Meter helps superintendents gain comparison data on greens and other areas to achieve uniformity

The latest implement to help golf course superintendents achieve uniformity throughout their golf courses is a result of golf ball testing performed by the United States Golf Association (USGA) and controversy that occurred during the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

Produced by Spectrum Technologies, the FieldScout TruFirm turf firmness meter lets superintendents measure even more than the name suggests, from the firmness of the golf course on any surface from greens, approaches and fairway landing areas to bunker sand.

The USGA has been using versions of the turf firmness meter at venues for its championships since 2005, according to Matt Pringle, Ph.D., manager of research and development for the USGA and the man who invented the first incarnation of the device.

The Canadian-born and educated Pringle is also the inventor of the pendulum test for spring effect in drivers and a portable golf club groove measurement system.

According to Pringle, as part of the golf ball testing, there needed to be a way to deduce how far a ball bounces and rolls. Originally, a baseball pitching machine was modified to fire golf balls into the turf at a variety of angles.

Pringle says that after the 2004 Open, when a number of factors combined to make the greens at Shinnecock so firm they were unplayable, USGA officials realized there was the need for a turf firmness testing device that could be brought to courses.

“We were in the market to quantify firmness,” Pringle says, and that led to the need for a portable measuring device.

Techno Tip

How it Works

  • A hammer, which is designed to mimic an approach shot, is dropped onto a half-round piece of stainless steel that is half the diameter of a golf ball
  • The indentation made by the dropped piece is measure to a thousandth of an inch and recorded.
  • Measurements taken over time provide firmness data that could be used to determine irrigation needs.

Photo: Courtesy of Spectrum Technologies

According to Pringle, since the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course, the USGA green staff at every U.S. Open has used a firmness meter.

The technology is relatively simple. A hammer is dropped onto a half-round piece of stainless steel that is half the diameter of a golf ball.

“The mass of the hammer is designed to mimic an approach shot,” Pringle explains.

The indentation made by the dropped piece is measured to a thousandth of an inch and recorded.

The first units sold for commercial use cost $7,600. The newest versions from Spectrum Technologies sell for either $749 or $899. The more expensive version includes a Bluetooth chip that sends data to an Android application, according to Spectrum’s marketing manager, Jacob Madden, who says that the information allows the superintendent to analyze the numbers over time.

Pringle says he foresees the device reducing costs at some courses.

“It will probably allow you to be more stingy with water,” he says.

Madden says the first firmness meters didn’t sell well, but expectations are that the improved devices that have a digital readout on the handle combined with the price reduction will lead to a significant increase in sales.

“The whole idea is to have comparison data,” Madden says.

At the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., Director of Golf Course Grounds Fred Dickman has used a predecessor of the FieldScout since they first became available to the general public. Dickman first saw the USGA using them at the Pinehurst Open.

“As soon as they were available for sale, we purchased knowing we had the (U.S.) Women’s Open in 2011,” he said. “That really helped us.”

With 54 holes at the Broadmoor, the TruScout is not an everyday tool, Dickman says. But it’s used for events like USGA qualifiers or even the club’s three-day member-guest tournament. The areas Dickman most cares about are approaches and greens.

Uniformity is important, especially when dealing with four generations of golf holes. The East and West courses are a compilation of Donald Ross and Robert Jones holes. Some of the Ross greens are more than 35 years older than the Jones ones. In 2006, Jack Nicklaus, who won the 1959 U.S. Amateur on the East Course, completed a renovation of the Mountain Course. The Arnold Palmer design opened in 1976.

“It gives us a better idea of how the ball is going to react,” Dickman says of the firmness meter. “This is a great tool. It just gives you a lot more information.”

Not all in the turf world see a turf firmness meter as a way of improving the game or that there is even a need to have that aspect of a golf course measured to .001 of an inch.

“I have very little interest in the device,” says Jim Easton, superintendent at Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown, Mass., a semi-private layout owned by Williams College that opened in 1929 and was renovated in 2009. “The thumper certainly has a roll in maintaining uniform playing conditions, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist in that I don’t necessarily think every green needs to be a carbon copy of the next.

“Golf is an outdoor sport, and one should expect some variability and nuance in the playing surfaces,” Easton adds. “I suspect that a handful of resource-laden-clubs will utilize these devices successfully, but I feel we as superintendents need to simplify maintenance (i.e. costs) to help keep the game affordable.