May 1 2004 12:00 AM

Like many small business owners, Keith Thykeson wears a number of professional hats. For many years, Thykeson wore only two hats—golf pro and golf instructor. But fate had other plans for Thykeson, who admits to an exacting passion for perfection. Five years ago, the golf pro ran into the perfect equation; his passion for perfection collided with his personal and professional interests.

Outlining the area for the putting green
Leveling the ground and tamping down the base Once the base has been compacted,
a liner is installed over it

He navigated the situation wisely, and established a very profitable new business installing backyard putting greens. While Thykeson makes a great story (especially for golfers), there is a moral to the story. Installing backyard putting greens could be the next best thing for landscape contractors.

Consider Oliver Holt, of Oliver Holt Landscape in Northridge, California, who added putting green design/build to his business last year. Holt has seen quite a bit of local interest in backyard greens. He says, “This is a great way to add to our business portfolio.” Other contractors with the right skills, training and interest can expand into this relatively untapped, but rapidly growing, market.

Thykeson established his company, Pioneer Golf in Thousand Oaks, California, in a roundabout fashion. He has been a Class A PGA golf professional for 14 years, with a day job working at the El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, California, as the director of instruction. He wasn’t necessarily looking for more work five years ago when he hired another company to install a putting green in his backyard. But the installation techniques and finished putting green fell far short of Thykeson’s standards. There were bumps and mounds in the green, and playability was poor. In fact, he says, “I insisted that the company re-do the project a few times, and by the end, I was training them.”

That’s when the light bulb went on and a friend suggested Thykeson take on a side business. He leapt at the idea and partnered with Corey Aurand to start the Pioneer Golf.

Putting greens are a niche, but growing, market. Thykeson says, “We run a small shop and do not use a sales or marketing team. We get referrals from our distributor of artificial grass.” Pioneer Golf runs a single small crew and cannot keep up with the volume of work.

The referral arrangement works out quite well for Thykeson’s company. Between January and March of this year, Synthetic Turf International (Jupiter, Florida), makers of the artificial turf Thykeson uses, sent the company 600 referrals from interested homeowners in the southern California region. While this volume is more than enough for Pioneer Golf, Thykeson knows it is the tip of the iceberg.

One of the reasons Thykeson is getting so many leads is that Astro-Turf, another artificial turf supplier, recently filed for bankruptcy. He expects another tidal wave of customers looking for someone to complete putting green projects. He concludes, “Business is booming.”

This story is not unique. Other putting green distributors report similar growth. All Pro Putting Greens in Ringgold, Georgia, another maker of professional synthetic golf greens, reports that its sales are up 260% over last year. It is unlikely that the current boom is a passing phenomenon. In fact, business could very well explode in the coming decades as baby boomers age and retire. There are nearly 30 million golfers in the United States, and golf is one sport that consumers spend more money on as they age.

Business may be booming; however, the smart contractor inquires about the competition before entering into a new market. After all, it might be considered foolish to jump into a market ripe with competition.

But the backyard putting green market is far from saturated with competition. Holt points out that there aren’t many contractors who know much about designing or installing putting greens. In fact, Thykeson realizes it is in the best interests of his business to encourage others to enter into the market-even in his own backyard. He is eager to establish relationships with new contractors in Southern California, as his company can’t meet demand in the area.

Installing backyard putting greens makes sense for landscape contractors in other ways as well. We all know it’s easier to learn a skill related to something we already know how to do. Installing putting greens requires many of the same tools as the landscape contracting trade; in fact, installing a putting green uses the same base preparation as a brick paver patio.

Sand or rock dust is placed on the liner and compacted.
Photo courtesy: Oscar Holt Landscape
Artificial turf is installed.
Photo courtesy: Pioneer Golf
Applying the finishing touches includes
drilling a hole for the cup.
Photo courtesy: Oscar Holt Landscape

While putting greens require skills and tools similar to brick paver patios the two activities are not interchangeable, and training is essential. But once you have the training, and you’re used to putting in brick paver patios, it can help you sell yourself and your service to your customers. Thykeson adds that gaining these skills with artificial turf makes for a better-rounded portfolio of services to offer your customers. It is also a great sub-contracting opportunity for other contractors who lack the skills and expertise to provide this in-demand service.

Thykeson points out that artificial turf is used in a wide array of projects, including schools, playing fields and country clubs, potentially opening up other markets for landscape contractors. Holt had other ideas for putting green-based business growth. He is capitalizing on the putting green craze, and upping the profits by designing and building golf driving cages in addition to greens.

Still not convinced of the putting green potential? Need to see the math before moving forward? Thykeson reports margins in the 30 to 70 percent range, depending on the size of a job. Backyard greens typically run from 300 to 500 square feet, and take a couple of days to install. Thykeson has a $2,500 minimum charge, based on $12 to $21 per square foot.

It’s all in the details

This is what the finished product looks like.

photo courtesy:
Pioneer Golf
Oliver Holt Landscape

It’s easy to install a putting green-badly. Doing it well is another story. Holt notes, “Putting greens are a high-end landscape offering. You have to produce a superior product.” Thykeson adds, “Contractors who want to get into putting greens need training in how to design and build them.” Thykeson plans to provide step-by-step training in putting green installation for contractors who become Pioneer Golf sub-distributors. Training will be based on his extensive experience building golf courses and putting greens. Fortunately, for new contractors the putting green business is much less complicated than it was a few years ago when Thykeson started his business. A putting green boils down to two primary ingredients-the best artificial turf product and workmanship, and the design of the sub-base. Good synthetic turf can run up to $4 a square foot, but is essential for a quality product. A backyard putting green begins in the design phase, with the contractor customizing the shape and pitch of the green, so that it flows in the yard. It’s also important to ensure that the green drains properly. The next step entails removing the existing landscape. Turf is removed, and an herbicide is applied to kill any remaining roots. After all of the existing grass is removed, the contractor installs the sub-base. Pioneer Golf uses an aggregate sub-base; some contractors typically use a dirt base that can be compacted. Depending on which part of the country you’re working in, the sub-base may be limestone, decomposed granite or rock dust. A putting green sub-base should be a minimum of four inches in depth and may extend eight to ten inches. The contractor shapes and installs the base according to the design. After the sub-base is installed and compacted, the contractor digs holes for the cups, and lays the artificial turf over the surface. This process is akin to laying carpet. The turf comes in 12-foot widths. Current seaming technology simplifies the wider greens. Finally, the contractor cuts holes for the cups, and you have a putting green. Holt adds fresh plantings around the green to ‘really make it sparkle.’ The entire installation process usually takes three to seven days, depending on the size of the green, degree of customization and access into the home.

Contractor Beware

Although adding a putting green sideline to your business is an excellent way to boost revenue and offer a new service, establishing yourself in the market does takes time and effort. It is always difficult to establish a new venture, so it’s important to plan wisely and well.
You can boost your chances of success by finding the right artificial turf company to provide materials. These providers may serve in more of a partnership or distribution capacity, so it’s important to ask that company some key questions to boost your chances for success. These include:

* What type of training does the company provide for new distributors?
* What up-front and ongoing costs are associated with the arrangement?
* Does the company assist with business planning?
* Does the company provide sales leads in the area? What other type of sales assistance does the company offer?
* Are there other dealers in the area or region?
* What type of support does the company provide? Some provide marketing assistance such as videos and brochures.

After these questions, and any others you might have, are answered to your satisfaction, go ahead and get on board. Installing backyard putting greens is a promising new business option for landscape contractors. It will be quite profitable for you, and may be especially appealing for golf aficionados like Thykeson.