2004: Down with the Stimpmeter

Portland, Ore.

Golf greens are too fast.

I don’t necessarily blame the Masters for this, but I recognize the pervasive influence of the year’s first major championship. As the Masters goes, so goes the rest of American golf.

The Stimpmeter dates to 1977. For the first time, golf had a quantitative measurement of green speed. It is no wonder that Augusta National Golf Club decided shortly thereafter to switch its greens from slower Bermudagrass to speedier bentgrass. The 1981 Masters was the first played on bentgrass.

In the ensuing 23 years, American golf has been on a collision course with speed. Fast greens are now part of our golf culture, and slow greens are widely and incorrectly viewed with suspicion.

Greens are too fast.

Too fast for beginning golfers. Too fast for many average golfers. The average green today is faster than those found in major championships 25 years ago.

Too fast to take advantage of all the potential pin positions. Quirky old greens with odd shapes and pronounced slopes are the big losers in this speed race. Greens are now so fast that many pin positions are sacrificed as unusable.

Too fast for the health of greens. The shorter the grass, the more unstable it becomes. No wonder so many greens are dying.

Excessive green speeds can be a killer cocktail when combined with new variations of bentgrass. These bentgrass greens are fragile. Even when they are green and healthy, they show ball marks more than ever. In appearance, the ball marks resemble an epidemic of pock marks, or measles, because they heal slowly and ineffectively.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, a backlash is gathering momentum. The Pacific Northwest Golf Association, known as a progressive association because of its firm stance on pace of play and other issues, has openly criticized today’s green speeds.

Primarily, though, the dissenting voice in this wilderness is Larry Gilhuly, director of the Northwest Region of the U.S. Golf Association’s Green Section. The outspoken Gilhuly has been unafraid to lobby for slower greens, even when he may be making enemies.

“Lower . . . faster . . . smoother . . . dead,” is how Gilhuly characterizes the progression of golf greens during the 27 years that the Stimpmeter has been around.

“I have seen the most bizarre things recently,” Gilhuly told those who attended the annual meeting of the Oregon Golf Association, held at Waverley Country Club. “I have seen moss on Poa annua greens, which is directly related to a lack of fertilizer and low green heights.

“It has really gotten out of hand. We are damaging the turfgrass plant when we mow too low. We got caught up in speed wars, and it’s wrong. Greens are an average of 3 or 4 feet faster than they were (in 1977).

“In another few years, we’ll be playing greens that are 15 or 16. It’s gone too far. Because the green is too fast, we can’t use these wonderful hole locations.”

Courtesy of Gilhuly, let’s look at a few Stimpmeter speeds from 1977 compared with those of today. Waverley, with some of the most distinctive greens in the United States, has gone from 6 feet, 6 inches to as fast as 10 feet, 6 inches. Portland Golf Club, another course that has played host to multiple USGA championships, has jumped from 6-5 to 11 feet.

A Stimpmeter is a grooved metal stick with a notch near the top. Using a flat portion of the green, the Stimpmeter is placed on the ground with a golf ball inserted in the notch. As the top end of the device is slowly raised from the ground, gravity pulls the ball from the notch. The ball tumbles down the groove and onto the putting green, where its rolling distance is measured. An extremely fast reading would be 11 to 12 feet.

I remember O. Gordon Brewer at the 1999 USGA Senior Amateur, played at Portland Golf Club. Then a member of the Executive Committee of the USGA and a two-time Senior Amateur champion, he complained privately about the excessive speed of the greens.

The irony of Brewer’s comments was clear:

At the time, he also was president of Pine Valley (N.J.) Golf Club, known for diabolically contoured greens that occasionally reach unputtable speeds.

Disregarding older clubs such as Waverley or Pine Valley, I don’t argue with the fact that most modern greens are built for quicker speeds. But I lament the demise of greens with character. Today’s greens are largely homogenous and pretty boring.

In Great Britain and Ireland, greens aren’t so fast or so bland. A slower green that slopes and meanders can be a vastly more interesting green.

American golfers have Stimpmeter disease:

“Oh, your greens are only 10 on the Stimpmeter? Ours are 12.”

Golf course superintendents, who have to answer to these speed-crazed golfers, have the job from hell.

I say there is too much emphasis on putting and not enough on ballstriking. I say corner pins are perfect, because they place additional emphasis on shotmaking strategy. To take advantage of these corner pins, greens need to be slowed down.

Who says greens have to be as fast as a billiards table? Who says all putts should be made with a precise little stroke that looks like it belongs to a man cutting diamonds?

The answer: The Masters says so. Like it or not, Augusta National, a private club that is open seven months per year, has become a role model for other clubs.

American golfers want their grass to be as green as that of the Masters. They want their greens to be as fast. They want their grounds to be as pretty.

Augusta National didn’t seek this almighty position, but it happened anyway. Now, in the process of defending itself from a world of extraordinary golfers, the Masters can’t look back. It needs those absurdly fast greens. It needs to place the flagsticks 7 or 8 feet from the edge of the putting surface, which it does with regularity.

I say it’s time for a backlash. For the rest of us, it’s time for a change. What’s good for the Masters is not good for golf.

“We bully people into believing this is the way golf should be,” said Gilhuly, focusing on slick greens. “Really, we should be thinking fun first and championship second. The focus should be on smooth and not fast.”

And so, the Masters withstanding, here is some advice for 2004: Grow more grass.

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