Fast and Furious Golf Greens

Green speed is a major factor in putting. No wonder turf managers and golf architects spend a lot of time focused on the putting surface to make the conditions perfect for golfing. There are a lot of ingredients behind a good green – smoothness, firmness, and uniformity, to name few.

The device that measures green speedsis called a stimpmeter. Basically, it measures the distance a golf ball rolls (in feet) from applying a known force. (a.k.a BRD – Ball Roll Distance). It looks like a little roller coaster – put the ball at the top, and see how far it rolls across the green.

USGA Stimpmeter

USGA Stimpmeter

“Stimpmeter”  is named after its inventor, Edward Stimpson. Stimpson invented it in 1935, after watching golfers who were flummoxed by the speed of the greens during the 1935 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. The device wasn’t used in an official way by the USGA until 1976

Here is a table that USGA uses to classify the green speed on a course.

Category Membership Play Championship Play
Fast 8′ 6″ 10′ 6″
Medium Fast 7′ 6″ 9′ 6″
Medium 6′ 6″ 8′ 6″
Medium Slow 5′ 6″ 7′ 6″
Slow 4′ 6″ 6′ 6″

Green Speed Chart – USGA

While fun to play, speedy greens can be pretty devastating. A perfect example is the greens at Oakmont Country Club, where the Stimpmeter was originally invented. With stimpmeter readings consistently around 14-15 feet, no wonder the winning score was 5 above par at the 2007 Open.

To see how truly fast greens can impact your putting, watch this crazy 3-foot putt (or click here to view) below.

So, what type of green you prefer?

Why Does San Francisco Have So Many Golf Courses?

We at the Scratch Pad are big fans of the Priceonomics blog – a great source for well-written articles about data, economics, and business. They recently tackled the notion of golf courses per capita, and we were excited to share their post.

When this author moved to San Francisco, he was surprised to stumble on multiple golf courses. First a jog revealed the Golden Gate Park Golf Course. Bike rides along the Pacific coast led to the discovery of several more. Internet searches produced a final tally: nine courses in the city plus one more outside city limits that is under the city’s jurisdiction.

San Francisco’s golf courses are not located in the middle of downtown, but their existence remains jarring. The gold rush created San Francisco, but now the land itself is a treasure. The city is home to the country’s most expensive real estate market. Developers have started building “micro-apartments” to meet the insatiable demand for housing; in contrast, golf is a greedy hoarder of land. Eighteen hole golf courses occupy 100-200 acres and host a daily maximum of 200 to 400 golfers. At San Francisco’s current level of population density — which is low compared to cities like Manila and Mumbai but the highest of any major American city after New York — one hundred acres could provide housing for over 2,600 people.

Count is not perfect as some clubs may have multiple courses, and some courses are only 9 or 12 holes. As cities vary by size and density, this count is not the final word on an urban golf index. Help check our count by looking at the source data here.

Yet San Francisco is not exceptional. As the above chart shows, all of America’s large, densely populated cities have a significant number of golf courses. And if one includes courses just outside city limits in areas that are home to significant numbers of people who work and socialize in those cities, the number rises significantly. At a time when America’s wealthiest and most dynamic cities are so starved for space that low income residents are being pushed out, why are these cities home to so many golf courses?

Don’t Blame the Monopoly Man

This author’s look at how golf courses became prevalent in San Francisco, where Priceonomics is located, revealed a few answers — none of them shady deals that gave land to golf course developers instead of subsidized housing.

One simple reason for the prevalence of golf courses in such a dense city is simple inertia. Only two San Francisco golf courses were built after World War II; the rest were all originally constructed in the 19th or early 20th century in parts of San Francisco still being developed out of sand dunes. In 1895, for example, civilians received permission from the military to build the Presidio Golf Course on what was then an isolated military base. When two private clubs bought land for golf courses around Lake Merced in the 1920s, San Francisco’s population was 500,000 (compared to 825,000 today) and the lake mostly farmland and coastal military installations.

But the key to understanding San Francisco’s abundance of golf courses is noting that of its nine golf courses and clubs, the majority are public. The Recreation and Parks Department manages five courses (plus one more in nearby Pacifica), and while the Presidio Golf Club is private, it is located on public land and is open to the public.

