‘The most maligned tool in our industry’: Why Stimpmeters are so polarizing

superintendent with a stimpmeter

Stimpmeters were designed to help ensure consistent green speeds across a course.

getty images

“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 U.S. 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 as a doorstop.”

“I melted mine down and bent it to fish balls out of ponds.”

Why the bad rap? Partly, an obsession with the numbers themselves.

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Designed to help ensure consistent green speeds across a course, Stimpmeters were never meant to inspire a pace race. But a focus on Stimp readings has come with a push to get putting surfaces 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.

On 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. At Hazeltine, he takes readings every day.

He knows what the numbers mean. Many golfers don’t. Come to think of it, many golfers know 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 U.S. Open, with the turf at Oakmont running lickety split, Gene Sarazen putted off a green into a bunker. Among those watching was an accomplished amateur golfer named Edward Stimpson. Eager to help the game get a grasp on green speed, 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.

Daily readings

Stimp readings are part of Tritabaugh’s morning routine. If his schedule is light, he’ll do all 18 greens, and never fewer 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.

superintendent with a stimpmeter
Elevate the track, release the ball and measure the rollout. getty images

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, an 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. Q.E.D.

Misreadings of the readings

Some superintendents post their Stimp readings for all to see, an 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 a 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’ve got golfers saying, ‘Hey, yesterday, they were 12.’ Instant disappointment.” Where’s the upside? Tritabaugh doesn’t see it.

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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 do 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 toll on turf

For big-time tournaments, the goal is to get greens firm and fast. 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 far he can push it without doing anything detrimental to the turf.

Artificial numbers

On rare occasions, the pressure to get greens running Augusta-quick has prompted superintendents to manipulate their readings. This can be done by giving the Stimp meter what Tritabaugh 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 skew 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 a 12, often is more like an 11 or even less. When you start getting up around those numbers, you’re talking about greens that are running pretty darn fast.”

Josh Sens

Golf.com Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.