SPEED KILLS

The push for faster green speeds is golf’s equiv­a­lent of the ‘Space Race’. Golf Aus­tralia Ar­chi­tec­ture Ed­i­tor Mike Clay­ton ques­tions whether fast greens are do­ing the game more harm than good.

Golf Australia - - NEWS - WORDS MIKE CLAY­TON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY GETTY IMAGES

The push for faster green speeds on the world’s pro­fes­sional Tours and at club level is slowly killing the game, writes Golf Aus­tralia Ar­chi­tec­ture Ed­i­tor, Mike Clay­ton.

Talk to any course su­per­in­ten­dent and they will tell you one of the banes of their lives (aside from in­con­sis­tent bunkers, and gen­eral ‘un­fair­ness’ for which he is al­ways to blame) is the stimp­me­ter, the sim­ple de­vice in­vented in the 1930s to mea­sure the speed of a putting green.

In an age when hard (as op­posed to in­ter­est­ing) golf is seen by many as worth­while and de­fend­ing cour­ses against the mod­ern ball is seen as im­por­tant, the speed of the greens is one ob­vi­ous way of mak­ing the game harder.

The faster the green the bet­ter is the as­sump­tion of many, es­pe­cially in Aus­tralia, where hard and fast greens have long been ac­knowl­edged as an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent of cham­pi­onship golf. The USGA didn’t even ac­knowl­edge the stimp­me­ter ex­isted un­til 1977 when they sent sta­ out to mea­sure green speeds at al­most six hun­dred cour­ses all over the coun­try.

The re­sults in view of what’s hap­pened since are some­what il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

Oak­mont, with its fa­mously fearsome greens recog­nised as the most di‚cult in the coun­try were the fastest at 9’ 8”. Au­gusta

Na­tional’s were 7’11’, Cy­press Point was 7’8”, Me­rion 6’4”, Oak­land Hills 8’5”, Pine Val­ley 7’4”, Pine­hurst 6’ 10”, Shin­necock Hills 7’ 2” and Winged Foot 7’5”.

Forty years later it wouldn’t be un­rea­son­able to sug­gest you could add at least three or four feet to those num­bers. What hap­pened? The ad­vance­ment of chem­i­cals, finer grasses and bet­ter mow­ers ca­pa­ble of cut­ting more eŠciently at lower heights were the pri­mary rea­sons. In­evitably it led to an es­ca­la­tion of will amongst clubs as to who could have the fastest greens be­cause speed was seen as ad­mirable, and ex­ces­sive speed (if the 1977 num­bers were the stan­dard) be­came par­tic­u­larly ad­mirable.

To the ‘harder is bet­ter’ crowd it was manna from heaven.

Tom Weiskopf, one of the best play­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, played the World Cup at Royal Mel­bourne in 1972, a cham­pi­onship ce­ment­ing Aus­tralia’s rep­u­ta­tion as the land of fast greens. They – es­pe­cially the bru­tal 6th green – tor­mented the man who would dom­i­nate the Tour in 1973 and win The Open Cham­pi­onship at Troon. Forty years later he clearly re­called his tor­ment at the hands of the de­signer Alis­ter MacKen­zie and Claude Crock­ford, the man in charge of pre­sent­ing the course.

“It’s the only green I ever four putted when I tried on ev­ery putt,” Weiskopf re­called. The 6th green at Royal Mel­bourne was al­ways THE green. It comes at the end of the best hole in the coun­try and it is steeply pitched both from back-to-front and from side-to-side.

Back in the mid-1970s the course earned its rep­u­ta­tion for pre­sent­ing the most fearsome greens in the game (re­mem­ber at the time Au­gusta had slower Ber­muda couch greens) and it was be­hind the 6th green where spec­ta­tors would con­gre­gate to watch tor­mented golf pros do­ing all they could to avoid even the short­est down­hill putt. If it ran at less than 13 feet on the Stimp­me­ter (some­thing we in Aus­tralia knew noth­ing about de­spite it be­ing in­vented in the early 1930s) I’d be amazed.

The ques­tion is: When Alis­ter MacKen­zie de­signed the green and Mick Mor­com built it did they en­vis­age it run­ning at least a dozen

feet, half that or even three quar­ters of the num­ber? Even at six or seven feet it was pitched se­verely enough to make putting di cult. Of course, in 1927, with hick­ory shafts it was prob­a­bly (at least) a drive and a long iron and now for the best play­ers it’s barely more than a drive and a wedge.

MacKen­zie moved onto Cal­i­for­nia and his com­mis­sion at Cy­press Point af­ter his fleet­ing three-month visit here at the end of 1926 and a few years later he built some of the sever­est greens in the game at Au­gusta (many of which have been al­tered, some be­yond recog­ni­tion) and Crys­tal Downs in north­ern Michi­gan. He ob­vi­ously wasn’t en­vis­ag­ing greens run­ning at to­day’s speeds but rather some­thing closer to eight or nine feet on the stimp­me­ter, as they were in the late 1970s. It’s not un­rea­son­able to as­sume he pic­tured some­thing sim­i­lar here in Aus­tralia.

Two years af­ter the 1972 World Cup, Lee Trevino fin­ished nine over Royal Mel­bourne’s par, ty­ing for third be­hind Bob Shearer in the Chrysler Clas­sic. He sug­gested with some scorn to the lo­cal pho­tog­ra­phers, “Take a pic­ture of me go­ing out the gate be­cause you will never see me com­ing back in.”

