After nicking off the tip of a toe with a lawnmower a decade ago, Delores Beery decided her lawn needed a do-over. Over the course of four years, she and her husband, L.W. "Buddy" Nichols, replaced every blade of grass with pea gravel, river pebbles, river rock, mountain stone, flagstone and pavers. But the real mulligan came later, when they completed a 680-square-foot golf green in a portion of their backyard.
"I dedicated the course to the Masters," Nichols says. "When you get to the No. 12 hole on my little course, you're looking at No. 12 at the Masters."
He's referencing a large metal sign affixed to a fence that holds a full-color photo depicting one of golf's most storied holes. Also known as the "Amen Corner" (along with portions of holes 11 and 13), the 155-yard, par-3 12th hole at Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club often decides who prevails in the Masters tournament, one of the four major championships in professional golf.
"That's where I sat when I got to go to the Masters a few years ago and saw the greats come through," Nichols says of the photo, which shows the putting green surrounded by red and pink azaleas and white dogwoods in bloom.
Nichols' course, completed in September 2017, includes a sand trap - white, like the Augusta bunkers - two water features, and a net at one end where he can practice chips and drives.
Beyond the net, anchoring a far corner of the backyard, is one of the water features: a recirculating waterfall that tumbles down stacks of flagstone and river rocks. The other water feature is less monumental, more meandering: a shallow, pebble-filled trench that doubles as a small-scale, rain-dependent replica of Rae's Creek, which flows beside Augusta's 12th hole. A small arched footbridge connecting the course to the rest of the backyard is a nod to Hogan Bridge, which leads Augusta golfers to the "Amen Corner."
Nichols' course has seven holes and 18 approaches, to give him and any visitors a full round of putts. He welcomes kids from the neighborhood, and he often invites parents and siblings of his wife's music students to join him outside. Beery is a vocal instructor at Lee University and also offers private voice and piano lessons at their East Ridge home. Nichols keeps an eye out for newcomers unaware of the miniature marvel in the backyard.
"I'll ask, 'Do you like golf? I'll show you my golf course,'" he says. "Sometimes it seems unfair to the one in the [music] lesson, so I tell them, 'You can hang around [afterward] and shoot some golf too if you want to.'"
He keeps a selection of junior and full-size clubs as well as balls in different colors, much like players would find at any miniature golf course. But unlike the 2-by-4 framing and fantastical characters that are common in miniature golf, Nichols' course is more grassroots, relying on the natural slope of the yard for the breaks and undulations beneath the turf. The biggest nod to whimsy here are the animal heads atop three of the flagsticks from a set of chip clips/refrigerator magnets he found at Ollie's Bargain Outlet.
Nichols has laid out 18 markers to lead players through the course. All except the 18th hole repeat at least once, determined by different starting points.
Though he didn't set foot on a golf course until he was 21, Nichols, now 76, says he has been fascinated by the sport since he was a child growing up in Russellville, Alabama.
"We didn't have a golf course within 40 miles, as far as I knew, but I loved watching it on TV," he says.He remembers finding an electrical rod "with a little bend at the bottom that looked like a golf club. I'd take that thing and hit marbles. Now, the good Lord has let me have my own little putting green."
Eric Hester, the head pro at Nob North Golf Course near Dalton, Georgia, has played a few rounds on Nichols' backyard course. His daughter, Lindy, 11, is a music student of Beery's, and sometimes both he and his wife, Teresa, make the trip north for her lessons.
"It shocked me when I saw [the course] for the first time. He built the creek to simulate Rae's Creek," Hester says, noting how the gutter downspouts channel rainwater through the stream.
Nichols says he had wanted a home putting green for many years, but the dream project had to be last on his and Beery's landscape to-do list. The gate granting access from the front yard is big enough for a car to drive through, but all of the landscaping material - loads upon loads of rocks, mulch, topsoil and plants, as well as fencing and lumber for a shed - had to be wheeled in before the turf could be installed.
"We had some heavy construction we had to do," he says. "You don't want to do that after you put down your turf. Everything else had to be finished first and then get to the putting surface."
The wood panel fencing that shields the backyard from public view is stained a dark green. From a distance, it resembles the deep recesses of a forest, like the backdrop of Georgia pines at Augusta National. Paths paved with stepping stones circle around flower beds, a lily pond, a small terraced garden plot and an herb garden within a few steps of the kitchen. Frogs inhabit the lily pond. A wild rabbit lives under the deck.
Nichols says the course got underway in earnest after he and Beery visited Shelton Landscape Supply in Hixson and he noticed a neglected putting green out front. An employee told him they had previously sold artificial turf for putting greens and had installed a patch for demonstrations. She thought there might be a section left in storage. They followed her to a shed where she began digging "like one of those 'American Pickers,'" he says. "She was climbing over all kinds of stuff in that barn."
Once she produced it, she reduced it, offering it at a bargain price "just to get [it] out of there," he says. "I know that golf turf is real expensive, and it looked like a big old roll."
Nichols says the price was right, but he feared the quality might have deteriorated with age. When it was rolled out in the store's parking lot, however, "it looked pretty decent for being in storage for so long," he says. "We made the deal that day, and they even offered to deliver it."
Nichols says the turf was only about half the size of what he needed, but "it was the beginning." The piece even had a cup hole "exactly where I wanted to put a hole. I knew it was a great thing."
He found a matching piece of turf at a supplier in Dalton. "There's just one seam, which doesn't detract from it," he says.
Installing a backyard course is "really pretty easy," he says, noting that he picked up pointers by watching YouTube videos. "I'd be glad to [share] what I've learned."
Nichols says his fondest wish would be for other enthusiasts to install similar greens and form a backyard golf association in which kids could take part in casual play and competitions.
"I think it would be good if we could inspire others [to take up golf]," he says. "It's one of the best games. There's a lot of discipline involved."
Nichols plays at Nob North, his favorite area course, as often as work allows - he teaches online classes as an associate professor for Liberty University - and he and Beery are continually tweaking the yard.
He feels blessed to be able to start the day on his home turf. Sometimes, he says, he'll slip off his shoes and play barefoot in the early morning dew.
As much as he loves it, golf is a humbling game, he says.
"I play out here every day, and I'm still about 50-50 hitting par."