So, San Francisco is not full of golf courses because made men shell out to play golf on America’s most valuable real estate. (After all, wealthy San Franciscans have nice cars they can drive to other courses.) Rather, San Francisco is full of golf courses because the city decided to devote green space to golf. As a result, playing 18 holes a few miles from downtown is relatively affordable; prices at the city’s public courses range from $22 to $66 for a resident. Writing about a group playing 18 holes at one public golf course, an SF Weekly journalist describes them as “a semiretired bookkeeper who plays in a blues band… a retired Oakland International Airport manager, and a construction foreman.”

A public affairs official at the Parks Department did not return our request for comment at the time of publication, but we can deduce a few reasons why San Francisco manages so many golf courses.

One is that golfers are a large and particularly vocal group. Before Parks and Rec makes any changes to a park, it seeks public comment. A 2008 report on San Francisco’s public golf courses estimated the number of city resident golfers at 81,050 (pdf), and those golfers seem to follow a national trend in which golfers have higher-than-average incomes and therefore more often mobilize to protect their interests. When the city hosted debate over changes to its golf courses in 2008, a blog post urged soccer players to attend meetings and demand more fields noting, “Only two people from our large and growing soccer community have attended the past meetings, while 80+ golfers made their voices heard.” This is especially true when wealthy families live across from a golf course and don’t take kindly to the idea of a neighboring course turning into a soccer field or events center.

Although we did not track down evidence of this as a motivating factor in San Francisco, one factor that has historically led towns and cities to build public golf courses is to generate revenue. In Landscape Architecture Magazine, Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue write that golfing advocates could argue that golf courses were “a worthwhile public investment that subsidized a system’s other parks through green fees.” People can’t picnic or jog through public golf courses like they would other urban, green spaces; building golf courses in city parks essentially allows cash-constrained cities to cheat by building cash generating businesses and classifying it as public green space. Or, more generously, courses support the system by generating revenue for parks that everyone can use.

The $3 Million Golf Subsidy

The only problem is that for years, especially in San Francisco, public golf courses have drained the city’s coffers rather than replenished them. The aforementioned study, conducted by a consulting company hired by the city in response to criticism, noted that the city subsidized golf by $1.5 million a year. That was in 2008, and without policy changes, the report estimated that subsidy to increase to $3 million. It’s unclear whether that $3 million understates the subsidy by failing to include multimillion dollar course renovations.

San Francisco’s courses face the same problems that have hit golf courses across the country. In step with the real estate boom, America saw a surge of interest in golf and the building of many new courses. Between the recession and a bubble created by too much enthusiasm in the financial prospects of golf clubs, however, many courses aren’t getting that many golfers. As of 2008, only one of the courses managed by SF Park and Rec operated over 50% capacity. Public courses across the country are similarly under capacity and losingmoney.

The consultants’ report concluded that San Francisco’s public golf courses are poorly managed (they operate under several management models, but most are publicly run), and that they could earn the city money if leased to private management under 10-15 year contracts. Some local press responded that similar outsourcing arrangements failed to significantly increase profits when tried elsewhere; others dislike that private management would fire the current public employees and hire seasonal workers at lower wages. Most problematic is the fact that the report imagines private management investing millions to improve the courses so that they can compete with private ones. Large renovations would be funded with higher rates, which would make the courses expensive to use and a truly inaccessible part of the park system.

Should We Care?

San Francisco’s golf courses occupy over 700 acres of land, which equates to more than 2% of the real estate in a city with a high-profile anti-eviction and anti-gentrification movement where the building of any new building is bitterly contested.

But the city’s public golf courses could not be swapped out for condos or subsidized housing. Despite the seeming incongruence, San Francisco’s golf courses, which are mostly public and located in city parks, seem more relevant to battles over the use of green space than gentrification battles. The courses’ opponents are joggers, community gardeners, and soccer parents who want to transform public golf courses into jogging paths, vegetable patches, and playing fields.

