The Low-Down on Greens Height
The demand for faster putting greens is putting added stress on turfgrass — and on golf course superintendents, according to Charlie Hadwick, superintendent at The Country Club of Lincoln in Nebraska's capitol city.
“The fastest way to increase speed is lower cutting height,” Hadwick says. “But that presents a whole new range of problems, increasing the stress level on grass and increasing likelihood of algae and moss invading greens.”
Typical mowing height for golf greens has been about 0.125 inch (⅛-inch) for years, and a good all-round Stimpmeter greens speed was somewhere around 7.5 to 8.5 feet. But a lot of golfers have been demanding faster greens for longer rolls and superintendents are frequently asked to alter agronomic practices to meet the demand. It's making it tougher to keep greens “green” and growing.
“There's a misconception that golf course superintendents like to pour on the water and the fertilizer to keep greens lush,” says Hadwick. “The reality is, many of us have to put grass on a ‘starvation diet’ to keep growth to a minimum. We are having to manage greens as a putting surface rather than a landing area.”
These days, Hadwick's crews aim for a greens mowing height of around 0.100 inch to maintain a speed within a range of 9.5 to 10.5 feet. It has changed some of his management practices. “We typically use a smooth roller on our greens mowers now, instead of a grooved roller. The smooth roller tends to ride up on the turf a little better and be a little gentler on the grass.”
He says some courses have gone to rolling greens after mowing as a way to increase speed. “The trouble is, that's another piece of equipment to buy and maintain, plus the added labor cost to operate it.”
Fertility has changed to slow grass growth, too, according to Hadwick. “Some superintendents have cut back on nitrogen (N) to below 2 lb. per 1,000 sq. ft. per year. At the same time, we've had to up the potassium (K) level to improve stress tolerance.” Where ratios used to be 1-1 or 1-2 N to K, they now may get up to 1-3 or even 1-4 N to K.
Monroe Miller agrees that the demand for greens speed puts added demands on superintendents. He has been superintendent at Blackhawk Country Club in Madison, Wis., for 30 years and was named this year's winner of the United States Golf Association's Green Section Award.
“We're having to cut greens a little shorter all the time,” Miller says. “Used to be, a greens speed of 8.5 feet was pretty good. Then, we had to increase it to 9 or 9.5 feet. Now, our benchmark is about 10 feet for daily play. That's not impossible to achieve, but for the agronomist it's certainly more stressful than 8.5 feet.”
It means superintendents have to really keep on top of turf conditions, he adds, and pay close attention to water and fertility. “We now roll greens, in addition to mowing and sometimes double-cutting. Fortunately, we've not had to up our fungicide use, but conditions in the Madison area make it a pretty good place to have a golf course. We don't get as hot as some areas, or as humid.”
One area where greens are kept a little higher is Las Vegas. There are plenty of 100-degree days and over, plus constant threat of water shortage, to challenge turf managers. P. J. McGuire, CGCS, oversees three golf courses in the Sun City Summerlin retirement community on the far west side of Las Vegas. The area encompasses 2,500 acres, with 7,781 homes and over 14,000 residents.
“We mow 364 days a year and keep three courses open for more than 150,000 rounds of golf a year,” McGuire says. Palm Valley and Highland Falls are both 18-hole championship courses. Eagle Crest is a newer executive course with a par 60. Greens are a typical combination of bentgrass and Poa annua and McGuire uses recycled water from a local sewage treatment plant for irrigation. “Our water tends to have more salt, which can be a complicating factor, especially under summer stress.”
Because it's a retirement community with more senior golfers, McGuire has been able to maintain a greens mowing height of around 0.125 inch during spring and fall. To minimize heat stress, he keeps greens cut at about 0.140 inch in summer, and returns to that same height in winter. “Growth stops and the ground gets a little harder in the winter, both of which tend to make greens a little faster.”
CHANGING COURSE CONFIGURATION
The demand for greater green speed is changing how some courses are laid out, as well. “Many greens aren't ready for 10-foot green speeds,” says Charlie Hadwick. “Greens that are undulating and have more character can't take faster speeds without too many 4 putts. The demand for faster and faster greens will mean flatter and often more boring greens in the future.”
