THE PENNANT FLAPS ATOP a thin fiberglass, presenting a target both enticing and maddeningly elusive. Around it, a wide expanse of virgin green beckons, as lush as anything you would find at a local golf course. But this hole isn't at the Round Hill Club or the Griff. It's in the middle of a guy's backyard.
From the second-story porch of the house you can try a choked-up pitching wedge, maybe even a sand wedge if the wind lets up. Dare you go for the green? What if you miss and ding the pickup in the driveway?
"GO AHEAD" a voice urges you just beyond your shoulder. "GO NUTS. It's like eating pistachios. Once you start, you can't stop. BECAUSE IT'S THE VOICE OF MICHAEL LEHRER, the guy who owns the house, the green and the pickup, you decide to forgo your property-damage concerns and just bomb a few. Then you skull a ball long, top one into the ledge bank, and send another careening after Lehrer's dog. By the time he's ready to take the club away, it's too late. You don't want to let go.
Please, sir, may I have another? It really is like eating pistachios. When Ahmad Rashad was trying to decide how to put a practice green in back of his Greenwich house, he sought the advice of two people: Tiger Woods and Michael Lehrer.
Wood's advice to the NBC basketball commentator was simple. "Tiger told me the best kind of green is one where you can practice flat, straight putt," Rashad recalls. "He said get it flat, get it straight."
To actually get the green built, Rashad called on Lehrer, who operates Home Green Advantage. Lehrer, whose backyard is situated on the Greenwich-Armonk line, features two greens and two sets of tee boxes. His motto: "Home is where the par is."
The greens were built to entertain quests, back in the day when Lehrer was still working as an accountant and trying to merchandise golfing apparel on the side. For the last five years, Lehrer has been building greens full-time. His clients are among Fairfield and Westchester counties' most avid golfing enthusiasts. Made of synthetic grass, and often complete with tee boxes and bunkers, Lehrer's artificial putting surfaces have been laid out everywhere, from a high-rise in Hawaii to Grand Central Terminal in New York.
Lehrer insists there is no typical client.
"I've sold greens for three grand, but the average is ten, fifteen thousand dollars, " he says. "One in ten is a present from a wife to a husband. You have people who are members of country clubs, like Stanwich and Greenwich. CEOs of companies. Then you have the average person who is hitting the public links. They might want something for chipping and putting in the backyard. As far as getting their money's worth, they're out there all the time, gaining confidence by doing it over and over again."
"It's the new status symbol," declares Ron Whitten, architecture editor of Golf Digest. "Ten years ago, if you owned a new Big Bertha, it showed you'd arrived. Today, you're just another guy in the crowd. Now you tell your friends you have a putting green in your backyard and invite them over."
Lehrer built Rashad's green in 2000. "It's synthetic, but it has the same roll and feel as a grass green, without the upkeep," the sportscaster reports. "There's nothing better than going to play golf having just putted for twenty minutes on your own green. You can play all kinds of games. There are pine trees I hit lob wedges over. I hit shots over my pool. The green's the thing I use most in my yard. It's the best toy I own."
While one of Lehrer's own greens is natural grass, he prefers to work with the synthetic stuff, green fuzzy nylon fused to a rubber base that is laid down upon a six-inch foundation of compacted stone porous enough to let rainwater flow through. In addition to Rashad, Lehrer has built greens for everyone from American Express chairman Kenneth Chenault to the office workers at Fox News. Top executives from firms like Philip Morris and Morgan Stanley sing his praises in promotional leaflets he distributes to would-be customers.
His most ambitious project was in Brookville, Long Island. Close to 7,000 square feet in size, "it was bigger than most country-club greens, but synthetic," he says.
Lehrer says he like to work with the topography of the land, aiming always for subtlety and symmetry. After years of struggling to make his fringe livelihood pay off, he finally started seeing a profit in 2000. He estimates he has built upwards of 125 greens and betrays some impatience when his work is compared to that of others in his field.
"When I see some of the things the major golf architects built, I'm baffled," he says. "In addition to aesthetics, I'm always thinking about the shots. I always have two or three tee boxes around my greens, because i want the owner to have a variety of shots. Maybe I'm too obsessive. But I don't do it for the money. I do it for the golfer. I feed off their obsession."
The private putting green isn't exactly new. "In the 1960s, there was a surge of backyard greens, real greens," Golf Digest's Whitten recalls. "It was so expensive, it never caught on. Then you had Astroturf greens in the late sixties, early seventies. Those greens never took off either; they became patios."
What has happened in the last few years is that technology has caught up with Mother Nature. you can now replicate to a large degree the sensation of putting on bent or Bermuda grass and at a minumal maintenance cost. Once a year, usually early in the spring, Lehrer visit his clients' homes and pound out the lumps pushed up by winter frost, adjust the cup settings, maybe sprinkle some silica on the green surface for a truer roll. If there's a bunker or two, he may refill the displaced sand.
Exactly how commonplace these greens are is hard to say. No one is required to report that they have a putting green, and many prefer not to.
"I suspect some people don't want to advertise that fact, because the tax man will come around," Whitten says. "It's like putting a pool in your backyard in that you are enhancing the value of your home."
Greg Wojick, ground superintendent at Greenwich Country Club, says he knows of no member at his club who has his or her own green.
"I've often had discussions with members who are thinking about putting in a green," he says. "I always try to dissuade them. It's such an expense. Also, why putt on something artificial if you can come to the club and work on your short game here?" He calls a home green "over the top".
Art Sanders doesn't know anyone in town who has a green either, except himself. "I had a piece of property I had done nothing with, and it was a matter of coming up with landscaping for it."
Peter Ciccone, a retired financial executive and a member of the Tamarack Country Club, has noticed a four-stroke improvement in his game since Lehrer put in a 1,400-square foot, kidney-shaped green at his home on the Greenwich-New York line just last spring. By midsummer he had broken 80 for the first time.
"Sometimes I go out there for a few minutes," Ciccone says. "Mostly I'm out there for an hour. Even in January, when the sun is out, I go out and play." He agrees the green has improved his game, mostly by whetting his appetite to play more.
"The people who really like it are the golfers," Art Sanders explains. "If we have friends come over and my clubs are out, you have to push them to stop and move on to something else."
"Anytime anyone comes over, from little kids to older women, they all want to play on the putting green," Rashad says. "Even if you don't like golf, you enjoy putting."