How Much Have Green Speeds Increased in Golf?

Course superintendent uses a Stimpmeter to measure green speed
Green speeds have gotten faster in golf - but by how much? And why?. Gareth Gay/Getty Images

We routinely hear about green speeds of 11 or 12 or 13 in modern golf. Fast greens. Every tournament wants them, every private golf club or luxury golf course wants to copy what the pros are doing.

Everyone has the sense that greens in golf used to be a lot slower, at every level of the game (even the highest level). Is that true? Is there any way to quantify it?

Yes, it's true, and yes, it's been quantified.

First, note what the number used to rate green speed actually means. A Stimpmeter is the device used to measure green speed. It's a very simple tool, just a plane with a channel running down its middle to keep a golf ball on track. The plane is held at an incline - a Stimpmeter is really just a golf ball ramp - and a ball released from the top to a flat part of the green. How far does the ball roll? That's the green speed. If the ball rolls 11 feet, 3 inches, then the greens have a speed of 11-3. Typically, TV types round off to even speeds (10, 11, 12, etc.).

Sample of Green Speeds in 1978

In his Editor's Letter in the October 2013 issue, Golf Digest editor-in-chief Jerry Tarde notes that when the USGA adopted the Stimpmeter in 1978, it sent teams around the country to measure green speeds. The USGA wanted to know what golf courses were doing with their greens, and what the typical speeds were; 581 courses were tested.

The results? Augusta National Golf Club was under 8; Merion was closer to 6. Those numbers would seem ridiculously slow in today's faster-greens-are-a-badge-of-honor environment.

Tarde's article included the speeds of greens at some of the top U.S. courses in that 1978 survey:

  • Harbour Town, 5-1 (5 feet, 1 inch)
  • Congressional, 6-4
  • Merion, 6-4
  • Pinehurst No. 2, 6-10
  • Pebble Beach, 7-2
  • Shinnecock Hills, 7-2
  • Pine Valley, 7-4
  • Winged Foot, 7-5
  • Cypress Point, 7-8
  • Medinah, 7-8
  • Augusta National, 7-11
  • Oakland Hills, 8-5
  • Oakmont, 9-8

A Stimp reading of 5 at Harbour Town! Even beastly Oakmont was under 10, and way out in front of most other courses in America.

Why Have Greens Gotten Faster?

What happened that caused green speeds to increase so much? Largely it was a cultural shift - as noted, green speeds became a badge of honor with courses and tournaments.

But before that could happen, golf courses had to have the technical ability to increase speeds. That meant new, better and hardier varieties of turfgrass that grow smoother, can be cut lower, and can survive being cut so low; machinery that cuts better and lower; agronomy practices that keep grass alive and healthy at such low mowing heights. And sub-ground cooling systems that allow golf courses to grow cool-season grasses year-round, or in parts of the country where those grasses formerly wouldn't grow.

Augusta National, for example, had bermudagrass greens in 1978, when the USGA Stimpmeter survey was done. Not many years later, Augusta switched to bentgrass, as have many courses that can afford to install air conditioning underneath their greens.

This increase in green speeds has changed the way golfers putt, too. The wristy "pop" that so many golfers used to use (in large part to power putts across slow greens) is rarely seen today.

Putting greens are much smoother, roll much truer, are, in general, in much better shape than they were back when the speeds were much slower. Those slower greens weren't necessarily easier or more difficult to putt, the challenges were just different. Green speeds are faster today because those rough conditions of yesteryear were ironed out. But the trade-off is more speed, more break, more danger.

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