Edward Stimpson, the state amateur golf champion of Massachusetts, invented the measuring device that bears his name after watching the 1935 US Open at Oakmont, seeing Gene Sarazen putt off a green, and wondering how fast the greens were rolling.
And ever since, at least according to one view, a simple measuring tool has become the agent of an arms race, a competition among courses to have faster and faster greens. The Stimpmeter, so this argument runs, is a scourge, a device that encourages golfers to ask, ‘How fast are the greens today?’, with a subtext that hints, ‘Make them faster’. All at the expense, it is said, of the architectural interest of the same greens: as the ball rolls more, so the slopes need to be gentler to prevent putting from becoming a lottery.
When Stimpson introduced his invention to the world in 1936, the average green speed that he reported was 2.5 feet. In the mid-1970s, the USGA modified Stimpson’s meter, used it to test more than 1,500 greens, and reported that the average speed was 6.5 feet – the fastest were at Oakmont (that course again!), but this time at nine feet and eight inches.
Today, seven or eight feet on the Stimp is regarded as unacceptably slow. Most high-end clubs expect greens to Stimp in double figures most of the time, and for Major championships, at least the ones held in the US, the green speed could easily be between 13 and 14 feet. One of the most common reasons why courses are renovated is that the greens have, given modern speeds, become short of places flat enough to locate the pin. According to a chart drawn up by architect Jerry Lemons, once greens run at over 10 feet on the Stimp, any part of a green with much over two per cent slope is a sketchy area to put the flag; given that many Golden Age greens are mostly sloped way above this level, it isn’t hard to see why so many have been changed (some might say ‘emasculated’) in recent years.
“Canton Brookside, where I played a lot growing up, has arguably the best Ross greens in America,” says Texas-based architect Kurt Bowman. “They’ve lost around 70 per cent of pinnable area, and the areas they still pin are four to five per cent. It opened in 1921. The lowest height of cut in 1920 was 0.75 inches (19 millimetres).”
Scottish architect Stuart Rennie says: “There is a fascination in golf with making greens faster and faster, which in my opinion is not that good for the game. Peter Thomson once said to me that when he first went to St Andrews, he found that hitting the putts harder was much more of a challenge. That’s the sort of attitude we should be promoting today.”
At the Belleair club in Florida, architects Jason Straka and Dana Fry recently completed a remarkable restoration of Donald Ross’s original design (read more in the April 2023 issue of GCA). Belleair’s new greens are, by modern standards, very slopey, and if the club were to get them running at 12 feet on the Stimp, which it could fairly easily do, they would be unplayable. But, in conjunction with the architects, the club has resolved to keep the greens at a lower speed, though still high by classic era standards. This allowed the architects to be more creative – and a little truer to Ross’s original design – in their work there.
“The majority of the greens prior to the restoration were raised pedestals,” says Straka. “They were very much a modern-day design, which looked nothing like the historic Ross greens. The hole locations weren’t any more or less sloped than they are now. But the greens were faster pre-restoration because the transition areas between hole locations by and large weren’t as complex as they are now.”
“Before the restoration, our greens averaged between 10-12.5 feet on the Stimpmeter,” says Belleair member Connor Lewis, founder of the Society of Golf Historians. “When he discussed the restoration plans with us, Jason was very specific: he said that if he was going to restore Ross’s slope and features to these greens then we, as a club, should try to keep the green speeds under 11 feet.
“I have been told that the Florida State Golf Association rates greens between one, the flattest, and seven, the most severe. When the Association toured Belleair, they rated 11 greens at seven! Now, those 11 greens would be near ridiculous if the green speeds were 12 or 13 feet but at 10, I would argue they are among the best in the state. And yet, the truth is that many of the slopes within these restored greens are still less than what Ross designed: that is just a product of modern green speeds. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even post that day’s greens speed. Most people don’t even know how it’s calculated: they just know that the US Open is somewhere between 12 and 13.”
Straka says: “As complex as the greens are now, the height of many of the internal mounds and contours are not as large as Ross’s originals. This is obviously because green speeds were significantly slower back then and there had to be a happy medium between restoring the complexity of the greens and the members’ desire for smooth and fast surfaces. The discussion was never about faster greens equals better greens. The discussion was always about finding the happy medium between green speeds and enjoying the complexity of the Ross putting surfaces. I don’t think that most members would have any idea what the daily green speeds actually are. That said, from a professional point of view, average speeds around 10 for daily play or 11 for special events would be ideal. The maximum slope in pinning areas is three per cent, so quite high by today’s standards, but not crazy.”
“Pre-construction convos with clients are necessary. I’ve given thought to putting speed limits on greens in my contracts,” says Bowman. “There are arguments that work. Pace of play is important, especially at resorts and public golf courses. Fast greens mean slower play. But at high-end private facilities, sensible greens speeds are a tough sell, because fast greens are seen as a status symbol.”
