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Fairways to Heaven

Backyard Golf Course Owners Find There's No Place Like Home
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Close your eyes and try to imagine golf heaven. You do not need a tee time. There are no green fees. There is never a group in front of you when you are ready to hit. If you do not like your shot, just drop another ball. There is no hurry, because nobody is behind you.

This fantasy is becoming a reality for more and more individuals who own their own golf courses. From a bent grass putting green to a full-blown 18-hole layout, you can build a little bit of golf heaven right here on earth, in your own backyard. Across the country, traditional home recreation facilities like tennis courts and swimming pools are giving way to tee boxes and greens ringed with bunkers. Gardeners who once tended flower beds are now trimming Bermuda grass, all so we can play more golf.

Reclusive real estate magnate Edward S. Gordon made headlines when he built his own nine-hole course on New York's Long Island. Casino owner Steve Wynn's Shadow Creek is not only a full-scale 18-hole layout, but the course, designed by the legendary Tom Fazio, is considered one of the best in the country. (See sidebar, page 367.) Montana's Dennis Washington, who made his millions in the mining industry, used the firm of Robert Trent Jones Jr. when he added a nine-hole course to his fishing lodge in British Columbia.

Once you've made the investment and had the work done, your biggest problem, as one New York businessman who owns his own course pointed out, is deciding whether to play at home or join the boys at the club.

While only a handful of individuals can afford the cost of a full-sized golf course, which the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) estimates runs between $1.6 million and $4.5 million, almost every golf fanatic who has enough land can put a little bit of paradise on his property. Many individuals choose to put in one full-sized hole, usually a par 3 or 4, that they can play at their leisure. Others invest in just a green, along with some sand traps, so they can practice their short game by pitching to the green from different spots on their lawn. For those who want to play an entire round, but have limited space and resources, multiple tee boxes can be used with each green. This way, three greens can be played from different directions to create nine distinct golfing experiences.

Most home golf course owners keep a low profile regarding their backyard investments--presumably because they don't want to broadcast what might seem like wretched excess or they simply don't want the rest of the world showing up to play on their private links--but the architects who delight in these projects are not as shy.

"It's a novelty, and a hell of a conversation piece," says Peter J. Fazio, Tom Fazio's cousin and owner of Fazio Golf Green Design in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "I started looking at the home market about two years ago. I did a green with two bunkers, with a tee at 135 yards and another at 160, for a friend of mine who had about five acres. He was a scratch golfer who had gone up to about a seven and was trying to get back down."

Carter Morrish, a golf course designer who works with his father, the renowned Jay Morrish, recalls a project he did in 1992 in Malibu for a man named Bill O'Connor. "He had about 17 acres, but only seven were useable," says Morrish. "He was building a house, and he had me put in four par-3 holes, each with two sets of tees, all on about two acres. It was a neat project."

Another designer, Edmund Hollander, has also left his imprint on backyard golf. "We have done everything from an individual hole, a green with sand traps around it and a tee, to another job where we put in four good-sized greens, with a pond, and eight tees, so there's a lot of back-and-forth play," says Hollander, a landscape architect who has designed several personal golf layouts of varying size in the New York metropolitan area.

Costs can range from tens of thousands of dollars for one hole, to millions for 18 holes, according to the owner's ambition. Creating fairways can mean moving earth, building contours, planning for irrigation and planting golf course grass, or you can simply cut the grass on your lawn short between tee and green. On par 3s, you can forgo the fairways altogether. Each green can have its own tee, or can be played from several directions. The one element where there isn't much room for skimping is the construction of the green.

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