One of the most alluring aspects of golf is the variety of its venues. The U.S. Open, for example, is contested on a different course each year and features landscapes ranging from the rustic sand hills of North Carolina to majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
While different layouts present distinct challenges, each course needs to offer competitors consistent conditions in order to provide a fair test. And one of the most important aspects of course maintenance is uniform putting surfaces.
Not only do variations in speed from green to green negate a player’s skill, they also greatly decrease enjoyment of a round. Even for golfers playing a recreational round, a course with greens of varying speeds can be a bewildering, frustrating experience.
Millions of golfers, from U.S. Open contestants to beginners, have benefited from the Stimpmeter, a simple tool offered by the United States Golf Association that allows superintendents, agronomists and course officials to accurately measure the speed of greens and provide more consistent playing conditions.
Debuted in 1978, the Stimpmeter is a modified version of a device designed by Edward Stimpson, who came up with his idea after watching players struggle with excessively fast greens during the 1935 U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club.
For the first time since its initial release, the USGA has updated the Stimpmeter. The new version allows for greater flexibility in measuring green speed, especially on undulating surfaces that have smaller areas of level turf, a necessity for measuring green speed.
Thirty-six inches long, the Stimpmeter features a lengthwise groove, with a notch about 30 inches from the tapered end. The ball sits in this notch at the starting position, lying flat on the ground; when the user lifts the other end of the Stimpmeter to an angle of about 22 degrees, gravity releases the ball from the notch.
The ball rolls down the Stimpmeter and along the green, and the average distance traveled by the ball after a number of attempts is the figure that has come to represent the speed of the green. (Click here to watch a video explaining the procedure for using a Stimpmeter.)
As green speeds have increased over the past three decades, users have come to need a flat portion of the green that is 10 to 15 feet long for an accurate reading with the original Stimpmeter. However, that length of level green surface is not available on all courses.
“As greens have gotten faster, it’s gotten harder to find that necessary length of level surface,” said Dave Oatis, director of the USGA Green Section’s Northeast Region.
To overcome this obstacle, the Green Section worked with Steve Quintavalla, Ph.D., of the USGA Research and Test Center. Quintavalla developed a two-sided Stimpmeter, which has an additional notch that rolls the ball half the distance of the original version. The new side works the same way, but users double the average roll distance to achieve the Stimpmeter reading.
“It gives superintendents and agronomists at championships the ability to measure smaller surfaces and still get a number and make management decisions based on that,” said Kimberly Erusha, Ph.D., managing director of the Green Section.
Exhaustive testing of the updated Stimpmeter during the 2012 championship season determined that employing the shorter roll is just as effective as the longer version.
“Our agronomists did a lot of testing at golf courses around the country and sent the data back to us and helped us verify that we had designed this appropriately,” said Quintavalla. “At the end of it, we had an exciting tool to be able to extend the utility of the Stimpmeter.”
During the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, the updated Stimpmeter helped ensure that the course’s small, sloping putting surfaces were set up uniformly.
“At Olympic, there were certain greens where we couldn’t get an accurate reading with the traditional notch, and the new Stimpmeter was a huge help,” said Pat Gross, director of the Green Section’s Southwest Region. “We also tested it thoroughly in larger areas and found that the new notch produced very good readings.”
The Stimpmeter is one of several tools used by superintendents and agronomists to ensure the best conditions for players. In addition, raters use the device when determining Course and Slope Rating for courses. Measuring green speed helps in evaluating green surface, one of 10 obstacles used to rate courses.
Because the Stimpmeter employs a single, easy-to-understand metric, green speed has become popular within the golf community. But that number doesn’t have much significance among everyday golfers, who can barely detect day-to-day changes in green speed, which are often measured to the inch.
“According to some pretty good studies, average golfers can’t detect a difference of less than a foot,” said Oatis. “Green speed is very subjective. If you get all downhill putts today and you drank coffee, you think the greens are lightning fast. Tomorrow, you may be tired and you’re below the hole on most holes, so you may think the greens are slow.”
The Stimpmeter is a useful tool, but USGA experts warn against relying on green speed as a way to measure the quality of greens.
“A bigger number doesn’t necessarily mean better conditions,” said Erusha. “Instead, look for a smooth ball roll, not the speed or aesthetics. A few blemishes don’t mean that it’s not a high-quality putting surface.”
For information about how to order the USGA Stimpmeter, click here.