For all the upgrades in putting equipment in recent years, one easily overlooked improvement can be found in the putting surfaces themselves. In the past 30 years, greens have gotten faster, smoother and more uniform on courses. On the PGA Tour circuit, green speeds also have become more consistent from one course to the next. The result is better ball roll and a more predictable playing surface. That means golfers can make a more uniform putting stroke, with fewer adjustments for surface conditions.
Proof of this comes in data from the U.S. Golf Association Green Section, which started indexing the relative speed of greens in 1977 for a prototype of what would become the Stimpmeter. Speeds of 5 and 6 feet were commonplace, with 7 feet exceptional and 8 feet a rarity. The Stimpmeter (pictured) is an angled metal ramp from which a ball is rolled onto a flat area of the green. Depending upon how far the ball rolls, a "Stimp" reading is determined.
Inverrary Golf & Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla., measured 6 feet 5 inches when Jack Nicklaus won the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1977. That same year, Winged Foot West in Mamaroneck, N.Y., measured 7 feet 3 inches while Merion Golf East in Ardmore, Pa., measured 6 feet in the spring and 6 feet 10 inches in the fall. Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., measured a speedy 8 feet 3 inches. Some sense of the variance from one green to the next could be found at highly regarded Desert Forest Golf Club in Carefree, Ariz., where the greens averaged 7 feet 2 inches but ranged from 4 feet 7 inches to 8 feet 2 inches.
Today, it’s a different story.
“My average speed is now 13 feet,” says Desert Forest superintendent Karl Olson. “And I keep them all within 4 to 6 inches of each other.”
At Hazeltine, home to the 2009 PGA Championship, superintendent James Nicol reports that “average green speeds run 10.5 to 11.” For the PGA, Hazeltine likely will be running 12.5 to 13 feet.
What accounts for the differences over the years? Mowers certainly are better, with walk-behind units able to provide more-efficient, tighter cutting heights than the larger, less-flexible triplex units that were commonplace in the 1960s and ’70s. Jim Snow, national director of the USGA Green Section, remembers “seeing cutting heights on greens of five-sixteenths of an inch in Maine in the 1970s. By today’s standard, an eighth of an inch is considered high.”
In addition to tighter mowing patterns, turfgrass quality has improved drastically thanks to bentgrass cultivars with denser, more-upright blades. Bermudagrasses also have become finer-leafed and thus easier to mow. And the advent of chemical growth regulators as a standard tool in a greenkeeper’s arsenal has given newfound control to notoriously unruly turf types such as Poa annua that produced seed heads and sudden growth spurts. Greens also are less grainy, thanks to now-standard practices such as verticutting and mechanical rolling of greens.
In the 1970s, most golf courses still had soil-based greens, with the surface firmness and texture varying because of moisture levels and temperatures.
Newer construction has relied upon a more-uniform base of sand. Older soil-based greens have been transformed through years of topdressing. The new, sand-based growing medium drains better and offers more consistency.
The result is not only shorter, more-uniform mowing but smoother surfaces, with fewer bumps and depressions and less variance from day to day and from the micro-climate of one green to the next.
While most golfers think the key to better greens is tighter mowing, experienced superintendents know that the real key is a consistent putting surface. As Hazeltine’s Nicol says by way of mantra, “smooth will get you speed.”
Smooth also will make you look like a better putter.