The Need for Speed

“Few golf course management topics attract greater attention or controversy than speed of greens. It is a constant source of debate, and Green Section agronomists are regularly bombarded with comments and questions about this volatile subject.” David Oatis wrote those words 15 years ago, but little has changed to calm the debate because green speed has perpetually been treated as an annoyance instead of an important topic worthy of scientific research.

Golf course superintendents looking for answers to accommodate their clientele's green speed demands most often come across articles that inform the superintendent that he should:

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  1. Tell their members that “Speed kills!”
  2. Get their members to lower their expectations.
  3. “Lie” to their members about what their green speed is and/or what the maintenance practices are.

While this information is well-intentioned, it's time to face the obvious fact that it has not produced positive results. The biggest problem with green speed is that everyone thinks he is an expert on the subject. Article after article warns of the perils of fast green speed without giving any concrete advice on how to satisfy the majority of customers' green speed requests. This results in superintendents believing that they can manage for green speed or they can manage for healthy turf. The premise is clear; you cannot manage for both. However, the premise is wrong.

A green speed maintenance revolution is underfoot as superintendents and green committees are signing up to manage their courses toward an “ideal green speed.” The myths of green speed are being replaced with quantifiable data that is leading to a greater understanding of green performance standards.

THE MORRIS METHOD

The United States Golf Associations (USGA) Stimpmeter Instruction Booklet states “it is not the intention of the USGA to attempt to standardize green speeds, which should remain up to the course officials, with the input of the superintendent of each individual facility.” However, it does not define a technique or a method for determination of a course's green speed.

In August of 2000, Mike Morris, CGCS Crystal Downs Country Club, Frankfort Mich., was asked by his green committee chairman if it was possible to have the same green speed every day. Instead of trying to get his membership to lower their unrealistic expectations, Mike embarked on a journey to find an honest answer to the question. The biggest obstacle was apparent. Given that the members want the same green speed every day, how do you determine what that speed should be? Therefore, it was out of necessity that the “Morris Method” for rating customer satisfaction and determining a golf course's “ideal green speed” was created.

The Morris Method has two main components:

  1. Daily green speed measurements must be obtained on at least one green (two is preferred) every day. Additionally, it will become apparent to the superintendent that it is beneficial, but not necessary, to take these measurements twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

  2. Golfers, without any knowledge of what the measured green speed is, are given a card (see figure 1 on page G4) at the end of their round and are asked to rate the speed of the greens.

Afterward, the daily green speed measurements and golfer survey responses are put into a database. After several months (enough time to collect a wide range of green speed data and surveys) each individual course's ideal green speed can be determined. It is noteworthy that the ideal green speed is not a speed, but instead it is a 1-foot range.

Sean O'Conner, CGCS Forest Akers Golf Course, East Lansing, Mich., employed the Morris Method on the West course last year. In an e-mail, O'Conner wrote, “The Morris Method has allowed me to take control of green speeds by determining what the customer feels is the ideal green speed for our course. It has taken a subjective topic and quantified it. Too often we work on assumption. I assumed that our customers wanted green speeds in the area of 11 feet to 12 feet. However, that was based on feedback from a very vocal minority. The majority of golfers at our facility actually wanted greens at 9.5 feet to 10.5 feet based on our survey results. Monitoring green speeds will be an ongoing component of our daily maintenance practices.” O'Conner will be performing the survey on Forest Akers East Course this summer.

CONTOUR AND SPEED

Did you know that a pool table “Stimps” 15 to 16 feet? At least that's the results one researcher achieved from visiting three different bars and measuring their pool tables' speeds by releasing the cue ball from a Stimpmeter. Given that little tidbit of information, consider if a pool table seems slow, fast or just about right. My guess is most of us will conclude it's just about right; after all, it's a pool table.

