Feature Interview with Bob Randquist, CGCS
PartI November, 2004

Bob Randquist has been the golf course superintendent at Boca Rio Golf Club in Boca Raton, Fla., since 1998. Previously he was the golf course superintendent for 19 years at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., and for 2 years at Quail Creek Golf and Country Club in Oklahoma City. He has also served on the USGA Green Section Committee for the past 15 years.

During his tenure as superintendent at Southern Hills Country Club, he hosted the 1982 and 1994 PGA Championships, the inaugural 1987 USGA Womens’s Mid-Amateur Championship, and the 1995 and 1996 PGA Tour Championships. Bob is currently teaching a seminar for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America titled ‘Hazardous Duty……Basic Bunker Maintenance’, and was recently elected to serve a 2 year term on the Board of Directors for the GCSAA.

A native of Anadarko, Oklahoma, Randquist graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering.

The purpose of his seminar ‘Hazardous Duty…Basic Maintenance’, much of which he has graciously allowed GolfClubAtlas.com to reproduce in this three part Feature Interview, is to help those attending gain knowledge on bunkers, in part by:

  • Understanding the design strategy that bunkers provide for the game of golf.
  • Understanding factors that golfers use to form opinions regarding bunker playability.
  • Learning how bunker design and construction impact bunker maintenance.
  • Identifying how sand selection and depth impact bunker maintenance and playability.
  • Identifying how surface related bunker maintenance practices affect playability.
  • Identifying methods for solving problems associated with poorly designed or constructed bunkers.PartI of this Feature Interview centers on the basic issues and controversies regarding bunker maintenance, the historical significance and design strategy of bunkers, and the golfer’s perceptions and expectations regarding bunker conditioning.

What prompted your detailed interest in bunkers?

The design and maintenance of sand bunkers are two of the most commonly debated issues that golf course superintendents must address on a daily basis. Most golf courses with a significant number of sand bunkers require 15 to 25% of the available labor pool hours for routine maintenance, and the effort needed to maintain acceptable bunker playing conditions seems to be never ceasing. Comments from golfers regarding playing conditions for bunkers are often colorful, caustic or derogatory. Some golf course superintendents are even accused of deliberately trying to bring misery and pain to a golfers enjoyment of the game by preparing sand bunkers that are unfair or too difficult to play from. Whether facing an angry golfer, an unhappy Green Chairman or Committee, or a dissatisfied golf facility owner, there are times when sand bunker maintenance can indeed become Hazardous Duty for golf course superintendents.

What is a bunker?

The USGA Rules of Golf provides this definition: ‘a ‘bunker’ is a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like. Grass-covered ground bordering or within a bunker is not part of the bunker. The margin of a bunker extends vertically downward, but not upward.

A ball is in a bunker when it lies in or any part of it touches the bunker.’ Note that the first descriptive word used in the USGA Rules of Golf definition for a bunker is the word ‘hazard’. The same USGA Rules of Golf simply define a hazard as ‘any bunker or water hazard’. Now that we know that a bunker is a hazard and a hazard is a bunker, let us examine the definition of the word ‘hazard’. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary gives this definition for the word hazard: ‘ 1: a game of chance like craps played with two dice; 2: a source of danger; 3: a: CHANCE b: a chance event: accident; 4: obs STAKE; 5: a golf-course obstacle.’ It is fair to say that each of these definitions accurately describe the challenge a golfer faces every time his golf ball comes to rest in a bunker. It is also easy to see that the threatening nature of these definitions for the term ‘hazard’ usually strike fear and concern in the heart and mind of any golfer who finds himself faced with the challenge of hitting a shot from a bunker. Golf course superintendents must realize and remember that most golfers are not happy to be confronted by a ‘source of danger’, an ‘obstacle’ or a ‘chance event’ where they are not in full control of what may occur next. Only the most daring and resourceful golfers look forward to the challenge of ‘ a game of chance like craps played with two dice’ which bunker shots offer. Over the years golfers have even developed their own affectionate terms for bunkers. Though none of these terms are appropriate to use when discussing bunkers, golfers commonly refer to bunkers by using terms such as sand traps, beaches, cat boxes, sand pits and other terms too vulgar to print. Widespread usage of these terms clearly indicates how most golfers really feel about being forced to play a shot from this hazard we know as a bunker. Golf course superintendents, their employers and golfers must recognize that it is not possible to provide playing conditions in a bunker that will make every golfer happy to be in that bunker. No matter how much time, money and effort is spent on bunker maintenance, a bunker will always be a hazard to every golfer.

