“How are the greens running?” golfers often ask.
For superintendents, it can be a loaded question. One way to answer is with a Stimpmeter. But Stimpmeters – which will most certainly make an appearance at this week’s US Open – can be a touchy topic, too.
“It’s the most maligned tool in our industry,” says Chris Tritabaugh, superintendent at Hazeltine National Golf Club, in Chaska, Minn., And a longtime member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
Conduct a survey of greenskeepers, and you’ll hear the gripes.
“I don’t even own one.”
“I use mine at her doorstop.”
“I melted mine down and bent it to fish balls out of ponds.”
Why the bad rap? Partly, the obsession with the numbers themselves.
Designed to help ensure consistent green speeds across a course, Stimpmeters were never meant to inspire a pace race. But it does focus on getting faster and faster (“What are they Stimping at today?”), Regardless of whether those speeds are appropriate for the course or the golfers playing it.
In short: a frequent headache for superintendents.
From the top of that, going lower with a mower can be tough on turf.
“And so,” Tritabaugh says, “there’s this idea that the higher the speeds, the worse the conditions become.”
Tritabaugh sympathizes. He gets the misgivings. But he doesn’t share them.
He owns a Stimpmeter (actually, he owns two), and he doesn’t use them as doorstops. To Hazeltine, he takes readings every day.
He knows what the numbers mean. Many golfers don’t. Come to think of it, many golfers know a little about the Stimpmeter beyond its spelling.
Because it never hurts to get an education, we asked Tritabaugh for a primer on the Stimpmeter, and why he sees it as “my most important tool.”
A brief origin story
At the 1935 US Open, with the turf at Oakmont running lickety split, Gene Sarazen putted off a green into a bunker. Among those watching was a accomplished amateur golfer named Edward Stimpson. Stimpson came up with a simple gizmo: a wooden track, fit for a golf ball, with a notch that ensured a consistent release point. Elevate the track, release the ball and measure the rollout. The distance, in feet, gave you your metric: the Stimp reading. Nowadays, Stimpmeters are made of aluminum. But the basic design and mechanics are the same.
Stimp readings are part of Tritabaugh’s morning routine. If his schedule is light, he’ll do all 18 greens, and never less than six. He has a designated area on each. Following Stimpmeter protocol, Tritabaugh doesn’t just roll one ball. He rolls three in one direction, and then another three the opposite way. The averages give him his Stimp reading.
Margins of error
The greens at Hazeltine aren’t wildly rollicking. But they’ve got movement. And slope, of course, can affect rollout, creating unacceptable margins of error. There’s a way to deal with this variable, though. If the difference between a downhill and uphill reading is more than 18 inches, Tritabaugh applies what is known as the Brede equation, the industry standard that accounts for the influence of gravity. The math behind it is too high-brow for us here. But eggheads have tested and say it works. QED
Misreadings of the readings
Some superintendents post their Stimp readings for all to see, the understandable impulse that is also problematic. For starters, a lot of golfers have no idea what the numbers mean. What’s more, it can be set up for unreasonable expectations.
“Let’s say my greens are 12 today, and the next day it rains, and they’re 11.5,” Tritabaugh says. “Then you got golfers saying, ‘Hey, yesterday, they were 12.’ Instant disappointment. ” Where’s the upside? Tritabaugh doesn’t see it.
How he handles the numbers
Tritabaugh keeps close track of his readings but doesn’t share them unless he’s asked. He knows how his membership likes the greens, and the numbers are a valuable reference. They tell him where he stands, and what he needs to keep his golfers happy. The readings change as the season unfolds. Early in the year, as the turf emerges from its winter slumber, the greens are usually in the 9 to 10.5 range. As the weather warms, the next goal, Tritabaugh says, is to get them to 11. By the end of the season, he’s pushing 12, even 13.
The hole on the turf
For big-time tournaments, the goal is to get firm and fast greens. In 2016, for instance, when Hazeltine hosted the Ryder Cup, the putting surfaces Stimped at around 13, Tritabaugh says, though the PGA of America didn’t ask for the number; the organization’s course set-up man could tell that Tritabaugh had them right.
Mowing super-tight for tournaments places a strain on turf that is fine for the week but not sustainable in the long run. So, Tritabaugh doesn’t shoot for those conditions all the time. But he needs to keep things primo. Stimping every day helps him keep close tabs, so he knows exactly how to push it without doing anything detrimental to the turf.
On rare occasions, the pressure to get greens running Augusta-quick has prompted superintendents to manipulate their readings. The Trimabaugh calls “the olé” – raising the track to a steeper angle to make the ball roll farther. Tritabaugh emphasizes that this doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can further the public’s understanding of the Stimp.
“A lot of times, golfers think they want a higher speed than they actually like,” Tritabaugh says. “What golfers think is 12, often more like an 11 or even less. When you start getting up those numbers, you’re talking about greens that are running pretty darn fast. ”