two golf balls on golf course green with flag in foreground

The Art and Science of Green Mastery: Understanding Green Speed on Golf Putting Greens

Welcome to a greenkeeper’s sanctuary and the golfer’s ultimate proving ground — the ubiquitous putting green. Arguably the most revered space on the golf course, the green inspires reverence and trepidation in equal measure. For golf course superintendents, maintaining a pristine putting surface is an art; for golfers, the consequence of this delicate craft is the phenom known as 'green speed’.

Understanding the Essence of Green Speed

To the uninitiated, the term 'green speed' might seem like another jargon in golf's lexicon. But to the aficionados who dwell in the realm of greenskeeping, its significance cannot be overstated. At its core, green speed refers to the smoothness and consistency with which a golf ball moves across the putting surface. This simple act of rolling encapsulates the quintessence of putting greens — agility, precision, and reliability.

For a golf course superintendent, achieving the perfect green speed is akin to orchestrating a symphony performed by the elements of nature and meticulous greenkeeping practices. Grass type, mowing techniques, and moisture levels constitute the score, while maintenance becomes the conductor guiding the orchestra to a harmonious cadence of ball roll perfection.

Golf Ball Evolution

The first golf balls are almost unrecognizable to the modern balls used today. Original man-made golf balls were made from hardwood species, alongside their wooden club counterparts, and likely didn’t perform all that well. Some few hundred years into golf, new balls began to emerge that were called Feathery Golf Balls. These balls were literally feather-filled and wrapped in leather. The process involved in creating this type of ball was intensive, and as a result became affordable to only a portion of golfers, not to mention offering poor durability and lasting only a select number of rounds of golf. These two types of golf balls likely dominated golf through the 1800s until other advancements were made.

Coming from another plant-based source, the Gutta Percha or “Gutty” golf ball came out in the mid-1800s and was made of dried tree sap. This design made a large impact on the game as a whole in that it opened up access to a large demographic being more affordable and durable. Once the surface texture effect was realized in terms of the physics and playability and incorporated into this type of golf ball, performance really took leaps forward. 

The largest advancement the game would likely see came in the form of rubber core golf balls in the late 1800s or early 1900s. This type of ball is most similar to today’s golf ball, at least by design, which was a rubber core wrapped in a cover of Balata. According to Dr. Thomas Nikolai, often referred to as the “Doctor of Green Speed,” the term “green speed” didn’t come to exist until the Balata ball replaced the Gutta ball due to the increase in golfers’ expectations. With putting already being difficult with the older versions of golf balls, putting greens were never really in the limelight. With newer golf balls that rolled straighter, the uniformity and smoothness of putting greens began to increase in importance to the professional golfer, triggering greens research initiatives in the 20th century that would help shape the maintenance of putting greens.  

Green Speed: How Far We’ve Come

Early putting green studies in the 1930s focused on putting green speed to compare greens across courses and grass types and locations. One of the more popular tools to measure speed was the Stimpmeter, which was invented by Eddie Stimpson and has now become synonymous with putting green speed. Dr. Nikolai states that for nearly 30 years Stimpson used his Stimpmeter collecting speed measurements on various golf courses until 1973 and reported an average speed of 2.5 feet. Running concurrently were other putting green studies that aimed at putting green maintenance practices to create consistent and uniform surfaces, many led by Dr. Nikolai himself. By 1978 the USGA had released an updated version of the Stimpmeter and “averaged 6.5 feet over 1,500 greens in 36 states.” 

With time and results, the industry learned what new potential putting greens had, thanks to the ability to mowing lower with newer equipment, incorporating spoon feeding practices, implementing rolling and frequent topdressing, dialing in irrigation, investing the budget and many other practices. This boom in smooth, firm putting green surfaces across the globe came with a side effect of new expectations being set. From clubs reporting speeds to compete with neighboring clubs to the premier courses on the tour being showcased on television, some golfers demanded the opportunity to test their skill on these fast greens. On average courses are typically measuring around 8-10 feet on the Stimpmeter, with tournament greens as high as 11-12 feet or more. To this day the USGA does a lot of work in outreach and education to golfers advising that “faster does not mean better” to correct this misconception that affects golf course inputs and putting green health. 

Measuring Greens: Firm, Fast and Smooth

In conjunction with the Stimpmeter, superintendents may also use tools to measure surface hardness, or firmness meters. Hardness is directly related to putting green speed in that the smoother, firmer surface will result in a ball rolling further. There are a few tools on the market that measure firmness, with each measuring in a distinct way. Dr. Micah Woods at the Asian Turfgrass Center does a great job outlining the benefits behind these tools and where each may have a place.  There is the ball bearing kit from Precision USA, Spectrum’s Trufirm often utilized by the USGA, the Clegg firmness tester from SDI that’s also used in sports turf settings often, and the Yamanaka tester which is the standard on Japanese courses. These tools give the superintendents power by knowing the hardness of one putting green to another and can help aid in decision making from day-to-day operations or be precise relative to the green’s individual performance. 

Measuring putting green surface smoothness is the other tool in a superintendent's arsenal of understanding the status of a putting green, typically going hand in hand with surface rolling to improve consistency from green to green and overall course conditions. Dr. Woods also outlines the factors behind surface trueness and recaps work done comparing a few tools in the article Comparing Three Methods To Measure Putting Green Trueness (Linde et al., 2017) and is definitely worth a read (or view.) These methods tested in the study were the R&A ‘Holing Out Test’, a visual bobble test (STRI smoothness scale), and a ball spread test. There are also some digital tools that could be used in the STRI Greens Trueness Meter and the Parry Meter, but as Dr. Woods points out, the visual bobble test is one of the sole tests that could be paired easily with the Stimpmeter that is often already used in daily or tournament operations. 

In the world of putting green management, the Stimpmeter might be one of the most popular tools among superintendents or pro shops, but it’s surely not the only tool used to determine how a putting green will affect ball roll. A putting green may be fast, but does that mean it also putts true? Collecting data as a practice helps a superintendent gauge how true a green is putting by its firmness and smoothness ratings and superintendents know best that green speeds fluctuate, and in the bigger picture provides yet another data point to best provide a high performance, healthy putting green.  

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