Stop cutting grass! Put in a backyard putting green

Probably every avid golfer at one time or another has thought about turning their backyard into a huge putting green but just a little research will quickly kibosh that idea. The cost of proper drainage, grass seed and fertilizer, cutting trees for air and sunlight, the daily maintenance, the annual prep for winter – that should be enough to deter most of us from even starting the project.

If you’re lucky enough to live beside a golf course and can hop the fence occasionally in the evening, maybe that’s a decent option, although not one to endear you to the owner or superintendent. However, there is a better alternative that’s surprisingly affordable and won’t get you arrested for trespassing.

Consider a synthetic grass green.

They can be installed almost anywhere, can be designed to suit your preferences and don’t require much maintenance. Best of all, you can putt or chip any time you want, even in winter.

To find out more about synthetic greens, we turned to Scott Smockum, the General Manager of Synthetic Turf International. Scott grew up in Barrie, Ontario but is now based in Kelowna, B.C.

Scott, building backyard putting greens looks pretty cool. Tell us how you got started in the business.

I was 25 years old and managing the full reconstruction of a golf course called Blue Mountain in Phuket, Thailand, which is a very prestigious golf course in the area. I was approached by many wealthy foreigners asking me to build them private golf greens. I would do the design work and say, here’s what it’s going to cost to build it.  They would be fine with the initial cost but when I told them the yearly cost to properly maintain it, that’s where I lost 100% of them.  So, I did some research and found a synthetic turf manufacturer that was focused on golf related products and kept that information if the client was looking for an alternative.

Scott Smockum

After I came back to Canada, I was working on two of Tom McBroom’s new courses in the Kelowna area, Tobiano and Tower Ranch. I had a little cabin at the top of the hill above Tower Ranch. Just the most beautiful view. Anyway, I went back to the synthetic turf company; we had a great relationship and I thought, “Hey, I’m going to build high-end synthetic golf greens for clients in Kelowna.” I wasn’t sure where the business could go, I was just trying to justify living here for another year or two, and then probably go back to Toronto.

Since then the business has just exploded. Our original turf supplier was bought out and merged with another turf manufacturer that was known for producing high quality lawn and landscape turfs. I didn’t have just five golf turfs that were pretty good, now I had 30 products to choose from.

We started doing people’s backyards. And I remember everybody at that time thought I was nuts. “What are you doing talking about synthetic grass and lawns?” But it quickly became pretty popular out here. Certainly, at the time, Western Canada was far more open to synthetic lawns and greens than Eastern Canada. California, Arizona, the US Southwest are big into it.  All of the Snowbirds from BC and Alberta go to Palm Springs or Arizona. They go there and they see it, and they bring the acceptance of it back to BC.

BC and Alberta were quick on the adoption of synthetic grass. From there, I approached my manufacturer and said, “You guys have no traction in Canada. I’ve got contacts across the country. How about I become the Canadian rep for your products?” I knew they viewed Canada as the 58th state, just some piddly thing up here, and they said, “Sure kid, we’ll work with you.”

That was 12 or 13 years ago and every year, slowly and selectively, we’ve been building the distributor network for Synthetic Turf International across Canada.  I help train new dealers, set them up, trouble shoot and then get them going.  Now we have over 20 dealers across Canada that are solely focused on selling and installing synthetic turf.

And it’s not just synthetic lawns and putting greens either. We have a commercial side that handles all kinds of turf for concerts, stadiums and trade shows. Of course, there are also our specialty projects like playgrounds, dog facilities, indoor arenas and sports fields, even sports facilities in the Arctic. These projects can take a long time, sometimes several years from design to installation, but these are the really fun ones, and very intrinsically rewarding.

Coming back to golf, Scott, is there a typical backyard green complex that you would build in terms of size or cost?

Most are in the 500 to 800 square foot range. Something like 15’x25’ with four holes is the common backyard recipe that I see more times than not. With a few feet of fringe around it, that’s 500 square feet. At that range, you’re probably looking at $5,000 to $10,000 for a pretty usable putting surface. About the same as a hot tub. It may sound like a lot of money, but constantly, one of my favorite things to hear is it got the kids out of the house, they play on the putting green far more than they play on the PlayStation.

Installation on the roof of the garage

That actually means a lot to me. Just having the kids outside, it’s amazing to see. I’ve got a very, very little one myself and my sister has two little ones that are a year and a half and three. And to see them kind of hockey stick the ball around the hole nightly is fun to watch and it’s great for their hand-eye coordination. It’s nice to see them engaging in something that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

So many times I’ve heard of parents being surprised at how much their kids use it. Perhaps not like a pool table where they use it for the first week, and then it becomes a bench, or a shelf, or storage. More times than not, people continually use it, especially if they have company. It’s just a fun thing to have.  The lifespan of them is every bit of 10 years minimum but if you take care of it with minor maintenance you could push it to 20.