To the extent that the surprising prevalence of golf courses in San Francisco has relevance to the city’s debates over gentrification, it’s likely as a reminder that the city’s small, constrained size — a commonly cited culprit for high rent prices — is not to blame. If San Francisco had the same population density as Manhattan, it could be home to around 3 million residents instead of its current 800,000. But in order to protect San Francisco from change, its residents have consistently voted for zoning laws that prevent developers from building taller commercial and residential buildings — even downtown. Similarly, a great public transport system could allow people to enjoy San Francisco’s employment opportunities and cultural capital while living outside the city limits, but the Bay Area Transport system has not “had a significant upgrade in San Francisco since 1976.”

All the rage over San Francisco’s rent prices and gentrification has failed to notice that 2% of its real estate is taken up by golf courses. That could be an oversight, but more likely it’s a fact that calls attention to what really matters in making the city more affordable.

Top 100 Courses: #55 Garden City G.C.

Continuing with our series from The Itinerant Golfer’s quest to play all top 100 American golf courses, The Scratch Pad is glad to bring you a profile of the 55th rated golf course in America, Garden City G.C, New York.


Architect: Devereux Emmet
Year: 1899
315 Stewart Avenue , Garden City, New York 11530
(516) 746-8360
– driving range available
– walking only
– caddies available

Today I’ll be playing at Garden City Golf Club. Garden City is just a little over 20 miles from LaGuardia, but the route is mostly through business and residential areas so it was a good 35-40 minutes before I pulled into town.

Once I pulled up to the club and parked I did something that I’ve never done before at any other golf club I’ve visited. I stepped out of my car and put on my blue blazer. Upon arrival at Garden City Golf Club all members and guests must be wearing a jacket and leather shoes. Having a jacket rule for entrance to the clubhouse during evening hours is not uncommon, but I’m not aware of any other club in the U.S. where it is a requirement all day long. Since I would be wearing a jacket I also wore long pants to complete the ensemble and brought my golf shorts in a bag so I could change in the locker room. I found it rather humorous how easy it was to tell the difference between the members and the guests. The guests seemed to have all arrived like me, wearing slacks to go with their jackets. The members, on the other hand, were clearly more comfortable with this unique piece of club culture and were walking around in their jackets with short pants and loafers. I loved it!

Garden City Golf Club was founded in 1899 and throughout its 111 year history has always been a golf club exclusively for men. The course was originally designed by Devereux Emmet, and then redesigned in the 1900s by the great amateur golfer Walter Travis. Travis was a founding member of Garden City Golf Club and in addition to having a hand in the design of the course he is very much a large part of the club’s history. There is a wonderful biography about this great golfer entitled The Old Man. If you are interested you can pick up a copy here.

As you would expect of a club established in the 19th century, Garden City Golf Club has a rich tournament history having been host to six events put on by the U.S.G.A. There was the 1902 U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur in 1900, 1908, 1913 and 1936 and finally the Walker Cup in 1924. These days the only event held at Garden City Golf Club is the Travis Invitational which is one of the premier Mid-Amateur events in the U.S.

We elected to play the Championship tees which play to a par of 73 and a yardage of 6,911. Although this is the longest tee option on the scorecard, players who want to stretch it all the way out can move back and play the plates which give just a little bit more added length.

The photo below was taken on the first tee which is a friendly starting hole of a mere 302 yards with a par of 4. Bombing driver is an option, but I think the smarter play is a nice little 200 yard shot to the left side of the fairway.

The fairway on the first hole is a split fairway of sorts. If hitting a shorter shot the line is to take it down the left hand side. You can see the ball lying there in the fairway in the photos below. If hitting driver its better to play to the right side of the hole and have you ball land in the other part of the fairway. David hit driver here and you can see him in the white shirt up around the green. That is near where his ball landed.

The 2nd hole is a par 3 that plays 137 yards over a small valley. There are plenty of bunkers and long grass to cause problems for tee shots that come up short. The photo below was taken from the green looking back towards the tee box. This is the only par 3 on the the first nine holes.

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20 Interesting Tee Markers

It’s true that anything small in sports can be branded. In Golf, tee markers are no exceptions. But this form of advertising is cute and not annoying – go through the below list of some interesting tee markers we came across.

