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WHERE'S THE PARTY?

Could it be that my invitation to the anniversary party has been lost in the mail? After all, it has been 25 years since the United States Golf Association (USGA) released the Stimpmeter. This certainly is cause for celebration, isn't it? Shouldn't the USGA be selling silver-plated Commemorative Edition Stimpmeters with stamped-on issue numbers of authenticity?

QUICK HISTORY LESSON

Conversations about green speed have been taking place on greens and in the clubhouse ever since the rubber-cored golf ball replaced the gutta-ball around the dawn of the 20th century. However, it wasn't until the USGA released its modified version of Eddie Stimpson's Stimpmeter in 1978 that a universally-accepted method to quantify green speed existed.

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High hopes of improved playing conditions surrounded the release of this invention, yet several years after its release numerous articles appeared condemning the Stimpmeter, and the USGA itself began cautioning about the perils of ever-increasing green speeds.

Additionally, while very few individuals have taken the time to research and understand green speed issues, everyone seems to think of themselves as experts on the topic. This unfortunate fact has led to numerous misconceptions regarding green speed that persist to this day. So, given that this is the 25th anniversary of the release of the Stimpmeter, it seems an appropriate time to look at the intended purpose of this tool and evaluate its promise for the golf course superintendent.

UNIFORMITY

Uniformity was a huge impetus in the creation of the Stimpmeter; and in terms of green speed, uniformity is broken down into two different areas: uniform speeds from green to green on a particular golf course; and uniform speeds on different areas of the same green. Let's consider each area separately.

  • Uniformity 1

    Uniform speeds from green to green on a particular course refers to having the same green speed on all 18 holes for play. Eddie Stimpson wrote in 1937 that, “the most enjoyable courses to play are those with greens that have a minimum variation in speed.” The question that begs to be asked is, “What is uniformity from green to green?”

    To address this question, golfer-perception surveys indicate two interesting points: Golfers cannot detect differences in green speed of 6 inches or less on adjacent putting greens; and as green speeds increase, the golfer's ability to detect differences in green speed of up to 1 foot diminish.

    Therefore, playing it safe would dictate that uniform speeds are achieved when all 18 greens result in Stimpmeter measurements that are within 6 inches of one another. Maintaining green speeds within 6 inches of one another is a normal practice utilized for tournament play. I have been informed that PGA Tour Pros can tell differences in green speed as little as 4 inches; and while I do not discount this claim, I have not been privy to the data that verifies it. Additionally, under normal day-to-day golf course operations, it is safe to assume that as green speeds get above 9.5 feet that uniformity may be considered achieved when all the greens are within 1 foot of one another.

  • Uniformity 2

    Clearly, gravity dictates that a ball will roll faster (or farther) down a slope than it would if rolled on a flat surface or up the same slope. Thus, uniformity on all areas of the same green may seem like a misnomer. However, uniformity in this context refers to upholding fair playing conditions in regard to pin placement.

    In preparation of the release of the Stimpmeter, USGA Green Section Director Al Radko wrote, “A hole should be placed in such a position that no matter where the golfer is putting from, assuming continuous putting surface between himself and the hole, it should be possible to stop the ball within approximately 2 feet of the hole.” Mr. Radko further noted that, “a hole location which presented a fair challenge when the green speed was approximately 6.5 feet may quite possibly be a very bad position when the green speed is 8 or 9 feet, assuming, as an example, this position to be on or at the bottom of sloping portion of the green.”

    Therefore, an expressed purpose of the Stimpmeter was to aid in pin placements to improve playing conditions on contoured greens. This mandate is still reflected in the Stimpmeter instruction booklet with the statement “a green so fast (or a hole cut in such a position) that a ball cannot be stopped near the hole from any point on the green, for example, is an unfair challenge.”

    To further consider Uniformity 2, it is best to revisit the Stimpmeter Instruction Booklet and the Two Directives.

THE TWO DIRECTIVES

In the Stimpmeter Instruction Booklet are what I consider to be the Two Implied Directives for using the Stimpmeter. To clarify, these Two Directives do not appear next to each other in the booklet. However, it is my contention that these Two Directives are an important guide to the intended use of the Stimpmeter. They are:

  • The Stimpmeter is not intended for course comparisons; and

  • It is not the intention of the USGA to attempt to standardize green speeds, which should remain up to course officials, with the input of the superintendent, of each individual facility.

Directive No. 1

Clearly, golfers, TV golf analysts, turfgrass agronomists and even golf course superintendents break Directive No. 1 more often than not. Let's face it: It is hard to resist the temptation to compare golf courses, and it is exceedingly hard to comprehend why a green speed of 10 feet at one golf course should not be compared to a 10-foot green speed at another golf course. So in an attempt to explain why green speeds should not be compared from course to course, I offer the following analogy.

A lone driver on a western desert road delights at the wide-open spaces and the exhilarating feeling of driving 80 mph while driving toward a distant majestic mountain range.

As the driver approaches the base of the mountain range, the road begins to have long sloping curves as the flat surface of the desert begins to be left behind. As the driver gets closer still to the mountains, there are hills and valleys incorporated with the long sloping curves.

Finally, the driver enters the mountain pass where numerous treacherous hairpin turns dictate that one miscue at the wheel could result in a fatal error. At this point, the thought of 80 mph is long gone, but the exhilaration of the drive has not diminished. In fact, some would say the true exhilaration and test of driving skills are found in the mountain pass.

