‘A Matter of Firmness’ 

An article first published in Michael Coffey’s important Golf Club Secretary Newsletter.

By Adam Newton BSc (Hons), MBPR, FQA  when he was a STRI, Turfgrass Agronomist and before he joined The R&A.

adam newton, stri,

Adam Newton.

With golf looking to increase participation levels, it is ever more essential that we look to keep the game interesting and exciting for both existing players and new additions to the game alike. There are some wonderful initiatives taking place across the country to help introduce new members and visitors to Clubs – such as The Junior Golf Passport, nine hole medals and shorter forms of the game being considered and proposed. These initiatives are for the governing bodies and Clubs to consider but turf managers and agronomists also have their part to play by helping to produce playing qualities on our courses that are authentic, challenging and allow the course to be played as originally intended.

In years past, many courses have lost their way with the playing surfaces becoming too soft and forgiving, which has resulted in a shift towards ‘target golf’ and the majority of the game being played through the air. This is one dimensional, uninteresting and removes much of the skill, challenge and perhaps joy from the game. As a golfer you may feel cheated and a little disappointed that the perfectly struck long iron you’ve just played pitches on the front of the green and stops dead instead of releasing up the green as it should. Creativity in shot making is enjoyable and exciting but the turf surfaces need to be set in a way that allows this to be achieved.

Golf club and ball technology has moved on considerably over recent years, allowing the golfer to hit the ball further than ever before and control spin better with approach shots and when chipping around the green. Therefore, it is evermore essential that our playing surfaces are firm enough to present a true challenge to the golfer and place a real emphasis on accurate ball striking and creativity when playing into and around the greens. The thrill of shot making can make all the difference to a round, with that well-executed punch shot that runs up to two feet, staying etched in the memory of the golfer for eternity!

Our aim should be to create a level of firmness that rewards the well-struck shot from the fairway, (with the ball impacting, checking and rolling out) but with a poorly struck shot, or one coming from the rough, offering far-less control and releasing out. This can bring about mixed emotions for the golfer as their poorly struck six iron into the 1st green, pitches near the flag and releases into the waiting greenside bunker. This may set the fire in the belly for the round ahead with an initial thought of ‘Challenge accepted!’

These conditions capture the imagination of the player and if approaching from the rough, he or she may have to land the ball on the approach to allow it to release onto the green or alternatively look to feed off the contours around the green complex. If it is conceded that the green cannot be successfully held from the lie or angle being played from, then the golfer may then look for the best place to miss the green to leave the easiest chip shot/putt.

Hoylake's 12th green during the 2006 Open Championship

Hoylake’s 12th green during the 2006 Open Championship

Contoured greens are often the most interesting and famous holes like The Redan at North Berwick or The Road Hole on the Old Course, St Andrews are often most revered by golfers due to the challenge required to negotiate playing into the green. If these surfaces were too soft, then part of that challenge would be lost. It is therefore essential to deliver the correct level of firmness for the true impact of contouring to be realised.

Our focus should also widen to improving the quality of the green complex as a whole, so that it can be fully utilised by the golfer during shot making. The green approaches are of particular importance and should offer a similar level of firmness to that of the green to allow for the running approach shot to be successfully played. This is of paramount importance on all courses and is something that we are closely monitoring and working on for Open Championships, through increased maintenance to these areas (e.g. rolling, topdressing, refinement) and firmness monitoring.

The green approach and collars should also offer good sward texture and be dominated by the finer grass species. This will encourage the golfer to opt for more traditional shots like bump and runs or putting from off the green. This is far more exciting than reaching for the 60 degree wedge each time!

Incorporating tightly mown run-off areas around the green should also be encouraged wherever possible, to make better use of interesting contours and again widen shot selection around the greens. These may serve as bail-out areas in some cases or alternatively act as a natural hazard where the ball gathers to. Either way, the player is not hacking out of thick rough with their lob wedge but instead will have numerous options to choose from – such as bumping the ball into the bank with a seven iron or hybrid, or putting. This creates an enjoyable challenge for golfers of all skill level and offers something for everyone.

tiger woods, royal liverpool

Tiger practising the Bump-and-run before winning the 2006 Open Championship

When delivering firm greens, there is certainly a responsibility for the greenstaff to judge the conditions and be sensible with hole changing and course set up. Placement of a pin immediately over a bunker under firm conditions will make holding a ball on the green almost impossible for the majority of players, and therefore the time taken to play the hole will be increased. For this reason, understanding the importance of sensible hole locations in relation to the weather and ground conditions is essential for the category of golf playing on that day. Setting tournament hole locations for a midweek medal doesn’t make for an enjoyable golf experience for anyone.

Ensuring that the surfaces do not become too firm is of equal importance and should be closely monitored. If the greens become excessively firm, they will become unresponsive and even a perfectly struck shot may disappear over the back. This can turn the approach shot into a lottery and become extremely frustrating and unenjoyable for the golfer, along with slowing down the pace of play.

It is therefore vitally important that we have a way of accurately and objectively measuring greens firmness to ensure that we are on the right lines and offering a fair, yet challenging level of firmness for play. At STRI, we use a device called a Clegg Impact Hammer to measure greens firmness. This works by measuring the peak de-acceleration of a 0.5kg weight dropped onto the green and provides us with a reading in gravities. We carry out a number of measurements across the green to determine the average firmness as well as any areas of notable variance.

Through extensive research using the Clegg Hammer, we have developed target ranges for optimal greens firmness depending on the style (parkland, heathland and links) and design of course. The aim is to keep the greens within target range throughout the year in order to deliver the desired level of performance. This can often present a real challenge, particularly on parkland courses; however with appropriate greens drainage, good organic matter management and a solid aeration and topdressing programme, is perfectly achievable.

In summary, the firmness of our greens plays a pivotal role in the challenge and enjoyment of the game. With modern technology continually improving, it is vitally important that our turf is appropriately firm to spark the imagination of the golfer. Creativity when shot making is fun.

Adam is a Category One golfer currently playing off a 1 Handicap and is a member of Fulford Golf Club in York.   He is a keen advocate of traditional running golf.

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