Tee markers at the John Deere Classic

Hyundai Classic

Coca-Cola tee markers at The Tour Championship in Atlanta

Friendly's Classic (1995), Crestview C.C., Agawam, Mass

Tee markers at the FedEx St. Jude Classic

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Top 100 Courses: #16 Chicago Golf Club

Continuing with our series from the The Itinerant Golfer’s quest to play all top 100 American golf courses, The Scratch Pad is glad to bring you a profile of the 15th in the list – Chicago Golf Club.

Architect: C.B. MacDonald / Seth Raynor
Year: 1894 / 1923

25W253 Warrenville Road
Wheaton, Illinois 60189
(630) 665-2988

– Course Access: Private
– Driving range available
– Motorized golf carts and caddies available
– On-site accommodations
– U.S. Open – 1897, 1900, 1911

So why is the Chicago Golf Club one of the most important clubs in America you ask? Where shall we start? Lets see, for starters it was the first 18 hole golf course in North America and the club that established the modern Out of Bounds rule. Next, you have that the club was founded by the first US Amateur champion and de facto father of American golf, Mr. Charles Blair Macdonald. If any more evidence of the clubs importance were necessary, you can make note that Chicago Golf Club is one of the original five clubs that founded the USGA in 1894. If you’re looking for a place that has had a profound impact on golf in America, look no further than Wheaton, Illinois and the Chicago Golf Club.

And why has the golfing public at large never heard of this clearly significant and important club? Well, there are just 125 members and a great many of them play their primary golf at other clubs in the area. This results in very, very little play at Chicago Golf Club. The lack of play also means that guest invites are terribly rare, and truly something to be cherished by the lucky golfers who receive one. When I started the Top 100 quest back in 2007 I identified Chicago Golf Club as one of the five courses that may keep me from completing the quest. Everything I learned over the next three years confirmed that my fears were indeed well founded. In short, getting a chance to play Chicago Golf Club may be as likely as getting struck by lightning.

When the day arrived and I pulled into the driveway at Chicago Golf Club I was pretty excited. After parking my car I went into the locker room to change my shoes and have a look around. The first thing I noticed in the locker room were the cool subway tiled walls which were very popular in the late 1800s/early 1900s and the old metal lockers found at many of the great clubs from this era. I love a locker room with a vintage vibe so I had a good feeling about this place immediately. As would be expected the walls were adorned with golf memorabilia from the club’s history including one of the five original signed documents incorporating the USGA. It was pretty neat to see this important golf document and C.B. Macdonald’s bold signature in the flesh.

Before we tee off so to speak, I’ll give a very brief history of the course itself. Chicago Golf Club was founded in 1892 and at the time was located in Downers Grove, Illinois on Belmont Avenue. In early 1894 the club moved to the current location and C.B. Macdonald laid out the first 18 hole golf course in the United States. As years went by Macdonald felt that the technology of the game was advancing beyond the golf course he had created and it was necessary to redesign the course. He requested his protegee, Seth Raynor, do the work and in 1923 a new course was born. Raynor’s revisions and changes along with a handful of Macdonald’s original holes is the course that remains today.

As we prepared to start our game and discussed the tee selection there was not really much of a decision necessary as far as I was concerned. The back tees played 6,846 yards which on a par 70 course is a pretty serious test. We elected for the considerably more manageable 6,571 yard white tees.

The 1st hole is a 450 yard par 4 and is absolutely not your typical warm up starting hole. The golfer needs to be at ready from the start when teeing it up here. The photo below was taken from the tee and the best line of play is up the right side of the hole as the fairway falls off to the left.

The photo below is where I hit my approach shot from (the rough of course). I was still a good 200 yards out.

The 2nd hole, pictured below, is Raynor’s version of the Road Hole at St. Andrews. This one plays 440 yards from the white tees. Anything in the middle is just great here. The approach shot will be another long one.

The photo below is of the approach shot on the 2nd hole. Note the Road Hole bunker at the front left.
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Top 100 Courses: #25 Prairie Dunes Country Club

Continuing with our series from The Itinerant Golfer’s quest to play all top 100 American golf courses, The Scratch Pad is glad to bring you a profile of the 25th rated golf course in America, Prairie Dunes CC. Click here for other entries on this series click.

