Set the pace

Set the pace

John Zimmers uses course standards to start the conversation about green speeds.

August 7, 2014

"Why can’t you maintain consistent, tournament-grade green speeds all year long?” That could be the most frequently asked question in golf, especially at private and resort courses where serious players are drawn by premium playing conditions. Answering that question honestly—and diplomatically—has challenged course superintendents for decades.

The wide variety of course conditions and expectations across the U.S. make green speed a difficult subject to manage. At Oakmont Country Club, a course that’s known for its fast greens, course superintendent John Zimmers says starting each season with an approved set of course standards makes the conversation easier because everyone has a clear idea of the end goal. When members get involved in developing standards, they become more aware of budgeting—a process that’s inseparable from green speed.

“It’s always good to set standards,” says Zimmers. “Green speed is just one of those standards, like the height of the rough, or how many times you’re going to rake the bunkers.” There is considerable pressure to maintain consistent green speeds throughout the season on a course like Oakmont Country Club, but Zimmers says it may be more realistic for some courses to reserve their fastest green speeds for special events.

Educating  players about the factors that cause variations in green speeds is a subtle part of the business for many reasons. For starters, green speed is often a matter of perception that varies from person to person. Some players don’t like to acknowledge the way uncontrollable factors like weather influence green speeds. Rainfalls may vary from one side of town to the other, making it even harder to explain green conditions in a local setting. Mix these variables with the finite resources available for maintaining overall course conditions and you have a topic that’s bound to occupy space in the golf industry.

“What affects green speed most is firmness,” Zimmers says. “A green that’s dry and firm will dominate green speed any day.” In an ideal world, dry weather and moderate temperatures and humidity would help control greens, but unpredictable weather patterns are the norm for most course superintendents. That reality only underscores the need for realistic green speeds ranges, established before the season starts.”

Beyond weather, every superintendent must consider countless factors, including the type of players that frequent the club, grass types and the undulations and age of the greens. “On older greens, if you get them over 11, you lose hole locations,” says Zimmers. “The need for this green speed has made a lot of clubs revisit the contours on their greens, so there is certainly a balance to be struck, and it will vary at every course.”

Even in tournament play, green speeds vary. Zimmers cites a recent British Open where the green speeds were around 10. At another tournament event in a different location, they were 12 or 13.

Whether in casual conversations or committee meetings, Zimmers says course superintendents are most effective when they show that they understand members’ expectations. “Even when things are at their peak, I don’t think it’s a subject you can talk about too casually because it can vary so much, and everyone has a different opinion of it,” he says.