Now, imagine the pool table has contours (i.e. it's not level) like a putting green. That 15-foot measurement that was just about right for the flat pool table is now completely absurd. The point is that green speed and green contour should be inseparable. Unfortunately, the USGA Speed Charts list a range of speeds and categorizes them from slow to fast for regular or tournament play without directly asking the golfer to consider the putting green topography.

UPDATING THE SPEED CHARTS

The original speed charts were published in 1977 and have changed very little over the years. The USGA, having always recognized the indivisibility between putting green topography and green speed, have decided it's time to update the Speed Charts.

The initial phase of this project will be recruiting golf course superintendents to partake in determining their course's ideal green speed. The ideal green speed will be determined by the golf course superintendent in cooperation with his green committee/ownership by using the Morris Method.

Clearly, the hardest part of performing the Morris Method is getting started. Fortunately, by participating in the research to update the Speed Charts, golf courses can simply download pre-made golfer survey sheets and then enter data online. The data — daily green speed measurements and golfer survey responses — collected from numerous sites will be entered into a spreadsheet. The ideal green speed will be determined at each site when a 70- to 100-percent customer satisfaction level is reached.

After the ideal green speed has been determined at a site, the superintendent will receive an e-mail questionnaire to gather data regarding putting green topography, turfgrass species, rounds played per year and cultural practices such as mowing height, rolling, topdressing practices, maintenance budget and number of employees on the grounds crew. Take a minute and think about the value of this information. The game of golf will know how each of these variables impacts green speed.

For the first several years, the topography of the greens will be an educated guess as the superintendent will be asked to place his greens into one of five classes. Class 1 is Flat, Class 2 is Single Sloped, Class 3 is Multiple Sloped, Class 4 is Moderately Contoured and Class 5 is Severely Contoured. Given time, each of these topography classes will be defined by golf courses that know their green's average slope. Once a standard has been determined, the golf course's average green slope will become known as its Green Class Rating and it will be determined under USGA guidelines.

After a sufficient number of golf courses have determined their ideal green speeds, a new “Dynamic Contour Speed Chart” will be generated, pairing the average green slope with the average ideal green speed. The result: Speed and contour will be linked.

Finally, six months after a site has determined its ideal green speed, a follow-up survey will be e-mailed to the superintendent asking him to evaluate the success of having identified his ideal green speed. Hopefully, this is not how the study ends, but essentially how it all begins.

As time advances, and more and more golf courses determine their ideal green speed and Green Class Rating, the Dynamic Contour Speed Chart will continue to change as ideal green speeds are formulated in conjunction with the course's green topography class. This will give the USGA quantifiable numbers regarding green speed issues to share with golf course superintendents and their members.

This project is consistent with the vision of Eddie Stimpson — the grandfather of the Stimpmeter. “The Stimpmeter is one primitive tool that could be used to accumulate a ‘data bank’ at USGA headquarters that all might use,” Stimpson said.

GETTING THE MOST OUT OF GREEN SPEED

Surveys indicate that golfers consider green speed the most important thing to know about a golf course. Additionally, lack of communication skills is often cited as the number one complaint that the green committee has regarding the golf course superintendent. The combination of these facts led me to conclude that the more quantifiable green speed information is for a superintendent to communicate to his clientele, the healthier the relationship between the two parties.

I've been told that the two biggest lies on the golf course are the answers to questions “What's your handicap?” and “What's the green speed?” Unfortunately, if the truthful answer to the second question is not known, it leaves the superintendents managing toward an unknown objective. This leaves the low-handicappers with the upper hand.

The best way to know what is going on is to create what is going on. The Stimpmeter was made for the superintendent, and the way to get the most out of green speed is to manage for an ideal green speed.

INTERESTED IN PARTICIPATING?

Those superintendents interested in taking part in this international effort to build a new green speed chart and determine their courses' ideal green speed in the process, please e-mail Thom Nikolai at nikolait@msu.edu.

Dr. Thomas A. Nikolai is the turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University and author of the recently released book, “The Superintendent's Guide to Controlling Putting Green Speed” published by Wiley & Sons, 2005.

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