Escalating Green Speeds: Is There an End in Sight?
by Scott Niven, CGCS, Property Manager at The Stanwich Club
We are currently at that time of year when warm, dry weather provides ideal growing conditions, and green speeds and putting green quality are at their best. Over the years, few golf course management topics have stirred greater controversy than the speed of greens. The Metropolitan Golf Course Superintendents Association has always had great interest in this topic and began doing surveys of local golf courses regarding their green speed data and greens management philosophies.
Surveys were conducted in 2001, 2008, 2016, and the last one just recently in 2023. At each seven-year interval, we thought that putting surfaces had been pushed as far as they could, only to see speeds continue to climb. The first survey in 2001 showed an average stimpmeter reading of 9’8”. By 2008 it had increased to 10’ and then surprisingly jumped by more than one foot by 2016 to an average daily speed of 11’3”. Our most recent tally showed speeds for everyday play to average out at 11’6” with tournament speeds averaging 12’6”. Furthermore, over one-third of those courses reporting showed ball roll distances of 13’ or higher for their major events.
Thanks to advances in technology and the benefit of research completed here in the northeast and around the country, many courses have been able to attain maximum speeds without placing their turf at significant risk of injury. One way to improve green speed while also reducing the potential for turf damage during stressful weather is to change the grass on putting greens from Annual Bluegrass (Poa annual) to the newest dwarf style Bentgrasses. Those modern hybrids have been bred for improved disease resistance, drought, and wear tolerance and to be cut low for the benefit of attaining fast green speeds. Today’s superintendents have many other management options to help attain faster surfaces such as mowers with high clip rates and the ability to cut low without scalping; use of lightweight rollers that compress the turf for pool table smoothness; plant growth regulators that control growth and reduce the potential for scalping; and fungicides, fertilizers and biostimulants that aid in maintaining excellent plant health at lower heights of cut.
While not recommended, some clubs have been able to attain ball roll distances of up to 14’ and beyond. Those lightning-fast speeds greatly reduce the cupping area on greens while also increasing the degree of difficulty, which has a direct impact on the pace of play. In fact, when speeds go over 12 feet, useable hole placement areas cannot exceed a maximum slope of 1 to 2 percent. In response to those issues at higher speeds, some clubs have tried to keep their daily Stimpmeter numbers in check, although at times it is tough to maintain slower speeds when weather conditions are optimum for higher ball roll distances (cool temps with low humidity). If we were to allow for ever escalating speed, many greens would have to be rebuilt with less contour to gain usable cupping area, especially the classic Met Area courses that were built with rather steep slopes many years ago.
Some people would argue that greens stripped of their interesting contours would then become boring. According to architect Rees Jones, at the highest levels of play, putting green contours are the best defense for any golf course.
Unfortunately, while it might make sense, history tells us that putting a ceiling on green speed could be a long time coming, particularly with fast greens still being glamorized. These often-heard quotes are just one example of the mindset entrenched in the golfing community: “The greens were so fast that when I marked my ball the quarter slid off the green”; “Those greens are as fast as lightning”; “These greens are so fast, I have to hold my putter over the ball and hit it with the shadow.” The reality is that if we don’t find a ceiling soon, more greens will have to be rebuilt to accommodate the escalating speeds, stripping courses of their contours and as a result, their true interest and challenge. Furthermore, pace of play issues, which are one of the key factors in attracting and keeping people interested in the game, will only get worse.
The following two tables illustrate how green speeds have changed over the past seven and a half decades. One shows how they have increased steadily at a predicable rate of about 1 foot every 10 years. The other depicts the current state of Met Area speeds from our most recent survey. (survey sizes ranged from 25-50 golf courses each time)
Historical Green Speed Escalation
Year: Perceived Fast Green Speeds
2030s; 14-15’- ???
Current Speed Chart for Met Area Courses (2023)
13’6” - Fast
12’6” - Medium Fast
11’6” - Medium
10’6” - Medium Slow
10” - Slow
FOLLOW THE MONEY
$1.1M: TOTAL FUNDS RAISED
$750K: UNIVERSITY RESEARCH
$240K: INVESTMENT ASSETS
$50K: PER YEAR IN FUNDRAISING