What is the primary issue regarding bunkers for golf course superintendents?

In the past ten to fifteen years, the primary issue for both golf course superintendents and golfers has become ‘How hazardous should a bunker be?’ or ‘How much hazard should a bunker provide?’. Golfers (especially low handicap players) and officials responsible for preparing golf courses for tournament play have even begun to attempt to quantify the degree of difficulty which the golfer faces when playing shots from a particular set of bunkers. We hear terms such as a ‘half-shot penalty’, a ‘full-shot penalty’, and other fractional or whole number descriptions that are used to quantify the degree of challenge a set of golf course bunkers presents to the golfer. The style of golf course architecture and bunker design are the primary factors affecting the degree of difficulty associated with playing bunker shots on any particular golf course. The type of sand, depth of sand and the fashion in which the sand surface is maintained and prepared for daily play also have a dramatic impact on the degree of difficulty associated with playing bunker shots.

It is not an easy task to define or quantify the degree of difficulty for playing a bunker shot from a particular bunker or set of bunkers. There are too many variables beyond just bunker design and maintenance that impact the degree of difficulty for playing a bunker shot. The golfer’s level of skill, weather conditions, type of golf equipment used for bunker shots, mental and emotional state of the golfer and numerous other factors all impact the degree of difficulty for playing bunker shots. Though the degree of difficulty for playing bunker shots is not easy to define or quantify, there must be a cooperative effort by golf course superintendents and other responsible parties (Green Chairmen, Committees, golf course architect, golf professionals, golfers, owners, etc.) to set a standard for what degree of difficulty their golf course bunkers should present, and how it relates to the overall playability of the golf course. Without defining and agreeing upon a desired degree of difficulty for playing bunker shots, it is extremely challenging and often very frustrating to attempt to formulate and implement a plan for bunker maintenance that will properly answer the question ‘How hazardous should a bunker be?’

What other factors go into bunker maintenance?

There are other many other issues that affect bunker maintenance such as desired sand color, aesthetic appearance of the bunker playing surface, bunker drainage, style of bunker edges, presence of foreign materials in bunkers, ease of entering and exiting a bunker, weed control and potential wind and water erosion of the bunker sand. Differing viewpoints and solutions regarding each of these issues are relatively simple to identify and understand, and in most cases solutions for these issues can be provided with adequate financial commitment to bunker maintenance and/or bunker reconstruction. When adequate financial resources are not available these issues can become more troubling and problematic for golf course superintendents. We will further discuss some of these issues and their potential solutions and associated costs later in this presentation.

Please put the strategy of bunkering in some sort of historical context.

We find these comments from Donald Ross in ‘Golf Has Never Failed Me, The lost commentaries of legendary golf architect Donald J. Ross’:

‘ A golf course without bunkers is a very monotonous affair.’

‘Our aim is a variety of bunkering that will multiply the interest of the game’.

If golf course superintendents are to be successful in implementing acceptable bunker maintenance programs, they must develop an understanding of why bunkers are an integral part of most golf course designs, and how bunkers affect the strategy required to play and enjoy the game of golf. Golf course architects, golf professionals and amateur golfers often express very passionate feelings about bunker placement, design and playing conditions. It is critical that golf course superintendents understand the nature and purpose of golf course bunkering and the language used by these groups when sharing their opinions regarding bunkers. Whether comments regarding bunker playing conditions are wonderful, simply ignorant, or bad, we need to be able to understand exactly what golfers are trying to communicate to us regarding our bunker maintenance practices. It is not necessary that we be able to impress our golfers by hitting magical recovery shots out of bunkers when we play golf, or be able to intelligently influence a golf course architect when he is designing or renovating a golf course, but it is imperative that we understand that our bunker maintenance practices have a major impact on how the game of golf is played on our golf courses.

