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.
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 dicult 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 eciently 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.