The golfer who can best negotiate the lightning-fast greens of Bethpage Black during this week's U.S. Open will probably be in the final pairing on Sunday.
But how do officials measure that speed to ensure it's fast enough to challenge the best players but consistent enough to be fair?
Introducing the Stimpmeter, a rudimentary 3-foot-long contraption that calculates how far a ball rolls when released from a fixed angle and altitude. The farther it rolls, the slicker the green.
"The greens are the thing we spend the most time on of anything," said Craig Currier, the Bethpage State Park superintendent who oversees the Black Course's conditioning.
In preparation for this week's Open, the ideal of "consistency" among all of the 18 greens comes up, again and again. Among golf experts, it's revered the same way others mention "motherhood," "money in the bank" and "the Holy Grail."
"You strive for consistency as much as you can," said James T. Snow, national director for the greens section of the U.S. Golf Association.
"You want to challenge the great players without being unreasonable."
The Stimpmeter makes that possible.
Developed by a Massachusetts amateur champion named Edward Stimpson Sr. in the 1930s, it's been measuring green speeds at U.S. Opens since 1978. The device looks like a long metal ruler with grooved edges and a notch near the top of it where a golf ball is placed. When the top end of the Stimpmeter is raised off the ground, gravity pulls the golf ball out of the notch and sends it trickling onto the green where crews measure the distance that the ball rolls away.
Usually, the Black Course greens, mowed to one-eighth-inch tall, will measure 10 feet off the Stimpmeter. But at the Open, with the carpetlike greens shaved even closer to about one-tenth-inch tall, the ball rolling off the Stimpmeter will travel between 13 and 15 feet, Currier said.
The Black Course has a reputation for faster greens than some other major courses played with greens running around a 11 or 12 on the Stimpmeter. For example, at the January 2008 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Desert, Calif., the greens averaged 10.56 feet on the device, records show.
USGA officials this year are using a second device to test the firmness of the greens.
The TruFirm system, which lists for $7,650, is similar to dropping a hammer on your lawn. Only in this case, a handheld computer checks on the exact measure of the dent in the green and tells you its firmness, and whether to water the lawn to soften it up.
Snow said this new TruFirm device is particularly helpful in avoiding the putting conditions that players faced in 2004 during the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, a private course in Southampton, when hot, dry and windy weather conditions made the greens too hard and well-placed shots fell off the green. "Now we could prevent that from happening, from having the ball bounce away," explained Snow, whose technical staff developed the new TruFirm system.
During this year's U.S. Open, the Beth- page crews will plunk down the TruFirm device twice a day, morning and evening, in the front, middle and back of each green on the Black Course's 18 holes.
If the greens are too quick, crews will irrigate them to slow their pace down. If it rains, however, there's not much crews can do to speed them up and they must rely on the sandy soil beneath the greens to drain the moisture.