One of my first clients was my old roommate in university. He lives in Kincardine and is a total golf nut. We built him a small replica of the 12th green at Augusta. It’s every bit of 12 years old and looks exactly the same today as it did when we put it in even though they get heavy winter and he and his four kids are always playing around and chipping on it.

Augusta National #12

We’ve also done some very high-end projects. Probably my favorite one to date was done close to Uxbridge, right behind Coppinwood.  It was an absolute massive, beautiful backyard, a synthetic oasis. I mean, it was well over $100,000 to do the shaping, the design, the bunkers, but it was a pretty special project.

This client is just obsessed with golf and his impressive backyard displays this perfectly.   We did this one last July and I came back to help our STI of Toronto team with the project. It was a lot of earth work, a lot of shaping and had a huge difference in elevation over 20’. The green is over 2,000 square feet and then another 4,000 square feet of fringe and rough and bunkers. The total was over 6,000 square feet.

His whole thing was, “I want to replicate every shot. I want a thick rough for downhill lie to a downhill pin, I want a tight lie on a slope, I want an uneven stance.  I want a short pin and a false edge.” He wanted everything he could possibly face at any course.  Designing and shaping that was a lot of fun for me – drawing on my old construction and building experience but creating every shot possible within the constraints of his yard, it worked out great!

When you speak of deep rough and shallow rough, are those synthetic as well, or is that natural grass?

No, of course, all synthetic. I think there was six or seven different products there. We had a putting surface, we had a fringe, we had a second cut, we had a rough, we had bunkers, and then we had a few areas of deep rough, which is two-and-a-half-inch synthetic turf.

He gave me a beautiful budget and said, “Just go. Tell me what you need. Make it as best as you can.” Whenever you get the clients full trust and an opportunity like that, it’s a designer’s dream.   So, I certainly enjoyed building that one.

Last year we heard about a COVID bump, maybe one of the few positive side effects of the pandemic., Companies that sell SeaDoos and swimming pools and just about any other thing to do with home improvement had a huge bump because of COVID. People weren’t traveling. They weren’t eating out and consequently had a lot more money to spend. Did you guys see a similar kind of bump last year?

The end result was yes, we did. It was bittersweet. We do a lot of trade show flooring and event flooring.  None of that was happening last year so, we lost on our commercial side.  The residential was substantially higher and that superseded the decline in commercial, just because our dealer network is so strong.  Most of our guys deal with residential only.

We’re probably not a lot different than anybody in the home improvement business. We all had a good run in 2020. Whether you’re Home Depot, the Sea-Doo guys or selling boats or hot tubs – anything to improve your home or stay busy at home, absolutely has been an uptick.

For someone looking to purchase a backyard putting green, what are the key things to look for?

It really starts with design. A small flat green is fairly simple but one like the design in Uxbridge is quite complex. Once you’ve nailed down the design and contours that will fit your areas, then it’s all about material and installation. Our products are certainly one of the higher qualities.  More that 15 years down the road, and I know our products still look great especially compared to some of the cheaper products on the market. Everything looks good in a little sample but after three or four years is when the truth comes out. Some products may start to streak.  Some products start to mat down. Some products start to fade or straight up fall apart.  We’ve been doing this long enough that our reputation is holding up and the proof is right there in the ground to see.

Beautiful backyard oasis

That high quality is crucial to the installation as well. The tolerance and manufacturing is so good. Our products are consistent, consistent, consistent and that saves time on the installation. You get a better, quicker install, and guys are starting to see that. Many of our dealers were former landscapers and synthetic grass was pretty new to them. It’s still a very, very new industry.  So, I often say it’s like trying to sell a Mercedes when people are just understanding what a Model T Ford is. They just wrapped their head around the fact that they’re using synthetic grass, now they have to understand different manufacturers and qualities too.

Quality shows up in other ways as well. The education, training and think tank available to our team is immense.  We never want to go back to do any repairs or make errors which is why it is important that our installers are the best and they take the time and do it right the first time.  Designing, shaping, cutting and gluing, brooming, there are so many important layers to an install, every step is only as good as the last, it’s so critical to get it right.

I can say all the installers I’ve worked with on our team have been fantastic at doing that exact job where it’s one and done, and that would be it. Usually, if we ever have to go back, it’s because the client wanted more turf, which is always a good situation.

Cost wise, we’re usually a bit more than other quotes, maybe 10% if I were to guess, but our products are premium, and we know what it takes to install them correctly.   You can take a great product and destroy the project with a bad install, and vice versa.  These are long-term installs, everything has to be aligned on a quality scale, whether it be the service, the knowledge, the installation and the product. As soon as you drop one of those, the house of cards all comes crumbling down.

So, all of them certainly need to align at the price point that we’re selling. If you want quality, if you want the best, consider us, for sure. Twenty years down the road, you’re going to be glad you chose Synthetic Turf International.

Click HERE for more information on Synthetic Turf International.

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

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