Geoff Ogilvy talks green speed

Major winner calls for a sensible approach to providing pace.

3rd June 2015
What golfers’ want,Managing for healthy grass,Assessing progress
Ogilvy challenges the need for green speeds which are too high.  

In his regular column for the Golf Australia magazine Geoff Ogilvy, winner of the 2006 US Open, argues the case for firmer and slower greens.  He does, however, contextualise this by saying that greens should not be too slow.

He supports his case by outlining some significant benefits from producing firmer and slower surfaces:

  • More fun, with a greater variety of hole locations being possible on slopes which are impossible to use if greens are too fast.
  • Regaining the original intent of the course designer, who may well have anticipated hole locations on slopes which have been lost by the sports’ fixation with pace.
  • Providing golfers with firmer greens, which perform better in all weather conditions.
  • Giving the greenkeeper more leeway to relax mowing regimes, reducing turf stress and the intensity of management required to deal with such stress.

The R&A has long been an advocate for firmer greens, though the level of firmness needs to reflect the design and location of the green. The Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) has recognised this requirement by producing target ranges for both links and parkland courses.  For firmness, the STRI recommended ranges are 100-120 Gravities for links and 85-110 for parkland, when using a Clegg Impact Hammer to test this parameter.  At these levels of firmness, golfers should be able to stop a ball on a green if they strike it reasonably well. However, they may have to land it short on the firmest of links courses and run the ball up onto the putting surface, but that is an integral part of playing links golf.

There is some evidence that very fast greens can slow down play, as golfers take more time over putts, particularly shorter ones, and often take more putts as well!    In an age where pace of play and the length of a round of golf are both considered important parts of the participation debate, something as simple as slowing greens down a little could make a positive contribution. Such a step may also give golfers greater enjoyment as they play, resulting in them choosing to play more often.

firmer and slower

One potential effect of a turn to firmer and slower greens could be the rehabilitation of the Stimpmeter.

While the race for pace is still in vogue, there  remains a direct correlation between putting surfaces getting faster and designers having to produce either flatter surfaces, or much larger ones to accommodate enough flat areas for hole locations.  The firmer and slower approach can bring more out of the designer, giving him or her greater freedom to introduce slopes and contouring (though not too severe).  This will, in turn, provide more interest for golfers who will have to have utilise more skill in reading the line as well as the pace of a putt.

Firmer greens will also tend to lead to surfaces which will drain better.  This has to benefit both golfers, who will get more use out of the surfaces, and also greenkeepers, who can work unhindered by concerns about tracking over soft turf.  Golf facilities also benefit financially in having greater access to the main greens during and immediately after inclement weather.

One other potential effect of a move to firmer and slower greens could be the rehabilitation of the Stimpmeter.  Much maligned, especially by greenkeepers, this device could return to its original purpose as an aid to managing consistency both within and between putting surfaces, rather than being considered as the lead instrument in the race for pace.

The victims of the current race of pace are not only the golf course architects, whose art has been compromised, or indeed the golfer standing nervously over a 3 foot putt in expectation of an even longer return putt if they miss the centre of the hole.  Greenkeepers also suffer, as they are burdened with unrealistic expectations about year-round pace.  The turf to putting surfaces will also be harmed by a relentless programme aimed at producing fast greens, which usually focuses on extremely close mowing.  A drive to making firmer and slower surfaces more acceptable will undoubtedly reduce the stress placed both on greenkeepers and the turf.

Healthy turf, dominated by quality grass species, has all too often been sacrificed for the sake of a little more pace.  This, in turn, has resulted in a style of greenkeeping which is more about fire-fighting than it is about sustainability. We have all seen numerous examples of this. In order to produce green speeds deemed acceptable in the current climate, and also to address the limitations of Poa annua, greenkeepers have had to resort to relatively high feeding and watering regimes that are the death knell for the higher quality grasses.  To control the amount of thatch produced as a consequence of those actions they also have to employ aggressive aeration, scarification and top dressing practices which add to turf stress.  Invariably, this cycle of nourishment and harsh treatment is interspersed with regular applications of fungicide to counter stress-induced outbreaks of disease.  On and on it goes and it is a cycle which clearly does nothing for the reputation of the sport amongst environmentalists, governments or members of the general public. Indeed, it could be argued that the severity of pesticide legislation being seen, particularly across Europe where in some countries complete bans for golf courses have been predicted within the next 10 years, is in part a result of this approach to greenkeeping and the race for pace.

close mowing
Over close mowing to achieve extra speed can result in weaker turf and moss invasion.

In much the same way as pushing out the message that lush, green courses are not wholly desirable, we also have to persuade golfers that ultra-fast greens, and the consequences of aspiring to them, are not in their best interests, nor indeed in that of the sport itself.

Instead, what we should be doing is giving greenkeepers the chance to show what they can do with the best of the grasses we have available today.  We need to allow them to nurture these grasses, because if we do golf and golfers will benefit and at long last we will get a return on the massive investment in the grass breeding programmes the sport has supported over the past 40 years.

Let’s leave the last word on the subject to Geoff Ogilvy who argues the case so well: “In my view they (green speeds) are, generally speaking, too high,” he wrote in what was a very welcome contribution to the race for pace debate. “We have passed the threshold where they are sensible and conducive to enjoyable golf for the vast majority of players.”