Most golf historians agree that the first golf courses evolved naturally on linksland locations along the seacoast of Scotland. ‘The Golf Course’, by Geoffrey Cornish and Ronald Whitten, offers this explanation for how the first bunkers evolved: ‘ There were no trees or ponds on these ancient links, but there were numerous natural hazards. Certain areas of grass would be grazed bare by livestock. Sheep seeking shelter in hollows or behind hillocks would wear down the turf. The nests and holes of small game would collapse into pits. Wind and water would then erode the topsoil from these areas, revealing the sandy base beneath. Such sandy wastelands, sand and pot bunkers dotted the landscape of a links and menaced many a golf shot.’

These early golfers obviously recognized the challenge and level of interest bunkers added to the game, and began developing golf hole routings which called for playing golf shots around, over, and through these natural hazards known as bunkers. From the middle 1800’s through the early 1900’s golf course architecture evolved into a more intentional and formalized endeavor, utilizing both art and science to produce new styles of golf course architecture. Bunker shapes became more formalized with well-defined edges and perimeters as golf course architects began using shapes such as ovals, circles, rectangles and other irregular geometric shapes to design bunkers. They also began to realize that a bunker could be used for purposes other than being just ‘a golf course obstacle’. As the art of golf course architecture continued to develop in the early 1900’s, bunkers became golf course design features rather than random, naturally occurring hazards in the golf course landscape.

The governing bodies of the game of golf have wisely chosen to place no limitations on the design characteristics of golf course bunkers. During the golf course design process, golf course architects have the artistic freedom and privilege to create bunkers in any size, shape and quantity. Because there is such a diverse range of bunker design styles and philosophies, it is important that the golf course superintendents understand the functions a golf course’s architect intended for the golf course’s bunkers to serve.

How does one identify these functions?

The simplest way to identify these functions is by asking the golf course architect to share his or her thoughts as to why each bunker was created and placed in the overall golf course design, and what purpose it serves as a part of their golf course design. Most golf course architects prefer that their bunker designs remain unchanged as a golf course develops and matures, and are very willing to share their reasons for incorporating bunkers into their original golf course design. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to directly contact the original golf course architect, or the golf course architect who last modified the golf course’s design. In those situations it is advisable to thoroughly search the golf facility’s records and historical archives for photographs, maps and architect’s notes which can accurately inform golf course superintendents and other interested parties regarding the intended purposes of the bunker design work. Current day golf course architects who have worked diligently to become familiar with the designs of an earlier day golf course architect can also be an excellent source of information regarding the original intent of the bunker designs. Though conversations with long time golfers and employees at a golf course may be helpful, we must be cautious about accepting an employee’s or individual golfer’s memory as being completely factual. We also need to keep in mind that discovering and defining the ‘design intent of the original golf course architect’ can often become a matter of personal interpretation and speculation. It is critical that a golf course superintendent rely on well-documented facts when discussing or debating the functions that bunkers serve on his or her golf course.

How do architects use bunkers?

Golf course architects utilize bunkers in their golf course designs for the following purposes:

