Sunday, 2 January 2011

Is faster really better?

Or............How Johnny Miller ruined golf.

In 1980, the Metropolitan Golf Association did a stimpmeter survey of the local courses to determine the speed of the greens. A fast green measured 8.5 feet, medium was 7.5, and 6.6 was considered slow. Today, the average fast speed is approximately 10.5 feet, an increase of approximately 2 feet in the last twenty years. In the world of income taxes, this type of increase is called “bracket creep”. In golf, I would call it “speed creep.”

My question is: Do faster green speeds automatically result in better golf? We live in an age where golfers throw around green speed numbers as if they were weather forecasts. Every self-appointed Carnac has a real or imagined number that they freely throw out to impress their friends. My beef is that the majority of “experts” who so freely share their “wisdom” are not truly aware of how green speed is measured and how easily it can be done incorrectly. Recently I played in a club tournament, and one member proudly boasted that “his” greens were “14 today.” Were they recently paved, perhaps?

So, what do these numbers really mean? In the movie Spinal Tap, guitarist Nigel Tuffel explains why his band is the loudest in the world, “Our speakers go to 11, that’s much louder than 10.” Of course, the joke is that band members painted the eleven onto their Marshall speakers; the volume could not measure any higher than the original ten. The point I’m trying to make here is that eventually, numbers lose their relevance. Getting back to green speed, I was once asked by a greens chairman what was the difference between ten and eleven . My response? “All I know is that eleven is a larger number.”

Unfortunately, a phenomenon has taken over North American golf called “the trickle- down effect”. The club with the fastest greens becomes the standard for what all clubs consider the “correct” green speed. While large flat greens can handle speed, courses with rolling greens become unplayable under the same conditions. Often, the course that becomes known for its faster greens actually has major back to front slope. The misconception is that the turf , not the slope, is creating the speed. Despite this, the club with the perceived fastest greens has set the bar, and now all other clubs strive to hit this maniacal target. The problem is that most clubs usually ignore the true speed limit of their own course. Remember, every time you raise the speed, you lose area which can be fairly pinned.

How do we know what the speed limit is? If the pin is almost always in the same locations and the turf is under stress, your greens are too fast. Also, fun and challenging pin locations, that make a particular green unique, are now unusable. The speed limit of a green is determined by selecting the most severe pinning location and determining a fair speed for that location. One single pin location cannot set the standard, but a consensus of the most difficult pins will lead to a speed threshold for the greens. This threshold, not comparisons with other golf courses with faster greens, should be how a club decides how fast it can go. Please note that the club’s primary “event” is not my focus, the day to day speed is my concern.

Fast green speeds are said to identify the elite player by putting a premium on focus and skill. The question I ask is: Do we need to do this on a day to day basis? In my experience, excessively fast greens can identify a superintendent who is pushing the envelope. Hugh Kirkpatrick, a respected golf superintendent from Westmount Golf & Country Club in Kitchener had my favourite line on green speed: “They always run fastest just before they die.” In the movie Top Gun, the pilot Maverick says to his navigator, Goose, “I feel the need for speed.” To me, Maverick is like a greens chairman who is cocky and out of control and Goose represents the superintendent -- more experienced but with less influence. We all know what happens in the movie when Maverick makes an error. Goose pays the concequences.

Where am I going with this little soap box rant, and what’s the connection with Johnny Miller?

In my experience over the last year, which includes dealing with 50 courses and 100 greens chairmen, I have been constantly questioned about why the greens are so slow. My answer to them is another question: Are the greens healthy.? The answer is usually yes. When I explain that you need firm, dry greens to have fast greens, most chairmen quickly realise that often the last season has been one of the wettest years in a long time. This, obviously, could have hindered the superintendents’ ability to deliver healthy and fast greens. However, one greens chairman required further convincing, so we went out to the putting green for a test. Stealing an idea from Ian Bowen, I asked the amateur agronomist to putt 3 balls at a cup 10 feet away. I then poured a bucket of water in between the him and the cup, and waited for the green to absorb the water. He hit his next putt well short and the point was clearly made.

Most greens that I have renovated have pinning areas too small to handle the traffic. Occasionally, a green with dramatic contouring becomes almost unpinnable with a change in green speed. I don’t like to rebuild greens with great contours; I would rather preserve them. Greens that have more contour may need to be slower but they require more creativity and challenge a golfer’s skill. Conversely, greens that have more speed may need to be flatter, which demands less imagination from the player. I want the push for speed to stop before putting gets boring.

One club, notorious for its fast greens, maintained their speed most of last year. The greens were fast, but became thin and weak during stressful periods. Before you blame the superintendent, he had suggested that they need to ease off. The majority of membership finally overruled those who were demanding fast greens and told the club that healthy greens were more important; if the greens had to be slower to recapture the turf, so be it. I hope this is a coming trend, but I can’t say I’m confident.

In my experience, members who are obsessed with green speed are junkies who can never get enough speed. I suggest they be banished to putt in the parking lot. After all, it is currently stimping at 14.

You’re still waiting to see what Johnny Miller has to do with all this, aren’t you. Well, Johnny Miller has a reputation as a bit of a know-it-all. He loves to throw around statistics and numbers all the time. He loves to tells us the greens are stimping at 14 in the latest PGA tournament. The average golfer would not know what stimpmeter was without him. So what’s my beef with Johnny? People assume that everything they hear on TV must be true. The result is that Johnny Miller has helped to create a legion of misinformed greens committee members. Thanks, Johnny.

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