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Speed Trap

Super-fast greens take center stage at the U.S. Open, but the resulting trickle-down effect isn’t so beneficial for golf

By: Anthony Pioppi

During the 1987 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, the U.S. Golf Association was able to use a severely sloped hole location on the 18th green. At Olympic’s next Open 11 years later, green speeds had increased so much that the same location repelled Payne Stewart’s eight-foot birdie putt, which trickled 25 feet down the hill as Stewart watched, arms crossed, in silent rage.

Thanks to new breeds of grass that are able to be mowed at lower heights, greens have become faster over the years, and not just at the U.S. Open, although the subject comes to the fore at our national championship. During this year’s telecast, announcers will subject viewers to an overemphasis of green speed as a vital statistic: “The greens are rolling at 13 today, Johnny.”

Where once consistency and smoothness were hallmarks of fine putting surfaces, pace is now the most important criterion in rating greens, not just for the majors and professional events but also for everyday play.

Unfortunately, the result of this obsession with a number has been disastrous. Taking their cue from the U.S. Open and the Masters, members want their course to boast speeds of 11 and 12 feet as measured by a Stimpmeter (see sidebar). Those speeds challenge the pros but make many courses, especially older ones that feature plenty of undulation and slope, too difficult for average players to putt.

In addition, while cutting the greens so short for a week, such as for the U.S. Open, may be OK, doing so for an extended period often results in the grass dying. This trend has left organizations like the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America—superintendents often receive the brunt of the blame when greens go bad—and the American Society of Golf Course Architects scrambling to better educate golfers about the negative aspects of pushing for high green speeds. And the most outspoken critic of overly fast greens is Tim Moraghan, the USGA’s former director of championship agronomy who now consults for numerous courses.

Having prepared hundreds of courses for championships, Moraghan believes 10 feet is just fine for everyday greens, and that higher speeds make the game less enjoyable. He blames independent course owners and high-end private clubs that tout green speeds as part of their marketing efforts. He says low-handicap players who are influential members of their clubs and demand challenging conditions also take some of the heat. He doesn’t spare superintendents, the USGA, the PGA of America or the PGA Tour either.

“The responsibility falls on everyone,” he says. “Maybe they should be thinking about the people that want to learn the game.” Moraghan points out that U.S. Open green speeds are fast for only one reason, the same reason the rough is thick, the fairways are narrow and the par 4s stretch longer than 500 yards: to challenge the best players in the world.

There is no doubt green speeds on the PGA Tour have gone up—in 1976 the average green measured 71⁄2 feet—but there is also misperception: People often think greens at tournament courses are faster than they are. Tour greens roll between 10 and 121⁄2 feet, depending on the architecture and event. At pro-ams, for example, officials hold back speeds for the amateurs in the field.

Similarly, the USGA adjusts speed according to architecture, as indicated by a tale of two A.W. Tillinghast designs. At the 2002 U.S. Open, the relatively flat greens at Bethpage State Park’s Black course allowed Moraghan and his staff to shave the grass as closely as possible. By Sunday afternoon, unofficial Stimpmeter readings were approaching 15.

In 2006 Winged Foot West’s greens, which feature tiers, mounds and slopes, ran about 12 feet. And for the 2006 Curtis Cup at Pacific Dunes, the greens were at 91⁄2 feet so the bold contours could come into play without the greens turning into an amusement park ride.

Elevating green speeds, especially at older courses, often disregards the architecture of the individual layout. Because the existing agronomy did not allow grass to be cut so short, most courses built during the Golden Age—Winged Foot, Prairie Dunes, Pinehurst—feature a lot of movement on the putting surfaces. Today, there are two ways to deal with the marriage of extreme speeds and severe slopes: Rein in the speed or soften the undulations.
 
Many architects espouse the first option. “When you start changing green contours to accommodate green speeds, that’s putting the cart before the horse,” says Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw’s design partner.

When performing restoration work, Gil Hanse avoids softening greens unless they are overly severe. “I think it is more important to retain the architectural integrity of these historic courses than to achieve some number on the Stimpmeter,” Hanse says.  “After we touch that green it is gone forever, and I think it is important that we are able to see the work that Ross, MacKenzie and others left behind in as pure a state as possible.”

Tom Marzolf, senior design associate for Tom Fazio’s firm, disagrees. He has reworked greens at a number of fabled layouts, including the last two Open sites, Oakmont and Winged Foot. At both, he recaptured lost areas with “green extensions,” softening the slopes in corners of green sections.

Marzolf argues that Golden Age architects designed slopes that were in line with the maintenance practices of the time. He surmises that if those designers were alive, they too would be altering their putting surfaces to reclaim hole locations lost to speed.

“I think there is a lot of romance that goes into preserving the past,” he says. “I think it’s just a bunch of nonsense.”

The problem isn’t just on older courses. When talking to owners and developers, Tom Doak discusses green speeds in relation to the style of putting surfaces he would build. But on several occasions, he has returned to find that the clubs had bowed to pressure and the greens were too fast for the contouring.

“Some feel drawn in by neighbors and members,” Doak says. “The desire for fast greens has led many contemporary architects to build boring greens because that’s the only style that can handle the quicker pace.” 

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