  1. To enhance the strategy of the golf course design……..For most golfers, playing a bunker shot from a sandy lie is usually more difficult than playing a shot from a grassy lie in the fairway or the rough. Challenging golfers to play around or over these hazards provides multiple options to golfers as they plan and execute their strategy for playing a golf hole. Enhancing the strategy of a hole by adding properly placed and designed bunkers will, as Donald Ross accurately stated, ‘multiply the interest of the game’. The potential penalty resulting from a poorly played bunker shot has a strong impact on the golfer’s strategy and is the primary reason most bunkers exist.
  2. To define, frame, or disguise the ‘target area’ for a golf shot……..Greenside bunkers often enhance the definition or visibility of the target area the putting green surface presents. The contrast of colors and shading provided by differing mowing heights of the putting green and its surrounding areas is sometimes not sharp enough to indicate to the golfer exactly where the target area is for a shot to be played to a golf green. The contrast of bunker sand colors and textures imposed on a background of turf, coupled with the sharper changes in elevation which bunkers provide in the greenside topography, often enhance the depth and dimensional perception of a golfer and allow for more accurate visual focus on the target area for a golf shot. The same contrasting color and elevation changes allow fairway bunkers to function as framing or directional devices which may be used to indicate the desired line of play, the preferred target area or the turning point for a dog-leg hole. Conversely, some golf course architects have an uncanny ability to disguise the target area with the use of bunkers. The unsuspecting golfer is deceived by bunker designs that present optical illusions to the human eye. By using bunkers and their visual interaction with the surrounding swales, mounds, slopes which work against each other, shadows, or open sky in the background, golf course architects are often able to effectively disguise the location, size, or contour features of the target area. This type of bunker design work certainly keeps a golf course from becoming a ‘very monotonous affair’.
  3. To provide a ‘safety net’ for errant shots……..Some bunkers are designed to stop errant golf shots from entering areas such as water hazards, dense native areas, dense stands of trees, or out of bounds areas which will definitely penalize the golfer for his poorly executed shot. Bunkers are sometimes used as buffers between holes or in other high traffic areas to prevent an errant shot from endangering other golfers or residents who live adjacent to the golf course. Bunkers utilized for these purposes must be carefully designed and located in exactly the right position to provide an effective ‘safety net’ for errant golf shots.
  4. To enhance the golf course’s visual artistic appeal…….In many cases bunkers are added as a part of the golf course design simply because the golf course architect likes the artistic appearance which bunkers add to the golf course landscape. Bunkers have been designed in the shape of hearts, fish, states and other forms too numerous to mention. It is not important whether golf course superintendents agree or disagree with this use of artistic creativity in golf course design, but they do need to recognize the special maintenance challenges and costs often associated with this type of bunker design work. Bunkers used to enhance the visual artistic appeal of a golf course can certainly add to the golfers enjoyment and appreciation of their golfing experience.

Are there any set design principles that architects adhere to regarding bunkers?

Although there are no numeric, size, shape, depth, or placement limitations placed on bunker designs, there are some generally accepted architectural design principles that most golf course architects adhere to when designing golf course bunkers.

1. Number of bunkers…….The number of bunkers usually found on an eighteen hole golf course is somewhere between 20 and 100. There are extreme cases where no bunkers or as many as 200 bunkers are used in a golf course design. The number of bunkers a golf course architect chooses to use for a particular golf course design is influenced by a) the golf facility’s projected construction and maintenance budget; b) whether or not the golf course topography features adequate elevation changes which allow for contouring to provide the desired strategic challenge; c) the desired degree of difficulty for the golf course; d) the anticipated volume of play and desired speed of play; e) the potential strategic impact of other natural golf course design features such as trees, native grasses, water hazards, wetlands, boulders and stone ledges and outcrops; and f) the desired visual artistic appeal.

2. Bunker sizes…….Bunker sizes may vary from as small as less than 100 sq. ft. to greater than 20,000 sq. ft. The average size for most greenside bunkers is 200 to 2,500 sq. ft. Fairway bunkers tend to be larger with sizes commonly ranging from 500 to 5,000 sq. ft. Factors which influence a golf course architect’s bunker design size are a) the effect of total bunker square footage on the golf facility’s projected construction and maintenance budgets; b) whether or not bunkers need to be large enough to accommodate mechanical bunker rakes; c) how the scale of the bunker design matches the scale of the overall golf course landscape and design. As a rule, larger bunkers are used when a golf course is flat, devoid of trees or other tall vegetation, has very wide fairways, or features extremely large putting greens as a design characteristic. Smaller bunker sizes are common on golf courses with heavy stands of trees, severe elevation changes, very narrow fairways, or very small putting greens; d) the strategic intent of a bunker or collection of bunkers in one location; and e) the desired visual artistic appeal.

3. Bunker shapes……Bunkers are shaped in many different design patterns. Their basic shape may be circular, oval, rectangular, square, triangular, completely irregular or a combination of any number of geometric shapes. Golf course architects often consider bunker shaping primarily as an opportunity to express their artistic preferences and creativity. They usually design bunker shapes that blend well with the surrounding golf course landscape. Irregular bunker shapes tend to be used on golf courses with an undisturbed native appearance, while more formal geometric bunker shapes are used on golf courses with a more formal, parkland style of golf course architecture. Golf course architects often use bunker shapes either to disguise or focus attention on the intended target. Since it is natural for the human eye to take longer to scan and survey a curved line, bunkers with long serpentine edges may cause focus and attention to be drawn more toward the hazard than toward the intended target area. Conversely, bunkers with relatively straight line, sharp edges tend to enhance focus and attention toward the intended target area.