Location: Hutchinson, KS
Architect: Perry Maxwell/Press Maxwell
Year Constructed: 1937/1957
Played: October 9, 2010

Prairie Dunes perennially ranks in the Top 25 courses in the US and is a bit of a ‘hidden gem’ among golf nerds . . . well, as much of a hidden gem as you can be when you’re listed in the Top 25 every year.

Because of the golf course’s high ranking on most of the major lists, Prairie Dunes enjoys a very robust non-resident membership, creating an interesting dynamic at the club. On one hand you’ve got your local families who use the club for tennis, golf and swimming and on the other hand you’ve got your hard core golf aficionado crowd with their Pine ValleyCypress Point and National Golf Links logos bringing in groups of their friends on golf trips. I have to believe there are a number of local members who must scratch their heads and think “why on earth did this guy from New York City join our little club??” I also have to believe that the board of directors meetings get pretty interesting with two distinctly different member groups to serve – each of whom have a different set of needs.

The golf course at Prairie Dunes Country Club has quite an interesting story to it. Perry Maxwell was the first architect on the site who, in 1937, laid out the original nine hole course. The course remained this way for twenty years until his son, Press Maxwell, came along in 1957 to add nine more holes and make a full eighteen hole course. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as just adding holes 10-18 to complete the course. The land that Press wanted to work with didn’t allow him to keep the original number sequence for the first nine holes so he ended up having to do a little renumbering. The original nine holes play today as 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17, 18.

At first glance Prairie Dunes doesn’t appear terribly long but it only plays to a par of 70 so the tips that play 6,759 yards are a little longer than they appear. Since it was our first trip around the course we decided to play the 6,153 yard white tees which had a rating of 71.2. That rating translates to 1.2 strokes over par for a scratch golfer and is usually a sign that a course will play fairly tough.

The photo below was taken at the 1st tee. The first hole is a dogleg to the left that played 401 yards from the white tees. If you get too cute and try to go too far to the left there is a ton of rough over there waiting for your ball to nestle down into it. Take note of the brown native grass lining the hole. Out in Kansas they call this “gunsch” and it will swallow a golf ball up just as quick as water does.

The approach to the 1st green is pictured below. It takes a pretty lengthy and well placed drive to have a short iron into the green. Most of the guys in our group were hitting mid or long irons in.

Below is a closer look at the green. It really can’t be seen in this photo but this was a pretty severe green and could be very penal if your ball ends up in the wrong spot.

The 2nd hole is a fairly short par 3 that plays 142 yards from the white tees. The green sits at the top of a hill so a little extra club is necessary. The photo below was taken from the tee.
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Top 10 Most Expensive Courses

It’s a golfers dream to play at the best places in the world. Though “best” does not always line up with “most expensive”, here is a list of courses that can leave a hole in your wallet, but will surely find a spot in your bucket list.

1. Shadow Creek Golf Course – Nevada, U.S.A. ($500 per person, per round)

2. Pebble Beach Golf Links – California, U.S.A. ($475 per person, per round)

3. Old Head Golf Links – County Cork, Ireland ($400 per person, per round)

4. The Pinehurst Course Number 2 – North Carolina, USA ($375 per person, per round)

5. TPC Sawgrass – Florida, USA ($350 per person, per round)

6. The Ocean Course – South Carolina, U.S.A. ($320 per person, per round)

7. The Spyglass Hill Golf Course – California, U.S.A. ($315 per person, per round)

8. Kingsbarns Golf Links – St. Andrews, Scotland ($300 per person, per round)

9. Whistling Straits – Wisconsin, U.S.A. ($300 per person, per round)

10. The Barton Creek Foothill and Canyon Golf Club – Texas, U.S.A. ($298 per person, per round)

~ If you are fortunate to play any of these courses, you deserve the bragging rights and make your fellow golfers jealous of you. To help you, at MyScorecard we give badges if you’ve played some of these courses.