Lewis reckons that Belleair is not much different in this regard. “I think every club has this issue, and it is a matter of education,” he says. “Personally, I would argue that good greens are those that make you use your imagination and that the faster the green rolls, the less slope you can have and the less interesting the putting becomes. I guess it comes down to what is more interesting, distance control or green reading? As you can probably tell, I prefer green reading. My daughter Madeline only started playing golf a couple of years ago and she has a talent for the game. She called me during her first round on the restored West course. I asked her what she thought of the greens, worried she would hate them. Her response was, ‘Dad, they are really tough but that makes them so much more fun to play’. I have never been prouder of her – she got it.”
Belleair’s membership, says Lewis, is fairly well bought in to the new approach and the new greens. “It is still early, but I haven’t heard many people complain,” he explains. “When I do hear a complaint, I usually respond that we, as members, have one of the greatest home field advantages. There are quite a few putts that will break over 30 feet! As a golf historian I believe that faster green speeds make for uninspiring greens. If you take a moment to look at the original greens designed by MacKenzie, Morris, Colt, Ross and Tillinghast, they were works of art. We have dumbed down golf greens to the lowest common denominator – speed.”
It is in restoration projects that these problems are at their most intense. “On one project, there was a conversation that started with the club saying we want to be able to have speeds of 12 to 13 quite often,” says architect Jim Nagle. “We responded by saying, ‘Well, then you won’t have Donald Ross-like greens’. They took some time and came back with, ‘We want Ross greens’. They will periodically have the speeds up to 12 or more, but they recognise that it limits their hole locations. But then for regular play they back off.
“I got into an argument with a client because they expected two greens to be designed at 2.2 per cent or less. I told them that was taking all the challenge and interest out of the green. It was all because the club wanted fast greens. It wasn’t until the superintendent and I measured the slopes on challenging, but acceptable, hole locations and saw that many were at 3.5 per cent (some were even between 3.5 and 4 per cent) that the club started to change tune. With higher slopes it becomes important to have surrounding slopes that do not accelerate or continue that higher percentage.
“You have to build the greens with character, challenge, and authenticity – when needed – but have a design that works for everyday play but has fun tucked ‘Sunday pins’ that work with speeds over 11.5. It can be done and, as an architect, it’s fun to attack that challenge. If they want fast greens then they have to accept the trickle down: larger greens, somewhat less undulations and the associated costs to maintain.”
On modern courses it is slightly different. Rob Collins and Tad King’s nine-hole Sweetens Cove course in Tennessee is famous for its severe greens, and at their new Landmand course in Nebraska, though not all the greens are wild, some certainly are. And Collins, who has operated Sweetens Cove since its (rather tortuous) birthing process, and is now a co-owner of the course, says that keeping the greens at a sensible speed is key to players’ enjoyment of the golf course.
“At Sweetens, the greens average around 10.5 feet, but I’ve played them at twelve plus,” he says. “Thirteen feet is probably too fast. In the club championship last year, they were probably 12.5 and it was the most exacting I’d ever seen that golf course play.”
But Sweetens, even though its greens are wild, is without doubt a modern course with modern greens. “There is a sweet spot at around 11 or 11.5 feet where the greens and the surrounds fully reveal themselves,” Collins goes on. “And that’s faster than Tad or I thought they could get when we were building the course. I give great credit to Tad because when he was finishing them he paid great attention to keeping the pinnable areas relatively quiet. Players don’t really talk about the speeds; just about how different they are from what they’ve seen elsewhere. People remark very often about how there is a discovery process to them. You can’t just play them one time and expect to have seen everything – because there are so many pin positions. But all the pinnable areas are one per cent slope or less.
“Landmand was a similar approach. Going into the project we knew that we could not build 18 Sweetens-style greens. There are wild greens, but they are mostly very large, and there is a ton of big, broad pinnable areas out there. They are running those greens at around ten feet: partly the reason they are slower is because of the wind. When the wind is blowing 30 miles an hour you have to pay attention to it!”
Sometimes, the only way for an architect to go is to accept that the greens will be very fast and hang the consequences. A few years ago, Wisconsin-based Craig Haltom rebuilt the Lac La Belle course, originally built in 1896, and a private summertime retreat for Chicago’s wealthy for most of its existence. “It had accumulated a lot of drainage problems and fallen on hard times before it was bought by the Morse family, the founders of the Prestwick group that makes course furniture from recycled plastic,” Haltom explains. “They’d never owned a golf course before, and company founder Matt Morse decided he wanted to build something spectacular on top of the old course. There wasn’t much to restore, so we went for it. It was a very difficult construction, but five years on the course is fully public and very successful. The first comment every player makes is how wild the greens are – we thought that would be the key to making it memorable. The ball is always doing something after it hits the green. You have to be aware that the type of shot you hit in will make a difference. But they are also very fast – as fast as you'd play at a high end midwestern course.”
How did Haltom square the circle? He says that, again, it is about building greens that have big slopes, but also pinnable areas that are relatively quiet. “It has to be built in such a way that it has plateaus,” he says. “The art is that it can’t look like a simple segmented green. How do you connect the plateaus in a way that allows for modern green speeds? On average, the greens are large. There are a few tiny greens, and they are flattish ones. Where the greens are wild, they’re generally big enough to accommodate that. People find it to be a really fun, interesting golf course. It’s driven by pin positions and which side of the fairway you’re playing from. All that becomes possible when you have enough space.”
This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.