4. Bunker depths……Bunkers are designed with varying depths. Some are very shallow with the bunker floor being only an inch or two lower than the surrounding area, while others may have a floor that is ten to twenty feet below the surrounding area. Factors which influence a golf course architect’s bunker design depth are a) desired degree of difficulty; b) strategic intent of a bunker; c) length of shot required from the bunker to the target area, e. g. bunkers close to the putting green require a short shot with a very lofted club and tend to be deeper — fairway bunkers which are further from the putting green require a shot with a less lofted club and tend to be shallower; d) effect on the golfer’s depth and dimensional perception; and e) desired visual artistic appeal.

5. Bunker placement……The primary reason bunkers are placed in specific locations is to enhance and strengthen the strategic design aspects of the golf course. Other factors golf course architects usually consider when selecting bunker locations are a) potential for creating undesirable traffic and wear patterns around bunkers; b) potential sand buildup on greens and aprons due to explosion shots played from bunkers; c) ease of maintaining turf areas surrounding bunkers with mechanical golf course equipment; d) effect on irrigation equipment and coverage in turf areas surrounding bunkers; and e) effect on surface drainage patterns.

As golf course superintendents become more informed and better educated regarding the design strategy and intent of the bunkers on their golf courses, they will be become much more capable of accurately answering the questions ‘How hazardous should our bunkers be?’ and ‘What degree of difficulty should our bunkers present?

What are your thoughts regarding golfer perceptions and expectations regarding bunker conditioning?

‘There is no such thing as a misplaced bunker. Regardless of where a bunker may be, it is the business of the player to avoid it.’

Most golf course superintendents, golf course architects, and golfers would fully agree with this quote from ‘Golf Has Never Failed Me, the lost commentaries of legendary golf architect Donald J. Ross’. Despite the golfer’s best intentions and efforts to hit accurate golf shots, it is inevitable that they will not always take care of the ‘business’ of avoiding bunkers. Golf balls will come to rest in bunkers and players will be faced with the challenge of playing from a hazard. As a golfer approaches a bunker where their golf ball has come to rest, a number of questions begin to enter their mind regarding the challenge or degree of difficulty required to play their next shot from the bunker. The collective answers to these questions determine what the golfer’s perceptions and expectations are regarding the playing conditions of the bunker.

‘Do I have a buried lie? Is the ball partially buried in the sand, halfway buried, or do I have a ‘fried egg’ lie where the entire golf ball is buried in the sand? How firm or soft is the sand and how will it affect the type of shot I need to play? Is my ball in a depression or furrow caused by the bunker rakes?’

‘Is the ball so close to the bunker lip that I cannot play the next shot with the club I want to use to hit the required shot? Is the ball buried under the bunker lip, requiring a shot played in a direction away from the target area? Is the bunker lip so high that I can’t see the flagstick or direction where I want to hit the shot? Will the bunker lip interfere with the swing path of my golf club?’

‘What kind of stance will I have? Is the ball on a severe upslope, down slope, or will it be above or below my feet on a side hill lie? Is the sand so soft that a solid stance will not be possible? Are there leaves, rocks, foot prints, or pine needles in the bunker which will interfere with my stance or the ability to strike the ball cleanly?’

‘How much green do I have to work with between the bunker and the hole? Are there other bunkers, trees, or water hazards between the bunker and the hole? Are there other hazards on the far side of the green or fairway that I might hit into if I play a poor shot?’

