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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

(continued from page 1)

"For a [United States Golf Association] spec green, you're looking at $35,000 for 5,000 square feet," says Peter Fazio. "Most people don't need it. I can put in a green where you can hone your game and it would look aesthetically good for anywhere from $9,000 to $39,000. The bunkers and tees are not a big deal." USGA specifications are extremely detailed. They require substantial earth moving and layers of crushed stone that constitute a drainage system to move water away from the greens. Following these rigorous design and construction rules, which have been developed from decades of research and experience, will result in a true tour-style green, just like the pros play on. As golf architect Geoffrey S. Cornish wrote in his article "How To Build and Maintain A Putting Green," "When it has been properly designed and planted a golf green represents the final word in man's present knowledge of grass growing."

Because one of the design objectives behind the USGA procedures is the ability of a green to hold up under the traffic of hundreds of rounds per day, strict adherence to these construction rules may represent overkill. Regardless of how much you plan to practice your putting, few home greens will be subjected to that kind of abuse. Many home owners will be satisfied with a quality surface that falls short of USGA specifications.

"Most people are doing just greens, with a couple of bunkers and sand traps," says Hollander. "Fifteen thousand gets you a 1,500-square-foot green with a couple of sand traps. You can usually use the fill from the green for the bunkers. You can go with the real thing, or you can go with an imitation. You can never get synthetic to look like bent grass. On the other hand, you don't have to mow and maintain it."

Two main types of grass are used in putting green construction--bent grass and Bermuda--each of which comes in several varieties. Bent grass, which is usually considered the finest grass, is widely used throughout the northern half of the United States. In warmer climates, where the greens are used all through the year, hardy Bermuda grass is almost always used.

If building a golf course sounds expensive, it is nothing compared to the maintenance. The American Society of Golf Course Architects estimates that a full-sized course requires between $300,000 and $500,000 in maintenance costs annually, not including up-front equipment purchases of several hundred thousand dollars. Even the most modest backyard putting greens are costly to maintain, as they must be cut at least every other day, and sometimes every day, when in use. Regular lawn mowers will not do the trick, and specially designed models intended to cut grass as short as an eighth of an inch can cost $15,000 to $30,000.

"The maintenance is an enormous commitment," says Hollander, who estimates the upkeep for a green, traps and bunkers at $5,000 a year. "You'll probably spend more in three years maintaining it than you will pay to build it."

Peter Fazio concurs: "There are variations from A to Z. Most owners have yard people, and you can just mow down your native grass short for fairways. You can go to whatever extent you want, but what you don't want to do is get caught up in the maintenance. Any home owner who is going to put this in is not going to want to maintain it. Anyone who builds this probably belongs to a club, so go to your superintendent and arrange to have him help you out. The big investment is the mower, and you'll need fertilizer and irrigation as well."

Many putting green owners avoid the expense of buying a mower by hiring either a golf course superintendent or, in some communities, a landscaping firm that owns the special mower. However, bringing in a mower from the outside exposes your greens to diseases, which are a common scourge of golf courses. Getting rid of the problem and restoring the grass can be more costly than buying the mower in the first place.

A low-maintenance alternative to real grass is a synthetic green. While synthetics do not have the cachet of a real green, they offer many of the benefits with fewer headaches, and the technology has evolved to the point where few golfers can tell the difference in terms of performance. "Since we introduced this technology, there's been a shift in focus," says Irving Bookspan, founder of San Francisco-based Tour True Turf Technologies, a manufacturer of synthetic greens. "For a long time, people thought anything artificial was Astroturf. Now people are seeing that we have a surface that rolls true like bent grass."

In the past 11 years, Bookspan's company has installed hundreds of greens across the United States. One advantage of the synthetic is that you can install much smaller greens--as little as two hundred square feet--because they don't require the same extensive drainage systems as natural greens; you can even put them indoors. With synthetics, as with real grass, you can adjust the speed of the green to suit your needs by adding or removing the top dressing that fills in around the blades of synthetic grass. While synthetic greens are low maintenance, and for many applications more flexible than real grass, they still come with a hefty price tag, running $18 to $35 per square foot.

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