Stimpmeter to help keep green speeds consistent for 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont
For the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, the lore is part of the allure.
Historically, Oakmont has a reputation for having the fastest greens in golf, which leads to the tale of how their speed is measured for consistency.
An accomplished amateur golfer watched in awe as a Gene Sarazen putt rolled off the Oakmont greens at the 1935 U.S. Open, where the winning score by Sam Parks Jr. was 11-over-par 299.
Edward S. Stimpson, the Harvard team captain and 1935 Massachusetts amateur champion, was convinced the greens were playing unreasonably fast, so he developed a device to measure their speed.
The wooden instrument, shaped like a ruler, was donated to the USGA. It went largely unused until the mid-1970s, when it was modified and distributed to golf course superintendents in 1978.
“That's the story,” Darin Bevard, USGA director of championship agronomy, said with a laugh.
The Stimpmeter, as it is now known, is as simple as its story but has better accuracy measuring green speed than most golfers do putting on them. Twice modified by the USGA, the device now is an extruded aluminum bar that is 36 inches long, has a V-shaped groove on both sides at an angle of 145 degrees and a half-inch apart.
Bevard and two teams of agronomists, one on the front nine and the other on the back nine, will use Stimpmeters to measure Oakmont's greens twice a day this week during championship play for the 116th U.S. Open.
The process is as fast as the greens are expected to play: When the Stimpmeter is raised to an angle of approximately 20 degrees with the putting surface, a ball is rolled down from a 30-inch marker. This is done with three different balls, using a tee to trace the distance from their starting point to where they come to rest. All three balls should come to rest not more than eight feet apart, and their average distance is the Stimpmeter reading. (On smaller, contoured greens, a 2X marking measures a ball rolled from 14 inches).
It takes all of five minutes per green.
“They'll each do their own nine. I'll do some checks for comparison,” Bevard said. “During advance week, we spend a lot of time Stimping side by side, just to be sure we're using the same technique and that our numbers translate very well from one guy to the next.
“Generally, we would like to have the speeds at or close to whatever speed the USGA wants. Our course set-up team decides what the speed is. It's our job to try to get them there and don't exceed that. Ideally, there is a slow increase in speeds and by the Tuesday practice rounds, weather permitting, we have championship speeds.”
Where 10 1⁄2 feet is considered a fast Stimpmeter reading, Oakmont typically plays at 13-15 feet. The U.S. Open has a well-earned reputation for its insidious green speeds that make putting a rather diabolical deed, which means Oakmont should play more treacherous than usual.
“I definitely remember the golf course being really challenging,” said Peter Malnati, who caddied for a college teammate in the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont and tried to qualify this year. “I mean, the greens were what everyone said they would be. They were fast and challenging and firm.”
Bevard said Oakmont's spacious greens, which average 8,000 square feet, will make sure the surface is speedy but that the USGA is careful to monitor the speeds so they can stay at a playable range.
“Oakmont will be some of the fastest greens you will ever have for the U.S. Open,” Bevard said. “The Stimpmeter is certainly important from a championship perspective, really, because you want to challenge the players with the speed of the greens, but you don't want to get to a point where the speed of the greens becomes the story instead of the play.”
That was the case at The Players Championship last month at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., when third-round scores skyrocketed as the Stimpmeter reading reached 14.
PGA officials blamed it on high winds and humidity, but players grumbled that the course was manipulated after playing too easy for the first 36 holes. Four times as many golfers shot 78 or worse than the half-dozen who broke par.
The USGA hopes the Stimpmeter takes a backseat at Oakmont when it comes to talk of the golf course.
“If it's a conversation piece, I hope it's in a positive light,” Bevard said. “It's not uncommon for the players to say, ‘Hey, the greens were fast, but they were really good.'
“That's why we focus on ranges in terms of speed, instead of exact numbers. There's a little bit of variability there. Folks get caught up in the numbers when what we're really after is consistency.”