Shearer had opened with a course record 65 – show­ing the course was man­age­able – and played sen­si­bly from there, even­tu­ally fin­ish­ing at one over 285 and won by seven shots. Shearer had played great golf and Royal Mel­bourne had main­tained its rep­u­ta­tion as the place with the scari­est greens on the planet.

Mostly Aus­tralians as­sumed it was just the same ev­ery­where else – just as they sup­posed pro­fes­sional events all around the world were played on the best cour­ses. Never was there a greater fal­lacy and only in Aus­tralia do the pre­mier clubs will­ingly host big events with any reg­u­lar­ity.

Per­haps things slowed down just a lit­tle af­ter Shearer’s 1974 win but the greens were al­ways bru­tally di cult in tour­na­ments and hit­ting any sort of iron shot close to the hole at Royal Mel­bourne was al­ways a mat­ter of hit­ting with the per­fect flight and force, land­ing it in ex­actly the right place and then judg­ing the run to the hole. Given it was hard enough to get a 30-footer within a cou­ple of feet it wasn’t easy to get any sort of iron shot within six or even ten feet. It was golf un­like any­where else in the world and it was surely bet­ter than the po­lar op­po­site of wind­less and largely mind­less golf played into soft greens. The is­sue was the ex­trem­ity of it all.

Aside from the high scores the play was in­tol­er­a­bly slow (an al­most un­be­liev­able six and three-quar­ter hours for four play­ers in the open­ing round of the World Cup in 1972), a re­sult of play­ers con­stantly faced with long and di cult putts which they would in­vari­ably lag up to a few feet, mark, wait and then go again.

The rest of the cham­pi­onship cour­ses on the Mel­bourne Sand­belt fol­lowed the lead of Crock­ford and at times it seemed like a con­test as to who could get them the fastest. When Greg Nor­man com­plained about the Kingston Heath greens in the 1995 Aus­tralian Open, every­body said, “You should have played the Vic­to­rian Open last week at Vic­to­ria!”

In Aus­tralia we have per­fect con­di­tions for mak­ing fast greens. The best cham­pi­onship cour­ses are all built on sand, mak­ing it eas­ier to firm them up for tour­na­ments as well as get­ting high speeds out of them.

Pri­mar­ily they are grassed with fine strains of bent­grass – so fine that when a mem­ber asked US Open cham­pion Hu­bert Green what he thought of the greens at the 1979 Aus­tralian PGA at Royal Mel­bourne he sug­gested: “They would be great … if they had any grass on them!” The same week on the same greens Ben Cren­shaw was seven un­der af­ter seven holes on Fri­day but he did have the touch of an an­gel.

Balles­teros, an­other who played like an an­gel, even­tu­ally won at Royal Mel­bourne as did Tom Wat­son, Hale Ir­win and Greg Nor­man.

Per­haps the best play­ers in the world win­ning jus­ti­fied the greens to those look­ing to de­fend their sever­ity in the face of those who would com­plain. But my guess is, those great play­ers would have won any­way no mat­ter whether the greens had been eight-, 10- or 14-feet. The best play­ers al­ways won at Royal Mel­bourne be­cause they hit the best shots on a course de­mand­ing

great shots, and so long as the greens were firm they de­manded great shots. What are we to make of it all? The first point is ‘fast’ is fine on oc­ca­sion but it doesn’t mean ‘not fast’ is some­how de­fi­cient. It’s the same with ‘per­fect’ fair­ways. They are very nice but they should never be the mea­sure of a course and any­thing less than ‘per­fect’ doesn’t mean the con­di­tions are sub-stan­dard. I’ve seen plenty of fair­ways many would de­scribe as far from per­fect but which are none-the-less per­fect for golf. Surely even the oc­ca­sional poor lie is a part of the game?

Nor are fast greens nec­es­sar­ily harder to putt. Many as­sume they are be­cause club-level put­ters re­ally strug­gle with them but just as of­ten slower greens can be as in­ter­est­ing and as dif­fi­cult for pros. In­evitably there would be at least one hot and windy day mak­ing things even more un­com­fort­able.

It’s just the com­bi­na­tion of soft and slow misses the mark be­cause it so di­lutes the strate­gic mer­its of a worth­while course.

The sec­ond point is build­ing in­ter­est­ing con­tours into greens is a lot eas­ier if they run un­der ten feet, and putting on in­ter­est­ingly con­toured greens is much more in­ter­est­ing than putting on purely fast ones. And, there is a fine line be­tween fast and silly and Trevino, for one, thought it was crossed in 1974. Any­time seven over par fin­ishes sec­ond it’s prob­a­bly a pretty fair in­di­ca­tion it was.

An­other odd­ity is many of those in­sist­ing on the ‘playable for all’ mantra push for speeds which in­evitably mean all but the com­pe­tent put­ters are guar­an­teed to three putt at least a third of the greens in 18 holes.

Fi­nally, at a time when so many seem to think slow play the bane of the game, fast greens do noth­ing to speed it up. They only ex­ac­er­bate the prob­lem and whilst they have a place and they are here to stay there should be some aware­ness that ex­tremes are rarely good for any­one, es­pe­cially the green­keeper.

AT A TIME WHEN SO MANY SEEM TO THINK SLOW PLAY THE BANE OF THE GAME, FAST GREENS DO NOTH­ING TO SPEED IT UP. THEY ONLY EX­AC­ER­BATE THE PROB­LEM...

The al­ways quick 6th green on Royal Mel­bourne West. Was it de­signed to be so fast?

Quick greens in high winds is a recipe for dis­as­ter, as was seen at the 2015 Open at St An­drews.

A PGA Tour of­fi­cial tests green speeds us­ing a Stimp­me­ter.

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