Bill Kubly, golf course builder and president of Landscapes Unlimited, says his firm has rebuilt greens for several courses, making them more “subtle.” “Greens that were designed for speeds of 8.5 to 9 often are too severe for speeds of 11 and 12.” When Landscapes Unlimited redid the Golf Club of Oklahoma in Tulsa recently, all the greens were rebuilt to accommodate faster speeds.
Landscapes Unlimited opened its new Arbor Links Golf Course in Nebraska City a little more than a year ago. “Even there, we're aiming for speeds of 10 to 11 feet,” says Kubly. “If you go to the Sandhills Course at Mullen, Neb., the greens are maintained for 12 to 13 feet speed. On a real windy day, it can almost blow your ball off the green. The demand for speed is almost to the point of being ridiculous.”
He says there are a number of new bentgrass cultivars being introduced, which are designed for planting greens without Poa annua. “The goal is a ‘perfect’ green with a more consistent surface. Still, courses may have to alter greens design if they are going to continue trying to increase speed.”
IT STILL REQUIRES A LIVING PLANT
Jeff Latka says lowering cutting height is one of the last things superintendents need to do to increase speed. “You can roll it, vertical mow to thin the canopy, keep the greens dry and even use a growth regulator,” which Latka does on occasion prior to tournaments. He is superintendent at Champions Run Golf Course near Omaha, which hosts the Omaha Classic, a part of the Nationwide Tour.
“The continuing demands for faster greens speeds is starting to bite us in the foot,” Latka says. “There are examples where these recent hot, dry summers have stressed grass to the point where a too-short mowing height just kicks it over the edge.”
New courses have the advantage of being able to plant newer bentgrass varieties, which can take more aggressive management to enhance speeds. “Older courses, like ours and many others, have to use other methods to get higher speeds.”
Latka keeps Champions Run greens cut to about .145 inches spring and fall, reducing them to .125 for tournament play. “Our goal is to build as healthy a grass plant as possible before the tournament in August, so a lower cutting height won't stress the grass as much.
“Cutting height, however, is still based on the turf condition here. I won't sacrifice health of the grass just to increase green speed. I need those greens to be here and playable the Monday after the tournament leaves town.”
Larry Gilhuly says it's time to rein-in the trend to faster and faster greens. Gilhuly is an agronomist and director of golf for the Northwest Region of the USGA. “We've gone way too far in trying to increase speeds,” he says. “When the Stimpmeter came out in 1976, the average greens speed across the country was about 6.5 feet. Twenty years later, when the Portland (Ore.) Golf Club hosted the Senior Open, the green speed was 9 feet 11 inches. Last year, Portland Golf Club's regular play speed was 10.5 to 11 feet.”
The trend has actually slowed play, says Gilhuly. “Where is the fun in taking 4 to 5 putts to get off the green? The search for speed has required elimination of some interesting hole locations and created some ridiculous hole locations. Ball mark and old hole recovery is taking more time. And, we're seeing more agronomic problems, including more moss invading Poa annua greens and bentgrass greens.”
Gilhuly advises superintendents and turf managers: “Do yourself and your greens a favor in 2004 by focusing on smoothness, reasonable green speeds for the average player and healthier turf.”
Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer who resides in Lincoln, Neb.
Edward Stimpson, the 1935 Massachusetts Amateur Champion, developed and introduced the Stimpmeter more than 60 years ago. His device was modified by the USGA's technical department in the mid-1970s and made available to golf course superintendents and course officials in 1978.
The Stimpmeter is designed to be a helpful management tool for superintendents, although it is not intended to be used for course comparisons, according to the USGA. Essentially, the device is an extruded 36-inch aluminum bar with a V-shaped groove along its entire length.
Raising the Stimpmeter to an angle of approximately 20 degrees causes a golf ball to be released from a ball-release notch 30 inches from the end that rests on the ground. Typically, three golf balls are rolled down the V-shaped groove, one at a time, and the distance the balls roll is measured. A second measurement is made, rolling the balls in the opposite direction. The average of the two distances for the three balls is calculated to determine the green speed.
(For accuracy, the three balls should come to rest within 8 inches of each other when rolled in both directions. Follow the precise directions when using a Stimpmeter to measure your greens.)
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