THE JOURNAL NEWS: LIFE & STYLE, Green Acres.
These days when Peter Ciccone needs a golf fix, he doesn't have to worry about tee times, crowded courses, pesky dress codes, or pushy foursomes rushing to play through.
In fact, if playing in pj's strikes his fancy, he can do that too. Since April, Ciccone has only to putter out the front door of his Port Chester home and into his graceful, lilac-bordered yard in order to chip and putt to his heart's content. His par 3 golf green features two tees, one at 80 yards, the other at 50 yards, and two snowy-white sand bunkers that add authenticity to the game. It's good to have a green of your own. A retired financial executive and self-described rabid golfer, Ciccone is one of a growing number of golf-infatuated homeowners who are transforming lawns into putting greens. And many of them are turning to Michael "Have Green Will Travel" Lehrer of Armonk to bring the beloved sport to their doorsteps. A modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Lehrer traverses the suburban terrain leaving little white triangular flags in his wake. Since 1996, when he founding his Bedford-based company, Home Green Advantage, he's installed about 150 personal putting greens. And while the beautifully landscaped greens and artistically sculpted bunkers may look like the latest suburban status symbol, Lehrer shakes his head emphatically. "They're really into golf," he says of his clients. (Though on several occasions, he's been hired by desperate golf widows eager to keep hubby at home.) Man on the mountain When it comes to lust for links, Lehrer knows whereof he speaks. In fact, he was a certified public accountant, number-crunching in Larchmont, when the golf bug bit. Big time. "It all began in Port Chester," explains Lehrer, who's been collecting sports memorabilia, including baseball cards and wooden-shafted golf clubs, since he was a student at Scarsdale High School. (He now has about 500 of the vintage clubs.) Lehrer says he was poking around a Port Chester junk shop in 1994 when he stumbled upon a mechanical Arnold Palmer Golf Game he played as a kid. Believing others would find the toy as intriguing as he did, Lehrer tracked down a supply of the games and created a company to sell them. Soon his Fairway to Heaven was branching out to golf attire for younger players. Then a strange thing happened on the way to the links. As he made the rounds of golf tournaments, where his shirts and caps sold well, Lehrer became more and more obsessed with the game. Next thing you know, he was building a 110-yard, par-3 green on his hilly Armonk property, with one tee mounted on a dramatic, rocky 65-foot bluff. A neighbor noticing his handiwork hired him on the spot. One green led to another. Gradually, Lehrer traded in his suits and ties for golf shorts and shirts, and Home Green Advantage went 24/7. There's a Web site, of course: www.homegreenadvantage.com. In addition to his home installations, Lehrer has created putting greens at the Metropolitan Golf Association in Elmsford, Chelsea Piers and the Fox News headquarters in Manhattan, and the Bank of Hawaii in Honolulu. He's now putting the finishing touches on a rooftop installation at River Place, an upscale residential complex on the Hudson River in Manhattan. "I've done golf greens from Montauk to Hawaii," he says. "From tee to shining tee." And all this is "just the tip of the iceberg," Lehrer adds. "Golf is big." Make that huge. According to the National Golf Foundation, 26.4 million golfers are now playing on 15, 743 U.S. courses. And the sport is growing like Tiger Woods fan clubs. Since 1986, the number of golfers has jumped 33 percent, while the first quarter of this year has been 20 new golf courses completed, and 98 course constructions begun. Home Green Advantage couldn't be better situated to tap into this golfing mania. With 887 golf courses --69 in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties-- New York is one of the five most golf-intensive states. The four factor Lehrer has just completed a new installation in Stamford , Conn. The homeowner and "aspiring gofer," who requested anonymity, transformed the unkempt back yard he called 'the wasteland" into a Pebble Beachesquee two-hole, six-tee minicourse that wraps around a scallop-edged pond fed by a waterfall. "I'm at an age when I have to make up for lost time," says the homeowner, who is the head of a Connecticut-based investment firm. Now he's looking forward to "quality practice in a sense setting. If you want success, you have to spend time, " he says. Like 95 percent of Lehrer's personal putting greens, the Stamford and Port Chester installations are made of synthetic turf -- a close cousin to Astro Turf -- that's infused with silica, a type of sand that allows shots to hold to the green. Various types of rollers are used to flatten the artificial grass until it mimics the performance characteristics of a natural green. Only an annual spiffing up is necessary to keep it in shape. The greens, which are built to USGA specifications, range in price from $3,000 to $4,000 for small installations to $100,000 for large jobs that require intricate excavations. An average green costs $10,000 to $15,000. As far as Ciccone is concerned, it's money well spent. His goal? "To lower my score dramatically," he says without hesitation. He's hoping to shave four to eight points off his low 80s game. The way to do that, he says, is by working on the short game - the putting and chipping that he can now do in his front yard. And Ciccone's neighbors need not worry about errant white dimpled objects sailing into their space. After several mishaps early in his career, Lehrer now places inconspicuous netting in the chribbery to keep clients out of the courtrooms and on their greens. Bill Lewis of Mount Kisco is one of Lehrer's satisfied customers. Since Lehrer installed two greens and four tees "with wicked water in between" at his home a year and a half ago, Lewis says he's accomplished two goals; a better golf score and more time with his 8 year-old son. As a matter of fact, the greens have been such a success the he's now installing one on the 18-by-83 foot houseboat that serves as a vacation home. "I love the game, but it really is a heck of a time commitment to take away from the family life, " Lewis says. Now he has the best of both worlds --"golf with family." And his score? "I've improved my game dramatically," Lewis says. "And I'm still awful. But that's the beauty of golf, You can never stop improving."