Up to Speed: A brief history of green speed

The demand for faster green speeds gave rise to intensive golf course maintenance practices and near-perfect present-day putting surfaces.


Filed to: Greens

The term “green speed” didn’t exist until the balata golf ball replaced the gutta-percha ball around the dawn of the 20th century. This equipment change raised golfers’ expectations and led to the need for putting green research.

In his 1929 article, “Research work planned in Great Britain,” Sir Robert Blyth Greig lamented that the USGA was leading the way in golf research. He also noted, “Old Tom Morris used to say that there should be ‘nae puttin’,’ meaning that the pitch or run up should always be so dead that the putter was not required. Times have changed, and a good player wants now to have a reasonable chance to hole a 10-foot putt, a feat which would have been pure fluke in earlier days. It is a question if we are not making too much of the putting in the interests of the game, but whether we are or not, the demand is for true uniform surfaces.”

In 1932, the first green speed study was performed with a bulky piece of equipment known as the Arnott mechanical putter, which was built to test whether there were differences in green speed among eight creeping bentgrasses. The result? The assumed green speed differences among species did not exist.

In his 1937 article “Introducing the Stimp,” Eddie Stimpson said he invented the Stimpmeter because green speed was an issue, and, “It occurred to us that there was no way of measuring how fast putting greens are.” He also reported six green speed measurements from three different golf clubs. The average green speed from those measurements was 2.5 feet.

Thirty-seven years later, in 1974, Stimpson still owned the only Stimpmeter in the world. At that time, he wrote “Putting greens — How fast?” and reported green speed measurements taken from 1946 to 1973. The average green speed over that period remained 2.5 feet, which included the green speed from the 1963 U.S. Open, which was 2.7 feet.

At this point, there are two important considerations: the history of putting green maintenance, and modifications made to the Stimpmeter after 1974.

The first reported mowing height, from 1922, was about 0.375 inch. Following that report, advancements on putting green mowers allowed for lower heights of cut. By 1930, research indicated that putting greens should be mowed at 0.187 inch each day, and results from a 1947 height-of-cut survey reported 29% of courses mowed at 0.187 inch, 40% at 0.25 inch, and 31% at 0.312 inch. Finally, in 1973 James Beard wrote that mowing heights were as low at 0.2 inch.

Mowing heights and other maintenance practices changed very little between 1930 and 1973. Therefore, it’s logical that Stimpson’s green speed measurements changed very little during that time.

In the mid-1970s, the USGA modified the Stimpmeter by making the ramp longer and changing the U-shaped groove to a V, which decreased the friction created when the ball rolled down the ramp. Before releasing their modified Stimpmeter (briefly known as the “Speed Stick”), the USGA took green speed measurements in 1976 and 1977 on more than 1,500 greens in 36 states. The average green speed was 6.5 feet.

The USGA’s Stimpmeter was released in 1978 following vast improvements in greens mower technology that included thinner bedknives that made it possible to mow as tight as 0.125 inch. Superintendents lowered their mowing heights, increased topdressing frequency and micromanaged fertility inputs, which led to smoother, more consistent speeds.

Research pitched in by promoting more rolling. Although many believe that increased green speeds cost more money, it has been documented that rolling in place of mowing can lead to faster green speeds while promoting healthier greens at lower cost.

Today’s savvy superintendents know putting surface undulations help determine the ideal green speed for their clientele. To sum up: Changes to the golf ball a little over 100 years ago led to changes in golfers’ expectations, which, in turn, led to the need for research. Research led to the need to make measurements, which led to the Stimpmeter, which led to advancements in mower technology. Superintendents then tweaked maintenance practices to fine-tune green speeds, creating today’s near-perfect putting surfaces. It was truly a team effort.

In closing, I would like to wish the Stimpmeter a happy 40th anniversary!

Thomas A. Nikolai, Ph.D., the “Doctor of Green Speed,” is the turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and a frequent GCSAA educator.