Editor's LetterAugust 20, 2013

In Praise Of Longer Grass

The hardest shot in golf isn't the long bunker shot anymore.

The hardest shot in golf is any hybrid, iron or even wedge played from the middle of the fairway with a slightly downhill lie to an elevated green. It's so darn hard because the fairway is probably cut to linoleum height. Golfers struggle these days not so much with hitting it long or straight but with getting it airborne.

Today's tight lies conspire against that enjoyment. Closely mowed grass is easier for tour pros to play from but harder for average hackers like us. That's why I'm happy when my ball lands in the first cut of rough so I have a little cushion under my shot. Tight lies also diminish short-game shotmaking. We see more golfers putting from long distances off the green instead of playing artful wedges and run-ups.

I was making this case to Mike Davis, executive director of the United States Golf Association, just before the pros played Merion in June. Steve Smyers, an architect, had told me the fairway height at Merion for the 1971 Open was one inch. When I repeated that to Davis, he paused and said the planned fairway height for this year's Open was .26 inches. A couple of weeks later, Davis surprisingly reversed himself and announced Merion's fairway height at .45 inches.

"We had been trying to message about green speeds that they had just gotten too fast," Davis said, "and they cause agronomic and architectural problems. I actually think they cause nerve problems. It's why some people have gone to anchoring. And fairway height, again, it causes agronomic problems. The average golfer simply can't get the ball up, and they have trouble pitching it, too. So the reason we went to almost half an inch this year was me saying, 'Listen, I think it's the right statement for golf.' And we're going to do it again next year in the Open at Pinehurst."

The Stimpmeter was invented by Edward Stimpson in the 1930s as a device for measuring green speeds, but it was not adopted by the USGA until 1977, whereupon the USGA field staff was commissioned to measure 581 courses nationwide to benchmark the speed of American greens. Here is a sampling of what was found:

Cypress Point: 7 feet, 8 inches

Pebble Beach: 7-2

San Francisco Golf Club: 6-5

Augusta National: 7-11

Medinah: 7-8

Congressional: 6-4

Oakland Hills: 8-5

Pinehurst No. 2: 6-10

Pine Valley: 7-4

Winged Foot: 7-5

Shinnecock Hills: 7-2

Merion: 6-4

Harbour Town: 5-1

Oakmont: 9-8

Top 5

These were America's finest courses, so one can surmise that the speed at average courses and munys in 1977 were more typically in the range of four to six feet. Managing director of the USGA Green Section Kimberly Erusha "ballpark estimates" today's greens at 9½ to 10 feet. I played Oakmont on a mid-summer day this year when speeds were a typical 13 to 14.

This recalls a long-ago conversation with Sir Michael Bonallack, who was then secretary of the R&A. I asked him if he was going to use the Stimpmeter at the British Open. And he said, "Why would I want to do that?" I said, to measure the greens' speed. And he said, "Why would I want to do that?" I said, well, I guess to ensure consistency from one green to the next. And he said, "Why would I want to do that? Isn't part of the challenge to golf to know how one hole plays differently from another?"

The bottom line is, every inch faster our greens have gotten requires more water, more money, more labor, more chemicals. And the real killer is, every inch slows down the pace of play. Fairway heights pose similar issues.

I applauded Kerry Haigh at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill this year when he refused to make public the green speeds. "To be honest, we don't think that's necessarily good for the overall country clubs out there," said the PGA's chief setup man.

Getting the USGA and the PGA of America speaking in unison against over-conditioning is the first step. Water shortages and tougher economics may do the rest. Change for the better is coming.