Green Speed for Championship Events

By Steve Whipple, Superintendent at West Point Golf Club

One of the biggest questions on every player’s mind before their annual Club Championship or Member/Guest tournament is, “what are the greens rolling?”

Much of our focus and what consumes hours of our time as superintendents is preparing the greens for higher speeds around tournament time.  Getting ready for these special conditions begins many weeks in advance with cultural techniques, material applications, and mower height adjustments. Using these tools, the superintendent can deliver green speeds that will meet member’s expectations. However, how do we determine that target green speed? Is it to simply get them as fast as they can go?  Is there a standard by which a speed number has been chosen?  Most importantly, has there been any thought to what a challenging speed should be at a particular golf course?

I am sure at one time or another we have all played a course where the greens were a little slower than we would have liked them in tournament conditions. It’s also very likely that we have played courses in tournament condition where the green’s staff had been a bit over zealous: The result speeds that crept up to a point that they rivaled a sheet of glass - 10-12 foot breaks, don’t go above the hole or you’ll be putting back from 20 feet, or the dreaded ball rolling backwards near the hole location.  With the skills, expertise, and technology available to today’s superintendents, these faster than required speeds are easier to achieve and unfortunately have become very common.  When preparing for events where green speed is the focus, it is very likely that superintendents might err on the side of too fast to meet or beat set performance standards and avoid the dreaded complaint of greens, “being too slow.” In doing so, are we doing a disservice to the members by moving away from the intent of the design features of the architect and not achieving the proper amount of challenge?

As an avid golfer and student of the game, in recent years I’ve seen more and more problems with greens that have become too fast in tournament conditions.  The intent of preparation for tournament play should be to single out the players that are playing the best golf during that event rather than the player who is the best on the greens or the player who avoids numerous 3 or 4 putts.  If a competitor is playing good golf but gets on the wrong side of the hole and winds up taking a quadruple bogey by putting back and forth, then I believe the emphasis is focused too much on greens play and not how they play the entire course. 

Through years of tournament preparation, and many mistakes made along the way, I have learned some valuable lessons and tips for avoiding some conditioning pitfalls.

  • First- Know your golf course.  How sloped are your greens?  We see that many classic courses designed during the golden era of golf were never intended to have green speeds of today’s standards. Great hole locations can be lost when greens get too fast and they are some of the most challenging features of our classic layouts.
  • Second- Who is your competitor today?  Every event of the golfing season will bring about a majority of golfers of certain handicap range and most importantly, course knowledge.  Scrambles and other fun events require only moderate speeds, while the club championship will have contestants with lower handicaps and more course knowledge who will be able to handle higher speeds.
  • Third- Survey competitors after the event.  Did they like the speed of the greens?  How did their scores reflect the intention of the course set-up and target speed?
  • Fourth- Collect data and make a team decision.  The target green speed for events should be made by the decision making body of the club as a group, which may include the PGA professional, club manager, green committee chairman, superintendent, and others.  Having everyone of authority at the club invested in the decision can have a very strong and positive impact, especially after the event when player feedback is received.  Golf is a humbling sport and in many cases players don’t like blaming themselves for a tough day on the course. If there is a disgruntled player, hearing a unanimous explanation of how the target green speed was selected by all club representatives will help support the superintendent and their hard working staff.
  • Fifth and final lesson or tip I have learned to adopt is a philosophy that less is more. I have been caught numerous times selecting hole locations that, combined with fast greens, make the challenge too difficult.  The result of this is player dissatisfaction, disconnection with the event, and it takes away from all the hard work the greens staff had put into the event to make it a success.  So, under fast green conditions in tournament play, putting the holes in locations slightly easier can have a real positive impact on player satisfaction.  Tournament play is hard enough, hole locations don’t have to follow suit to bring out the best players.  

I love fast greens as a player and I love preparing greens for competitions.  All of us as superintendents want to satisfy the golfers that come to our course with fast greens, but doing it responsibly will bring about the most satisfaction and make the event a success.