired speed. I have never mowed the greens twice in one day in my entire time at Winged Foot. People think I’m lying when I say that,” said Rabideau with a laugh, “but it’s true.”

Even at Winged Foot, a temporary slowdown in green speed is sometimes necessary to maintain turf health. (USGA/Russell Kirk)

“We always have the health of the greens as our top priority,” said Rabideau. “There are days when you shouldn’t try to get speed – after a rain or when it’s hot and humid, for example. In those situations, if you push for speed you’re going lose grass. There are plenty of days where we don’t mow the greens, and we might go from fast to down a little. That’s when it’s important to remember that you’re dealing with a living thing that has to be allowed to fluctuate.”

It’s easy to understand how the desire for faster greens can get out of control. Golfers see televised golf events or play in a local tournament and wonder why the greens at their regular course aren’t as fast. They hear claims about green speeds at courses they admire and think that’s an ideal that other courses should aspire to.

“What people don’t always realize,” said Jacobs, “is that the tournament conditions they see on TV only last for a short period of time and require plenty of planning and extra resources to deliver. Those courses have also invested in things like improving putting green drainage and reducing shade to help their greens handle the stress that comes with maintaining faster speeds. Not every course has that foundation in place.”

“In the end, we encourage golfers and superintendents to focus on smoothness and consistent speed from green to green,” said Jacobs. “When courses get too focused on the actual green speed number, they inevitably start to have problems.”

As it turns out, even at the best courses in the world, you have to know when to pump the brakes on green speed.

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA.