News & Opinion

Need for speed on greens can stall rounds

One in a series of stories about pace of play 

When does “faster” equate to “slower”?

Are golfers, who incessantly complain about pace of play, unintentionally causing slower rounds by insisting on faster greens?

Preliminary findings by the Science of the Green initiative at the University of Minnesota indicate that is true. 

You might be your own worst enemy.

A recently published Science of the Green article ( that outlines findings from researchers’ ongoing study of “green speed and pace of play” found “there is a positive correlation between green speed and pace of play; as greens are managed to play faster, the time it takes to play a round of golf also increases.” Their data, taken from seven disparate courses around the U.S. and with the U.S. Golf Association as a research partner, found that an increase of one foot in the Stimpmeter measurement added, on average, almost eight minutes to a typical round by a foursome. 

But it could be worse, according to their data.

“In some instances, the increase in time spent per player per green resulted in an increase of as much as 30 minutes per round for a one-foot increase in green speed.” They didn’t specify whether that increase was from 8 to 9 or 11 to 12, for example.

Call it “the need for speed” or “the race for pace.” Golfers everywhere, no matter what their skill level, like to think they love fast greens and that amplifies their experience. We can blame, without argument, the USGA and the Masters for inciting this addiction.

Although invented in 1936 by former Massachusetts Amateur champion Edward Stimpson, the Stimpmeter gained celebrity status 40 years later when the USGA used it to measure green speeds. Reports indicate that in 1978, the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 rolled at 6 feet 10 inches, Pine Valley at 7-2, Winged Foot at 7-5, Pebble Beach at 7-2 and even fearsome Oakmont at just 9-10. Augusta National came in at 7-11, but the Masters host site played on Bermudagrass greens and since has transitioned to faster bentgrass.

Four decades later, those speeds seem laughable, having almost doubled in some cases. Combine that silly slickness with the ever-increasing size of putting surfaces, and the Science of the Green opinion seems indisputable.

But trying to understand golfers’ psyches is as confounding as understanding the nuances of their golf swings. The Minnesota study suggests, anecdotally, that golfers are prepared to sacrifice pace of play for more time spent on slick greens.

John Sanford, president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, understands.

“We [architects] live by the adage that when the greens are good, fast and smooth, everything else is fine,” he said. “Golfers will overlook other deficiencies of the course if that’s the case. As we say, ‘The burger in the grill room after the round always tastes better if the greens are really good and fast.’ ”

But are “good” and “fast” the same thing?

“What’s ‘fast’?” asks Thomas Nikolai, an acknowledged leader in the turfgrass field. In fact, he wrote the book on green speed. Literally.

Since publishing The Superintendent’s Guide to Controlling Putting Green Speed in 2005, Nikolai says he could have done almost weekly updates, based on agronomic research. For example, he posits that the recent move to more frequent rolling of greens versus ever-lower mower height not only speeds up greens but decreases maintenance, irrigation and susceptibility to turfgrass disease.

Nikolai, a turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University, once Stimped a pool table. It rolled at 15-16 feet. At some recent major championships, green speeds have approached that number, and those putting surfaces are nothing like a level slate table covered in smooth felt. Witness the horrific 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where the Open will return in June.

“Everybody says they want fast greens, with smooth and consistent ball roll,” Nikolai said. “That’s understandable. But at some point, it gets out of hand, ridiculous, and that impacts the golfers’ enjoyment.”

To that point, Sanford says he has a rule of thumb for establishing pinnable positions on about 75 percent of the surface of the greens that he designs. “You can’t have a hole positioned anywhere where the slope is more than 3 percent,” he said. “Otherwise, you might just miss the hole, and now you’re 10 feet by, coming back. That’s not fair.” 

Obviously, that limits the amount of slope, contour and transitions in designing a putting green, because about 4,500 square feet of pinnable surface is needed on a 6,000-square-foot green, Sanford said.

Renowned course architect Mike Hurdzan emphasized that in a recent interview with Golf Digest. “Many of us [course architects] think we’ve taken away our ability to define hole locations or target areas within greens because of this mania for fast greens,” said Hurdzan, a past president of the ASGCA. 

According to Nikolai, “green speeds should never be used for course comparisons, because speed is inseparable from undulation. Every golf course should be shooting for its own number.”

Nikolai is a strong proponent of the Morris Method. In an article for the Grounds Maintenance publication, he cited the case of Mike Morris, the superintendent at Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort, Mich., who was tasked with maintaining a consistent green speed every day. Not “fast”; consistent and appropriate to the contours of the putting surfaces. It now is a widely accepted sensible and equitable approach to putting green maintenance.

Like par, a Stimpmeter reading is a number specific to the idiosyncrasies of each course. Perhaps it would make sense to revert to smaller, slightly slower greens where creative contour is the challenge, not speed. And where the “greens in regulation” stat actually meant something. 

Plus, it just might help pace of play.

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:;  Twitter: @gordongolf