Homeowners sharpen their short game with backyard putting greens

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It was late, around 11:15 p.m., and Dean Vagnozzi saw his chance. His wife had gone to bed, making this a perfect time to quietly slip out of the house for a rendezvous with the other love of his life. Golf.

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From his fully lighted practice green in the backyard of his home in Collegeville, Pa., Mr. Vagnozzi first focused on chipping from all areas of the green, which has three grass heights to simulate a real golf course. Then he practiced putting, working with the assorted undulations and breaks surrounding the nine holes of his 5,000-square-foot practice green. Even his three tee-boxes, which measure 35-, 40- and 50-yards from green, are lighted.

In just a few months, Mr. Vagnozzi, has lowered his handicap by two strokes, to 12. “My short game has definitely gotten better. I’ll be surprised if I’m not a 10 [handicap] by the end of summer.” (The average handicap is 14.3 for men and 27.5 for women, according to the U.S. Golf Association.)

And for this he can thank the pandemic. “I had a gut feeling that we were going to be locked down in our homes for a while,” says Mr. Vagnozzi, who is 51 and works in the financial-services sector. He wasn’t the only one.

“The cycle has been insanity. We haven’t missed a day of work,” says Paul Johnson, owner of Tour Greens Mid-Atlantic, the company that installed Mr. Vagnozzi’s practice green. In the early days of the outbreak, Mr. Johnson says he got upwards of 15 inquiries a day, up from eight or nine per week. “It was like a switch flipped.”

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Mr. Johnson says he has installed greens as large as 12,500 square feet, and one that’s a replica of Augusta National’s hole No. 12 in the heart of “Amen Corner,” so called because so many players call upon a higher power for help.

To transform bare land into a practice green, Mr. Johnson’s team first puts down crushed aggregate stone to build slopes and contours. This is topped with stone dust to smooth out the surface and fine-tune the shapes. Then, synthetic turf that imitates bent grass and other grass blends goes down. To help the fibers stand up and remove any “grain” in the turf, the synthetic surface gets an infill of special silica sand. To complete the look, a synthetic “fringe” of slightly taller grass is installed around the green.

A typical practice green averages about $30,000, Mr. Johnson says, up from $15,000 in 2017. That’s because his customers increasingly want bigger greens and more features, he notes. Mr. Vagnozzi declined to say how much he paid for his practice green in Collegeville, but said it falls within Mr. Johnson’s quoted price range of $15 to $25 a square foot, installed.

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It’s difficult to determine whether a $120,000 putting green makes economic sense when it comes time to sell a home. A Realtor.com analysis of U.S. home listings from June 2019 through May 2020 found over 10,000 properties that included the words “putting green” in the description field. Overall, listings with those key worlds were 5% more expensive a square foot than homes without putting greens. However, these properties also spent five more days on the market than other homes, on average. This is likely due to more specialized home features, which attract a smaller pool of buyers willing to pay the premium, the analytics team found. (News Corp, parent company of The Wall Street Journal, also operates Realtor.com under license from the National Association of Realtors.)

“It’s not something where someone is going to buy a house or not because of a putting green,” says Steven Solomon, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based agent with Douglas Elliman. “For golfers, it’s a benefit to have it. If you’re not [a golfer], there’s a ‘Wow, I could have this!’ reaction.”

Mr. Solomon is listing a home owned by Stephen Hill and Christy Thompson in Manalapan, Fla., for $26.7 million. The roughly 26,000-square-foot home sits on about 4 acres and includes a newly updated practice/chipping green that measures about 1,000-square-feet, Mr. Hill says. Synthetic turf today is so realistic and low maintenance that he had most of the real grass on the property replaced with it. The change saved $1,400 a month for watering and $2,500 a month for mowing, Mr. Hill, 57, says. “It paid for itself in 10 months,” he notes.

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The practice green has other benefits. “My short game has improved about 40%,” estimates Mr. Hill, a 16 handicap. He and his wife’s primary residence is in Dallas. They bought the Manalapan home as an investment property and are now selling it.

To the south in Fort Lauderdale, Chris O’Gorman is listing his 4,100-square-foot home with a small putting green for $2.2 million. Mr. O’Gorman, a 55-year-old investment adviser, paid roughly $9,500 to install the green, along with a turf area for his dog, Chloe, to run around in.

Mr. O’Gorman and his wife are selling so they can downsize in Fort Lauderdale and buy a second home in New York.

An avid golfer—and 3 handicap—Mr. O’Gorman says the green has “definitely taken on a greater significance during the pandemic. I’m out there every day, half-hour to an hour. It’s gotten a lot of usage.”

When he returns to New York, Mr. O’Gorman can show off his sharpened skills at Winged Foot Golf Club, in Westchester County, N.Y., host of the 2020 U.S. Open.

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