Maybe it’s the #perspective I’ve gained from becoming a dad, but these days I find myself turning into a cranky old man when cars speed by me on residential streets. “What’s wrong with these people?” I think to myself as I give them a dirty look. At the same time, I realize that at one point in my life I was the person speeding by, unaware of anything but my own agenda.
My views on green speeds have undergone a similar shift. When I was young, I lamented slow greens and loved fast greens. I played most of my golf at a municipal course with spongy turf, so when I got to putt on smooth, quick greens, it felt like a luxury—an aspirational, “this is what it’s like on tour” experience. I think this is a sentiment a lot of golfers share. The faster the greens, the better.
But over the 20 years or so, I’ve changed significantly, and so has golf. Because of agronomic advances, more courses than ever can take part in the green-speed arms race. What was considered fast around the turn of the century is now deemed slow. And unlike on roadways, no one has established a speed limit for putting surfaces.
This fall, when I was touring courses in the northeastern U.S., I was constantly reminded of this trend toward uber-fast greens. Members and greenkeepers kept apologizing to me that their greens were too slow, but in most cases they were probably too fast.
Rising green speeds have caused a lot of downstream problems. For one, many courses built before the 21st century—and especially before World War II—have heavily tilted or undulating greens, which are meant to stimp in the single, not double, digits. These greens are often fascinating and full of character, but when they start to run too fast, they become unplayable. As a result, many older clubs have softened their greens in recent years, harming the architecture in order to accommodate higher speeds.
Going back to the roadway example, can you imagine if the city of Chicago renovated Lake Shore Drive to accommodate cars traveling 100 mph instead of just enforcing a speed limit? This is essentially what courses around the country are doing right now. And for the most part, they’re doing it for one hollow reason: to appease the egos of members who want to brag about “having the fastest greens in town.” This is a pointless pursuit, as someone will always find a way to be faster.
The better badge of honor is to have the most compelling greens in town. To have fun, undulating greens that offer day-to-day variety, that create different lines of charm—one day along the right side of the hole, and the next day up the left.
But if speeds continue to increase, every course will end up with the same pancake greens. Functional but dull.
Golfers tend to assume that faster greens are tougher, but that’s not necessarily true. Once you adjust your touch, putting on quick surfaces becomes rather easy because, in general, there won’t be very severe breaks.
Slower greens allow for more interesting, challenging setups because there are more hole locations available. Holes can be cut on sharper grades, which has a number of consequences. Imagine a pin on a severe back-to-front slope. Being pin-high might not be great because the putt will break substantially. Coming up short won’t necessarily be ideal, as you’ll need to strike the putt purely to get it there. And as for being above the hole, it’s still going to be fast because of, well, gravity. This is a common misconception about slow greens: just because the stimp rating is low doesn’t mean that downhill putts won’t be fast.
Overall, slower greens pose a wider range of scenarios and therefore demand more skill from players.
One place that rejects the modern obsession with green speeds to excellent effect is the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. Partly to help pace of play and partly because high winds generate plenty of carnage anyway, Bandon Dunes keeps its greens slower than most top-tier resorts do. When I visited there in November 2021, I was struck by how much my short putts were breaking. I saw pins in spots I wouldn’t have thought would be pinnable. It was a lot of fun and, when I left myself too many four-footers, genuinely challenging. A feel for distance on lag putts suddenly became crucial.
So maybe it’s time for golf’s governing bodies to consider a speed limit for greens. This might seem like an extreme measure, but it would address a few of the game’s biggest problems at once. Slower greens would not only allow architecture to be preserved and emphasize finesse in putting, but they would also cost less to maintain and, in some cases, improve pace of play. Better design, better tests of skill, lower costs, and faster rounds: why is this even a debate?