Frank Hannigan on the Stimpmeter and Slope
Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan read today's website quote and filed this letter to help pass the time during the PGA opening round.
This is to extol the statement by former Curtis Cup player Alice Dye, whose husband Pete never made anything, that the Stimpmeter and Slope have been bad for golf.
I now explain how both happened as illustrations of how dangerous new ideas are to a 500 year old game. (See, more recently, the new groove rule by the USGA which is nothing but trouble.)
A Boston engineer and member of The Country Club, a Dr. Stimpson, inventor of the accused device, was not interested in green speed. He wanted a tool that would roll the ball perfectly. As I recall, his interest was in angle and the effect of hole locations.
The tool he produced was made of wood, lovingly crafted. It was gifted to the USGA where it fell under the eye of Al Radko, the USGA chief agronomist. Al, a lovely man who helped create the White House putting green, was smitten by the idea that golf course superintendents could use a precise method of determining if their greens were running the same speed.
He showed it to Frank Thomas, the USGA technical director, who quickly figured out a way to convert the wooden tool into a cheap metal object which they promptly named the Stimpmeter.
Radko sent copies to all the USGA agronomists scattered around the country. They showed superintendents how it might help them and, in the process, also measured the extent of roll. Pity.
They discovered that the average speed on American golf courses was slightly under seven. Mind, nobody at the time was saying that American golf was lousy because greens were too slow. What happened was that the thing became a speedometer with the likes of Oakmont putting up daily notices to the effect that their greens were running l0'6 that day, to which I say, so what.
The ensuing race, as Mrs. Dye noted, has become a primary status symbol. Much worse, it has made golf so much more costly because it costs a ton of money to produce greens with a Stimp speed of 11. And this: the faster the greens the slower the game.
The R&A knew better. We sent one of the things to secretary Michael Bonallack who tossed it in his closet and never looked at it again. Tell me now: are British Open greens, said to be 10 but actually 8ish, somehow superior to the Augusta greens in the sense of producing more interesting, more variable, more valid golf? Of course not.
Slope was the creation of one of my USGA employees, the estimable Dean Knuth, who dumped a little 800 on his math SATs and went on to pitch with his left arm for the US Naval Academy baseball team.
There is no denying the certainty of Dean's work. It is that the USGA handicap system faltered when the opponents came from courses of intrinsically different degrees of difficulty. Thus, a 9 handicapper from a ratty public course like Juniata outside Philadelphia, would get killed by a 9 handicapper from Pine Valley.
Dean Knuth changed all that mathematically with his Slope so that the guy from the muni would get four shots or so from the Pine Valley patrician. Very nice, but it again has led to a duel to achieve high slopes which means new bunkers and water hazards and more money to build and maintain. Moreover, I contend that golfers on their own figured out that the guy from Juniata needed help when he slammed up against the rich person from Pine Valley.
Dean Knuth may have been too smart for the USGA. Today he is in San Diego where he has an enormous responsibility determining how much of your money is spent on things that blow people up.
P.S. Don't tell Jim Gray where I live. I am too old to defend myself but I have a dog.