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Breaking the Speed Limit

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Golf Green speed
Turfgrass diseases


After any major tournament that is broadcast live on TV, it is inevitable golfers will want the same conditions they see. It is called the “Augusta effect” in US, because after every Augusta Masters, the superintendents will get questioned:  “Why can’t our course be like that?”  

The beautiful landscape, the manicured fairways and the fast greens.  It is said that the green speed in Augusta is not publicized because if it were to be made known, half of the golf course Superintendents in America will lose their jobs. 

What is green speed?  How is it measured?  How can it be increased? How fast should a green be for normal play?

How fast is fast?

In 1936 an individual named Edward S. Stimpson developed something that was to become the “Stimpmeter” which some superintendents have come to hate. 

It is simply a 36-inch aluminum bar with a grooved runway on one side. A notch in the runway is used to support a golf ball until one end of the Stimpmeter is lifted to an angle of roughly 20 degrees. The average distance the golf ball travels after it rolls down the Stimpmeter in two opposite direction is referred to as the speed. The farther the ball rolls the faster the green.

I guess the word green speed is sometimes misunderstood; the word “speed” usually means the distance between start and finish in terms of measurements of time, you know, 12m/second or 200km/hour. When somebody say: “The green speed is 7feet 6inches”. It is not the balls travelling at 7feet 6 inches/hour! It is just the average distance traveled by six balls when put on the Stimpmeter. When Stimpson first introduced the stimpmeter, the first thing he put it to use for was to standardise the speeds on all the greens on a course. After all, it was unfair for green no 1 to be fast and no 6 to be slow.

It also puts a quantity on fast or slow greens. Otherwise it will be “So #$%^* fast” or “So *^%$# slow”. But then, it will be subjective, what is fast to somebody is slow to somebody else. Just like big or small, beautiful or ugly.

How do you make a green fast?

Firstly, we need to understand that same like car, one of the things limiting speed is friction, and for golf balls, the friction comes from the grass. So the more you can reduce this friction, the higher the speed. 

One of the most obvious and common way will be to lower the cutting height of the grass. A grass that is cut at 4mm will make a green faster than if cut at 5mm. I am told that in cold weather areas where they used Bentgrass, the greens can be cut to as low as 2.8mm. Take a ruler and see how small that is!

The idea is to reduce the amount of grass that comes in contact with the ball, and to make the green as firm as possible so that the ball doesn’t ‘sink’ into the grass.

Another way is by keeping the greens slightly starving. We stopped fertilizing the last few weeks before a tournament and try to spoon-feed with liquid fertilizers only when necessary. We limit the amount of new shoots or grass blade on the green. The greens have to have enough food not to die but not enough that it becomes lush and too green. Ever seen a guy walking on a tightrope? That’s how we Superintendents feel the 2 weeks around a major tournament.

Topdressing the greens with sand and verticutting (light vertical mowing) are also part of what we do increasing green speeds.

We also try to make the greens a little bit dryer than usual. We control how much water is put on by irrigation. Just remember that we cannot control the amount of water put on by rain.

Another popular but sometimes misused technique is rolling the green.  You have expensive custom-made greens' rollers (or greensirons as they are sometimes called) to  cheap home-made round cylinders that are manually pulled across the green to choose from.  In-between those two, you can find vibrating and water-filled rollers.  They all work the same way; by smoothing out any imperfections and by firming the greens. Just don't roll too often; it may cause compaction.

Lets not forget the most common way of increasing green speed; double cutting.  The term usually means cutting the greens again after the first cut.  Most Superintendents do the second cut immediately after the first cut, some do it much later. If you are really desperate, try quadruple cutting, also known as two-on-two cutting.  Cut in the same direction twice (by coming back on the same pass one more time) and in a different direction the same way too.

The same double (here its usually called 'cross') or quadruple techniques can be applied during rolling of the greens.  Do it too often and your greens will have the amazing speed of putting on glass.  Probably just as fragile too. Better have some bottles of fungicide ready, and update the ol' resume too, just in case. 

My favourite way of increasing green speed is very light verticutting of the greens a few days prior. Be advised not all equipment and personnel are able to handle the demands of such a delicate operation.  

Other factors

It is claimed that the nutrient Kalium (the Americans call it Pottasium) can help in increasing green speed. The theory goes that K strengthens cell walls thereby the leaf blade is more erect (guys, don’t try this at home) and the balls (we’re talking golf balls here) have more firm support underneath them while they’re rolling. I have always been a fan of K, I’ve always specified my fertilizers to be 1:1 for my Nitrogen : Kalium ratio.

Is that it? Well after you’ve determined the health of the greens, the dryness of the soil, the (ahem) erection of the grass, some people spend some time reading the green. Some people do fast reading and some people, I think some people need to bring dictionary to read the green lah… There are other things to consider too, remember friction? It also comes from the air surrounding the ball. You will probably putt faster when the air is thinner. Remember that when you are golfing in Mexico or Nepal.

The way some people are putting, they might also take into consideration the position of the sun, the alignment of Jupiter and Neptune and the star they were born under. 

 

Can we have these kind of greens all of the time?

Short answer: No.

Why not?

Can you imagine doing all the above all the time?  The leaf of the plant is where the food is being produced through a process called photosynthesis. Cut down too much too long, the grass can’t make its own food and will not survive for long. Vertical cutting too often will also damage the health of the grass and the golfer playing the course during the vertical cutting process.

Fertilizing just enough is also bad for the health of the grass and the Superintendent. And the constant erection?  I can only imagine… (And wish).

How many golfers can handle the fast greens they want? On contoured greens, it takes single-digit handicappers to negotiate those slopes at anything above 8 feet 6 inches.  With a lot of four-putts, you’ll have five-hour flights every weekend.

Another problem will be, the higher the green speed, the lesser the place to put a pin.  It becomes unfair to put near top or bottom of slopes. And to top it off, greens cut at low heights, will be at greater disease and stress pressure due to high traffic. 

Not many golfers can tell the difference between a 9 feet and an 8 feet green. To them the green is just fast.  But their putts can. The challenge is to maintain the consistency of the greens.  I have seen two greens, given the same treatment, one increased by 3 feet to record an 11feet on the stimpmeter and the other increased only to 9. Moral?  The faster they are, the harder to maintain consistency.

Behind the scenes, can you imagine the amount of manpower needed to cut the greens twice a day every day? Or even to roll the greens once a day?

I can go on and on about green speed, perhaps in another article, but for now, a thought just occurred to me, you know how the Stimpmeter is named after Edward Stimpson who invented it? Aren’t you glad that it wasn’t some guy with Austrian or Russian name who invented the meter? Man, can you imagine a Kruscheyenkovicmeter or Schwarzeneggermeter or how about a Malaysian Marimuthumeter? Got a nice ring to it don’t you think?

 


 

 

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