It is true that 80 mph is 80 mph is 80 mph, but that does not mean that driving a car at 80 mph is always warranted. In fact, 35 mph on the hairpin curves of the mountain pass may actually be more exhilarating and may indeed even seem faster than the 80 mph experience on the flat desert road.

So it may also be true that 10 feet on a Stimpmeter is 10 feet is 10 feet. And likewise, given the topography of the green, a 10-foot green speed may seem slow or fast or downright dangerous. Therefore, just as different contours, surfaces and maintenance practices dictate the driving speed on our roadways, different contours, surfaces and maintenance practices of different golf courses should dictate their green speeds. It is precisely for this reason that Directive No. 1 states that putting green speed is not intended for course comparisons.

Directive No. 2

“It is not the intention of the USGA to attempt to standardize green speeds, which should remain up to course officials, with the input of the superintendent, of each individual facility” is probably not misused as much as it is totally ignored.

Directive No. 2 implies that each golf course should decide the “ideal green speed” for its golf course. This Directive is part of the vision that Eddie Stimpson foresaw when he created the Stimpmeter, as he wrote in 1937 that with, “a means of measuring the speed of greens well within the cost of every club there is no reason why the better courses can not work toward a standard ideal green speed for their greens.”

The biggest downfall of Directive No. 2 is that it did not come with a concrete set of instructions. In other words, how do you decide the “ideal green speed” for your golf course? While there may be various ways to do this, I offer the “Morris Method” as a way to determine your golf course greens' ideal speed.

Several years ago, Mike Morris, CGCS, at Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort, Mich., called and asked me, “Is it possible to have the same green speed every day throughout the playing season?” This rather insane question led to a two-year study that was a cooperative effort between Crystal Downs C.C. and Michigan State University.

Certainly, there were a lot of details to work out and a lot of interesting data collected, but there was one underlying problem begging to be solved before the study could be initiated: If the desire is to provide the same green speed everyday, what green speed do you choose? This question took us to Directive No. 2: that course officials, with input from the superintendent, would have to decide an ideal green speed.

The prescribed solution for determining the Crystal Downs ideal green speed was a golfer green speed survey presented to a representative group of golfers. The “Morris Method” of determining the “ideal green speed” for the golf course worked like this: Everyday Mike collected green speed measurements at approximately 7 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on two greens (though, for all intents and purposes, you could do this on one green that is a good representation of your 18 greens). The representative golfers answered a survey at the end of each round they played. The survey simply asked: “Today's green speeds were:

  • Too slow,
  • Slow/OK,
  • OK,
  • Fast/OK, or
  • Too fast.”

The golfer simply circled what he or she considered to be the best option. Of course — and most importantly — the golfers had no idea what the Stimpmeter reading was at the time they were playing.

The end result: The members at Crystal Downs C. C. determined that the ideal green speeds for their golf course greens are 9.5 to 10.5 feet. They learned that green speeds above 10.5 feet were too fast for their contoured greens. Golfers stopped asking for speeds of 12 feet just because they heard that speed on the TV tournament last weekend or at the neighboring course. Everyone is more educated; everyone now knows the goal; everyone has a better understanding of what a 10-foot speed is on their greens; and everyone is happier. The golf course superintendent took control of green speed and earned the respect of the golfers.

THE SOURCE OF SPEED

In terms of uniformity, an expressed intention of the Stimpmeter is to aid in fair pin placements on contoured greens. It is also apparent that many of the chief architects that aided in the creation and release of the Stimpmeter thought this goal would be best achieved by limiting green speeds on severely contoured greens.

However, the inventors were not naïve and they knew the Stimpmeter had potential to be misused. In fact, the dilemma of increasing green speeds on contoured greens was foreseen by Eddie Stimpson as he noted in 1974 that, “It may be that greens designed when the average green was slower should now be somewhat leveled to take care of the added speed and maintain sufficient choice of pin placement. Large areas that are unusable are a burdensome expense.”

Though I do not believe it was anyone's wish that green speed increases would lead to “smoothing-out” older classic greens, it has become a practice to justify increased pin placements. Additionally, since the release of the Stimpmeter, greens have been built much flatter than in the past to accommodate faster speeds.

So maybe it is true that smoothing-out the old classic golf course greens may be just a sign of progress. Clearly there exist a stereotype of men liking fast cars; fast women and fast greens. However, aren't men also stereotyped to like the fine lines of an automobile and the subtle curves of women? Do golfers really want their greens to be flat for the sake of saying they are fast? Do we really find more thrills driving on the flat desert highway than through hairpin curves of the mountain pass? How do we know the answer to these questions? Well, as far as green speeds go, it might just be by getting our golfers to consider Directive No. 1 by implementing Directive No. 2 and utilizing the “Morris Method” to determine the golf courses ideal green speed.

It was always intended that superintendents be the source of green speed issues at their particular courses. For this reason, the USGA mailed out Stimpmeters only to golf course superintendents. As such, if you implement a program to determine the ideal green speed of your golf course, the clientele will gain valuable knowledge regarding green speed and playing conditions on the greens. As superintendent, you will become the source of this valuable knowledge.

The Stimpmeter has had a major impact on how golf courses are maintained and played. As true as when it was released, it still provides superintendents the opportunity and promise to take control of green speed issues at their courses. However, just like a hammer, it will not work if left in the drawer. As for me, I'm still waiting to order the silver-plated Commemorative Edition Stimpmeter.

Dr. Thomas Nikolai is a turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Mich.).

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