There is a negative connotation associated with almost all of these questions golfers are asking as they analyze the situation they find themselves in when facing a bunker shot. There is a wide range of perceptions possible in the mind and heart of a golfer as they assess the challenge of hitting a shot from the bunker. The two extreme contrasting sets of perceptions and expectations that golfers may have can be summed up with these statements:

  1. A bunker is a hazard, I shouldn’t have hit the ball into the hazard, and I deserve whatever penalty results from the difficulty associated with playing a bunker shot. It is up to me to overcome the challenge this bunker shot presents and hit a great shot.vs.
  2. I cannot believe someone put a bunker in this location. The best golfer in the world couldn’t hit a shot from this downhill, fried egg lie and keep it on the green. This bunker is so unfair.

How should golf course superintendents react?

Golf course superintendents charged with the responsibility of maintaining bunkers can easily understand these two extreme approaches because we tend to develop our plans for bunker maintenance according to how hazardous we think bunker shots should be. Golf course superintendents also demonstrate extreme positions regarding perceptions and expectations of bunker playing conditions that can be summed up by these statements:

  1. A bunker is a hazard — you must be penalized for hitting the ball into a hazard. Golf is like life. It’s not supposed to be fair. Don’t hit it in the hazard.vs.
  2. Sorry your ball came to rest in the bunker. We have packed the sand so that the ball will always roll down to the bottom of the bunker and you will never have a buried or side hill lie in the bunker. Hopefully you can get the ball up and down from this unfortunate situation and into the hole in no more than two shots. You might even be able to hit this bunker shot into the hole.

There is obviously a wide range of differing perceptions and expectations between these completely opposite viewpoints regarding playing conditions for bunkers. With so many differing opinions regarding bunker playing conditions, it is very important that golf course superintendents take the initiative to discuss these issues with the Green Committees, private owners, supervisors, or governing bodies which employ them. All interested parties must reach a consensus opinion regarding desirable playing conditions for the golf course’s bunkers, and determine if the golf facility has the financial ability to provide those conditions on a regular basis. Otherwise, golf course superintendents will find it impossible to formulate and execute maintenance plans that provide playing conditions for bunkers that meet the expectations of their employers and golfers.

How should a golf course superintendentreacha consensus with the golfers?

This set of discussion questions will help golf course superintendents and golfers determine what perceptions and expectations of bunker conditions should be for their golf course.

  1. Should a golfer ever have a buried lie in a bunker?
  2. Should a golf ball always roll back to the flat portion of the bunker and not come to rest on a slope?
  3. On average, what percentage of the time should a golfer be able to get the ball out of a greenside bunker and into the hole in two shots?
  4. On average, what percentage of the time should a golfer be able to hit a shot from a fairway bunker onto a green?
  5. Should a golfer ever have to play a shot from underneath or against the lip of a bunker?
  6. Should the surface of the sand be smooth or furrowed?
  7. Does the playing condition of the bunker provide equal hazard to the low and high handicap player?
  8. Can we determine and define the difference between a ‘fair’ and an ‘unfair’ bunker?

These questions may be asked in a formal or an informal fashion. Golf course superintendents and their employers can utilize Greens Committee discussions, individual communication with golfers, input from other staff members, golfer surveys and golfer focus group discussions to determine what perceptions and expectations are for bunker playing conditions. With answers to these questions we can begin to define what the degree of difficulty for our golf course bunkers should be. A fairly simple method can help us quantify the current degree of difficulty for our golf course bunkers. Ask a group of 10 to 15 regular golfers, preferably with differing skill levels, to record the results of their shots from bunkers over a period of a month or two. Every time they hit into a greenside bunker, have them document how many shots are required to get out of the bunker and into the hole. Also have them document how many shots are required to get out of a fairway bunker and onto the green. If golfers are hitting shots out of greenside bunkers and into the hole in two shots 50% of the time we know that the greenside bunkers are extracting about a half shot penalty. If no one is able to hit a shot out a fairway bunker onto the green when the green is within a reachable distance from the fairway bunker, we know the penalty for being in the bunker is close to a full shot. Armed with this type of information, golf course superintendents and other concerned parties can begin to accurately define the desired degree of difficulty for a golf course’s bunkers. When consensus is reached regarding the desired degree of difficulty for playing bunker shots, bunker maintenance plans can be developed for providing the desired bunker playing conditions. This does not assure that we will satisfy all our golfers regarding their expectations of bunker playing conditions. Golf course superintendents must never forget that maintaining bunkers will always be ‘hazardous duty’.