~ Do you also know you can track the amount you spend on greens every year? – Just go to “change / add” under “Optional Statistics”, click on any available drop downs (you can track a maximum of 10 statistics) and select “Green Fees”.

Top 100 Courses: #17 Oak Hill Country Club (East Course)

Location: Rochester, NY
Architect: Donald Ross
Year Constructed: 1925
Played: September 23, 2008

Sometimes I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. The day I played Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course was one of those days. Here I was playing golf at one of the world’s great courses on a day with PERFECT weather and with fantastic playing companions. On top of all that I was playing pretty well! I felt so good and relaxed that I forgot all about every other thing going on in my life and in the world for those 4 hours. The day ended up being exactly the type of escape that golf is supposed to be.

Once you pass through the main entrance to the club you drive for what feels like quite a ways down a road with golf holes lining the left hand side. After what seemed like an eternity I finally got my first glimpse of the clubhouse, a grand old tudor building with a cool slate roof. Inside it is HUGE (69,000 square feet) and has everything you would expect a clubhouse to have . . . including 8 lanes of bowling!

The Head Pro at Oak Hill is none other than Craig Harmon. Craig Harmon is the son of Claude Harmon who happens to be the 1948 Masters Champion and the last club pro to ever win a major title. Also of note is Craig’s brother, Butch Harmon, who coached Tiger Woods during his 34 month hot streak where he took home seven major titles. If there were golf royalty in America, they would surely have the last name Harmon.

A couple of noteworthy things about the course. Donald Ross did the original routing and layout of both the East and West Courses in 1925. The East Course is the tournament course and has hosted numerous USGA and PGA events including The Ryder Cup, US Open, Senior US Open, US Amateur, PGA Championship and Senior PGA Championship. In 2013 the PGA Championship will be returning to Oak Hill for the 3rd time. No other club has hosted this many majors.

We played the white tees which are set up to play just over 6500 yards. The blues played 6900 and the blacks (where the pros play from) were stretched out to 7150.

The 1st hole is a fairly long par 4 at 433 yards. Below is a photo of the approach to the green. There is a creek running across the fairway about 80 yards out from the center of the green. The drive is at a tricky angle and for the second shot players need to hit a mid to long iron over the water. Not an easy starting hole. Even Ben Hogan once stated it was the hardest starting hole in golf.

Below is a photo of the 2nd green. At 361 yards this is a relatively short par 4 to an uphill green.

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Top 100 Courses: #1 Pine Valley Golf Club

Continuing with our series from the The Itinerant Golfer’s quest to play all top 100 American golf courses, The Scratch Pad is glad to bring you a profile of the 1st and the top most rated golf course in America, Pine Valley Golf Club.

Pine Valley Golf Club

Location: Pine Valley, NJ  Architect: George Crump & H.S. Colt  Year Constructed: 1918 Played: August 14, 2008

It was surprising to me in the weeks leading up to my trip to Pine Valley Golf Club how many golfers I ran across who were not familiar with the club. The most common question I get these days from my golf friends is “Where are you off to next?” When I would respond with “Pine Valley” more often than not I would receive a blank stare and the question “Where is that one?”

To answer that question once and for all, Pine Valley is in Clementon, New Jersey right outside of Philadelphia and it is, at the time of this writing, not only the #1 course in America, but also the #1 course in the World. Because there has never been a PGA tournament held at Pine Valley the course is little known outside of golf course fanatics and aficionados. Among those who know the course it is widely considered the greatest test of golf on the planet. The course is a par 70 and plays to a rating of 72.7 and a slope of 153 from the member tees. For those of you following along at home, that not only makes it the #1 course in the World, but those slope and rating numbers also mean it is the hardest course in the World as well. Lets make that the greatest and most fearsome test in golf.

Pine Valley is so hard there are legendary stories about the course. Some certainly are true and some are probably just urban legend. Some of my favorites are the player who went out in 38 on the first nine and then took a 38 on the 10th hole; Professional Gene Littler’s 7 on the par 3 5th hole during Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match in 1963; British writer Bernard Darwin who played the first 7 holes in even par and then after hitting a nice drive to the middle of the fairway on the 8th took a 16 for the hole. Continue reading