What’s your number?

What’s your number?

Larry Gilhuly shows how the right green speed means healthier greens and faster pace of play.

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August 7, 2014
Crystal Hammon
Talkin' Turf sponsored by BASF

Larry Gilhuly, director for the northwest region of the USGA, has had a lot to say about finding the correct green speed for a healthy course. But beyond meeting that balance, it’s important to know how to talk to members about why that number is what it is.

You have said that faster green speeds are not good for the golf industry. Why are you convinced of that?

The most vocal folks in golf are single-digit handicappers, but only about five percent of the golfing public has a handicap of 5 or less. These players are clamoring for green speeds adapted to their game and not for the general public.

The average male player’s handicap in the U.S. is around 15—close to a bogey player. The average female player’s handicap is around 28 or 29—close to a double bogey player. When you look at average handicaps across the U.S., it’s pretty obvious that we aren’t a bunch of golf pros. So we take those handicaps and playing abilities onto the greens.

The greatest challenge is getting those vocal, low-handicap golfers to understand that the business of golf isn’t for the five percent—it’s for the 95 percent that run the thing with their money. There has to be a compromise. I don’t think the average player would enjoy playing in U.S. Open conditions.

What factors should course superintendents emphasize with players?

In many cases, we are playing on older courses that are not built for the kind of green speed that single-digit handicappers want. Some greens were designed in the 1930s for green speeds of six feet. Why are we running them at 12 or 13? It doesn’t make any sense. We are setting ourselves up for a problem with pace of play, health of the turf and all sorts of other negatives.

What agronomic information can course superintendents share to help players or members become informed about managing green speed?

Our criteria should be smoothness first, green speed second. The architecture of an older course was never built for these kinds of speeds. From a purely agronomic standpoint, the mowing heights are too low, and it’s management-on-the-edge to meet these desired green speeds. When you manage the green for speed, you minimize the number of hole locations, and the holes move toward the center where there’s more traffic. That makes for weaker turf, and the Poa annua will come in. You will stress your greens more because you’ll mow lower and roll more often.

How can superintendents help players or members put green speed in the right perspective? 

Pace of play is a huge issue. There is no question that greens ramped up for speed will take longer. It’s just a fact that you’ll have more putts, and it slows down the game when the greens play too fast. We have three things in the game that we have to address: it’s too hard, it’s too expensive and it takes too long. Faster greens make golf harder, more expensive and slower. This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

What advice do you have for course superintendents on how to shape realistic expectations about green speeds?

Go online and use the educational materials that are available. Communicate in every form you can to help people understand that we can only take these greens so far. It is an educational effort, and there are a ton of online resources out there that can help you. Find them and reprint or share them. I think we can do an excellent job when we go face-to-face with onsite educational discussions.

What mistakes do course superintendents make when communicating about green speeds?

It can be a real balancing act. If you say, “Okay, let’s do it,” you may be setting yourself up for potential turf loss in some climates. If you fight it too hard, and take a stance that you’re not going to do it, you can jeopardize your job.