The putt was no more than 6 feet with a slight break, a little downhill. A tap with the flat stick sent the ball on its way trickling towards the intended target, a leaf, with nary a bounce or bobble. Just short of its goal the ball turned ever so slightly, rerouted by an unseen ripple, not stopping until it rested against the rough.
The grass on which the golf ball took its journey is a testament to modern golf course maintenance with high-tech mowers, high-tech advanced pesticides and high-tech turf varieties.
That grass, though, is also a testament to how far wrong golf has gone. The putt wasn’t on a green, it was on a collar mowed to somewhere in the vicinity of 0.25 inch, not that long ago an acceptable height for a putting surface.
I’ve heard it said so many times, “Golfers demand fantastic conditions.” I don’t think that’s true; golfers have come to expect fantastic conditions because that’s what they’ve been handed. Fifteen years ago, I worked on the crew of a golf course that was considered to have the best-maintained turf of any course in central Connecticut.
Back then we took care of the rough with a pull-behind Lastec and a set of gang mowers and nobody complained about the quality of cut. If there were gripes, they might’ve been about the length of the rough, which wasn’t determined by the superintendent, and only came from a small minority made up of mostly good players.
Where are we 15 years later? Heights of cut have dropped significantly, while the cost of steel rose steadily and sharply upward. At most golf courses gang mowers seem as archaic as gutta-percha golf balls.
One superintendent I spoke with said height of cut on the course’s greens is at 0.105 inch; in 2000 it was at 0.14. In the same time period fairway cutting heights dropped from 0.75 to 0.6. None of his players demanded that.
With the lowering of heights, green speeds have gone from 9 feet on the Stimpmeter to “ludicrous speed” (“Spaceballs” movie reference) in a decade. Want to see a golfer not enjoying himself? Watch him putt or chip off a green. Sure, adept golfers can adapt to slick putting surfaces, but the average player can’t. That’s one reason why they’re not single-digit handicaps. It seems the occasional golfer is rarely taken into consideration when deciding how a course is to be maintained, especially at private facilities.
Here’s one way to determine if speeds are too fast. If the advice for an approach shot is, “It’s better to be 20 feet off the front of the green than 2 feet above the hole,” the greens are out of control.
I wonder if the horse and the mower are out of the barn when it comes to conditions. It appears there is no turning back, even with all the scientific evidence that raising the height of cut makes for a healthier plant, and a healthier plant is more disease resistant and therefore requires fewer inputs, which saves money.
So what now? I wish I knew. Maybe we can stop this arms race of sorts. Maybe more education and communication with the members will help. Probably not.
There’s always lying. Tell the members the greens are Stimping at 11 feet 7 inches while they’re really rolling at 10 feet.
Maybe we need to encourage women to take an active role in green committees so they eventually become green chairwomen. The female players of all levels that I encounter care about smoothness of putting surfaces, not speed. The next time I hear a woman say, “These greens are too slow,” will be the absolute first time.