2004: Architecture - Enforcing a speed limit

The greens never putted so well until the day before they died.

That little turn of phrase is heard occasionally among golf course superintendents. It speaks to a problem that is occurring with increased frequency: pushing the golf course to the breaking point – and beyond.

The public got a glimpse of this during the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when the course dried out on the final day and looked more like a moonscape than a proper course.

Actually, the uproar by players and the media was overdone. The course was nowhere near death and actually is recovering nicely, thank you. But that’s only because superintendent (don’t call him a “greenkeeper”) Mark Michaud knows precisely the limits of his golf course and what it can take.

To be sure, he took it to the edge of doom, and it made the world’s best players look a little silly – which is to say, they looked like the rest of us for a change.

What the players really meant was that it was too hard for them. Besides, what do they know about course maintenance? As it turns out, about as much as your average golfer, which is basically next to nothing.

Here’s an idea: When championship courses are set up with green speeds of 12 or more on the Stimpmeter and the fairways clipped to under one-third of an inch, television broadcasts should scroll one of those “severe weather watch” warnings underneath.

Better yet, how about the kind of disclaimer that accompanies many car ads: “Closed Course Driving by Professionals. Should Not be Attempted by Amateurs.”

Somewhere along the line, golfers got this idea into their heads to equate slick, unmanageable green speeds with the course being in perfect shape. Too bad most golfers can’t handle putting surfaces slicker than about 10 on the Stimpmeter. You can tell because they end up conceding to themselves second putts of 3 to 5 feet, while turning in their scores for handicap purposes as if they actually weren’t cheating.

Here are two ways to spot whether green speeds are excessive from the standpoint of playability. First, when golfers can’t finish a round in 41/2 hours, it’s often because they are taking too much time around greens, hitting recoveries of approach shots that won’t stay on the putting surface or having to deal with long, frightening second (and third) putts that result from greens they can’t really handle.

Here’s the other giveaway. Ever notice how when there’s a stroke-play qualifier at a club, the average round takes 20 minutes longer and the field averages four shots higher than normal? That’s because golfers are putting out rather than raking in those putts they usually never bother with. If golfers really had to turn in honest scores every time, they would be less prone to push for excessively fast greens.

There also is an agronomic reason against excessive speeds. It has to do with what happens to Poa annua (annual bluegrass, the dominant turfgrass on greens in the Northeast and Midwest).

If you want to achieve Stimpmeter speeds of 10 or higher, you basically have to whack the hell out of the turfgrass and get it below one-eighth of an inch, then double cut it, then roll it. Ouch!

Poa doesn’t take well to such a pounding and becomes susceptible to a nasty fungus called anthracnose. It might as well be anthrax. About the only cure once the blight hits is to replace the green surface with one of those newer, high-quality bentgrasses.

Only problem is that the replacement process requires closing the course on or about Aug. 15 so the greens can be fumigated, reseeded, grown in and readied in time for mid-May of the next golf season. And there’s every likelihood the Poa annua eventually will return anyway in six to seven years.

By the way, once you do convert to those fancy new bentgrasses, you’ll need to modify and soften some of the slope in the existing greens. At the lower mowing heights and higher speeds, slopes of more than 3 percent (3 feet of vertical transition along a 100-foot lateral distance) will not allow the ball to stop rolling, and thus you’ll lose the use of some hole placements.

So the search for higher speeds means you need to dull the greens down to near flat-line levels, otherwise they’re unplayable. All for the sake of speeds that few golfers can handle.

This has less to do with golf than with ego. How else to explain the club whose members look at the new generation of neighboring facilities and decide that after 18 years, it’s time to go to the “next level” of maintenance and conditioning.

Often, these are the same clubs that have spent $6 million renovating their clubhouse and now decide, finally, it’s time to address the chief asset of the entire facility.

Often, its the single-digit handicappers who drive the process to “upgrade” the course, by which they usually mean make it tougher and even more unplayable for the average golfer.

It would take a psychiatrist, not an architect or agronomist, to fully explain why golfers are so fascinated by length, speed and power.

Too many golfers are driven by some sort of competitive anxiety – what a therapist would identify easily as a compensation mechanism for underlying insecurity.

But I digress into that most inadequate of tools in a golfer’s arsenal – the brain.

Better to stay at the level of practical sense and implore green committees and everyday golfers not to pursue something beyond their means to handle.

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