2004: When going synthetic, do all your homework

More and more, synthetic turf is in the news. As communities struggle with water shortages, it makes good sense to avoid water waste. Never needing water, synthetic turf for residential and commercial development is a flourishing trend.

Dealers who sell artificial golf greens long have known about water conservation. But contemporary backyard putting greens boast additional benefits.

Synthetic greens are not the same fake-looking carpets that used to stand out like an eyesore on a natural landscape. Today’s synthetic greens have reached a zenith. The product has improved dramatically. So have installation techniques. Many of these artificial greens are remarkably lifelike in appearance, texture, feel and performance.

Depending on the variety of material and the type of installation, these greens can be used for chipping and pitching as well as putting. Some will accept full shots with realistic results.

The average backyard green in the United States is about 800 square feet. The average cost of constructing such a green of synthetic material is more than $10,000. The cost per square foot, including putting surface and fringe, typically ranges between $11 and $23. At the top end, that 800-square-foot green would cost roughly $18,400. Of course, many backyard greens are larger than 800 square feet. Dealers, capitalizing on the growing popularity of artificial greens, like to tout complete short game practice facilities of synthetic turf. Many offer accompanying landscape services, as homeowners add fountains and other cosmetic features to their putting greens.

As a result, it is not unusual for some golfers to spend $25,000 to $50,000 for a backyard putting complex.

In addition to size, other factors can influence the final cost, including accessibility of the location, difficulty of preparing the land for the synthetic turf and the severity of slopes and undulations in the putting surface.

Synthetic greens are available in two basic materials – nylon or polypropylene. Each has its advantages.

Nylon greens require no maintenance. On the other hand, polypropylene surfaces need minimal, albeit regular, brooming and rolling (with a water-filled hand roller).

So why would anyone select polypropylene? Because it looks natural, feels like real turf, putts smoothly when properly maintained and accepts full shots in a realistic fashion.

There is no peace between the two largest companies in this business. Putting Greens Direct sells mostly nylon putting greens. The other, Southwest Putting Greens, sells polypropylene greens exclusively.

“We’re No. 1 in dollar volume,” says Gary Poole, president of Putting Greens Direct.

“I am told by people at the mills in Dalton, Ga., that nobody orders more turf than we do,” says Steve Mazner, director of dealer operations for Southwest Greens.

All artificial turf for golf greens is produced in Dalton, the carpet capital of the world. This includes nylon, polypropylene and other synthetic materials. Protection against ultraviolet light is added at different factories.

Warranties generally are about 12 years for nylon and seven years for polypropylene, although consumers are urged to read these warranties before purchasing any product.

“Polypropylene is a better putting surface,” Mazner maintains. “This is the truth. On our greens, the ball does not chatter (wobble) during the roll. It does not fall off when it slows down. Nylon is sort of like a bristle brush, and the roll isn’t consistent.”

To which Poole replies, “People who don’t sell nylon like to criticize the product. Why? Because they know how good it is, and they don’t have it. On polypropylene, the ball starts to wiggle left and right when it slows down. The surface is grainy. Most people who buy these (polypropylene) greens are under the impression that they’re maintenance free. That’s not true. If you don’t take care of it, it will be hard as a rock within two years.”

If this were a duel, shots would be fired.

“If nylon was a true-roll putting surface, then all these touring pros would have nylon,” Mazner says. “They don’t. They have our greens. We don’t pay them, and they allow us to use their names and their endorsement for free.” And who are we talking about?

“Hale Irwin, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia, Mark Calcavecchia, Lee Janzen, Rocco Mediate, Corey Pavin, Jesper Parnevik, Robert Gamez . . . do you want me to continue?” Mazner answers.

Poole fires back with Davis Love III, Jonathan Kaye, Woody Austin and Heath Slocum. He says, “All the Tour players we’ve done have nylon. Two had poly and switched to nylon.”

The speed of nylon, according to Poole, can be adjusted at the factory between 8.5 and 12 on the Stimpmeter. It never changes, he says. The speed of polypropylene can be adjusted within a 7-12 Stimpmeter range, depending on how much the green is broomed and rolled.

Mazner emphasizes that polypropylene greens react much like real grass greens when accepting iron shots. “You can hit our greens with a 150-yard shot, and you’ll think it’s a real green,” he says. “Try that with nylon and see what happens. Chances are it will bounce like crazy.”

Southwest Putting Greens has an exclusive arrangement with Nicklaus Design, much like TourTurf’s arrangement with Palmer Course Design.

TourTurf is a high-end company that normally charges between $18 and $23 per square foot for its polypropylene putting greens. One well-known customer: Tiger Woods. TourTurf is not allowed to advertise this because Woods paid full price and demands his privacy. Still, it is widely known that TourTurf performed extensive putting green construction outside the Windemere, Fla., residence of Woods.

There has been a measure of notoriety for TourTurf in its alliance with Nike. TourTurf fills the surface of its poly greens with silica sand and cryogenic (frozen) rubber. Much of this rubber comes from old Nike athletic shoes (thus the name Nike Grind).

All polypropylene greens are filled with sand and other substances to provide a stable and smooth putting surface. It is the regular brooming and rolling that keeps these greens at their best.

“We like to say that we don’t install an artificial green, we install a real putting green,” says Michael Starks, CEO of TourTurf. “These are real greens with a synthetic surface. There is a realistic look and a realistic roll.”

TourTurf is supplying all turf for the 100 percent synthetic Echo Basin Ranch golf course in Mancos, Colo. Although the project has been delayed, nine holes of the regulation course already have been shaped. Starks hopes that holes 1 and 9 will be completed this year.

In the never-ending battle between nylon and polypropylene, Synthetic Turf International is another company that features nylon greens rather than polypropylene.

“We find that most people don’t want to perform any maintenance on their greens,” says William E. Campbell, president of STI. “We are now doing quite a bit with croquet and bocci as well as golf. With a shortage of water, this is the future.”

Ah, we have seen the future, and it is . . . well, synthetic.

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