A Complete Look at Bunkering
The Origins of Bunkers
A lot of the revered bunkers at the great links came to be by circumstance. Often they were small hollows created by sheep or blow-outs created by wind. Some were depressions that were almost natural bunkers right from the start while others were scars that are still there but just kept a lot more formally than they once were. Many of the greatest bunkers were natural.
I’ve been reading extensively about the Old Course once again and the quest for the origin of the Road Hole Bunker caught my attention. I had always assumed that the bunker was added by Allan Robertson when he made alterations to the 17th green. Well it seems that the bunker was in place already by his 17th birthday since it is shown on an early map of the course. It was originally thought that he added the bunker when he did his work to expand the 17th green, but now we know differently. The origin [as I understand it] is the people of the town apparently used to dig in many of the bunkers to get shells and this location was a particularly good spot close to the town. The bunkers depth came from the people’s quest for shells; which eventually was stopped when the golf course became too busy and popular to allow this activity to continue.
Even the Road Hole Bunker itself has evolved from its origins throughout the years. Think of the constant build up of sand on the lip and the regular replacement of the revetted bunker face that takes place now and you will understand how much this bunker changes on a regular basis. I have pictures from 1989 where the lip wasn’t nearly as high, the bunker was slightly smaller and the bottom was not near as deep. They have restored the bunker fairly frequently and usually now use old photos as direction. Each recent change has been well documented in golf magazines for each of the British Opens. The bunker is now so deep with a lip so high, that recovery is nearly impossible for all but the most skilled. I often wonder how much of the bunker’s greatness has to do with evolution.
Now think of what I have said so far, the bunker which I think is the best in the world was not placed by an architect, and the depth was determined by circumstance. Even evolution seems to have made the bunker more of a factor than it initially was. The lesson is to go find the natural bunkers that nature has already provided right on the property.
Modern architects generally bulldoze everything and then build the bunkers in the locations that make the most sense by distance and intended strategy. This myopic view does not deal with mixed abilities or the constant changes in technology. Bunker placement often needs be more natural and happenstance to make the game interesting for everyone. It’s too bad so many architects don’t seem to see that the land often makes many of the best decisions for you by providing natural hollows and scars to be used in the routing of the course.
The reason that Coore and Crenshaw are so respected by their peers is there ability to use the existing site. Just look at Sand Hills many of the holes are designed around a series of very impressive natural blowouts. Bill Coore explains why they routed many tee shots diagonally over the blow outs at Sand Hills when he states, “There is nothing more thrilling or appealing than skirting over an impressive or fearsome hazard.” Coore and Crenshaw found and used the natural hazards of the property at Sand Hills, as opposed to making them, and that is what makes that course more memorable than almost any other course in the world. Find the natural bunkers first, then start adding new ones.
Why Do We Need Bunkers?
While bunkers are inconvenient and frustrating to the player, they are essential to the core spirit of the game. They are used, in combination with other hazards, to define the risk and set the requirements of the hole. They are the architect’s most common tool to force players to make decisions and to think.
Willian Flynn describes the role of the architect best when he said, “The principle consideration of an architect is to hold the interest of a player from the first tee to the last green” I can not find a better quote to explain our role. Please notice how at no point he mentioned the words difficulty or challenge! The way we create interest is by careful placement of bunkering and other hazards to creates decisions. Decisions lead to strategy and options, and as Bobby Weed always likes to say over and over again, “Options equal interest.”
Max Behr one of the greatest writers on golf of all time had a beautiful explanation of what golf architects are trying to accomplish with bunker placement. “The direct line to the hole is called the line of instinct, and to make a great hole you must break up that line in order to create a line of charm. The line of charm is the provocative path that shaves off distance and provides an ideal an ideal line into the green, usually by skirting bunkers and other hazards. The golfer wants the most direct line he can find to the hole, while the architect uses bunkers and other hazards to create risk and reward options that suggest the ideal line for the player, or the line of charm.”
Imagine a hole that has no bunkers, or more importantly any deterrent to playing directly at the hole. The hole is simply a test of a prescribed length requiring a set of shots to reach the putting surface. Now if there is even one bunker added to the front left of the green, the ideal tee shot is down the right to open up the angle in. There is developed a rudimentary strategy. Add a bunker in the right rough and you have a situation where you need to skirt that bunker for the ideal line, and the strategy is stronger. That is the first basic of strategic bunker placement.
If that were it, and it is for some architects, then we would all understand how to break down great architecture…but it’s not. Consider Alister MacKenzie’s quote of, “No hole is a good hole unless it has one or more hazards in the direct line of the hole.” Why not in the middle of play like the Principal’s Nose at St. Andrews. This may be another of the finest bunkers in the history of the game. The bunker is exactly where you want to play. Go safely to the left but receive a much tougher angle; play right, risking the out of bounds, and get rewarded with the ideal approach line. That is a superior fairway bunker placement and outstanding strategy. This also must open your eyes to realize that the options and reasons for bunker placement are becoming limitless.
The Value of Depth
I thought I would explain the value of a hazard and talk about depth before we take on the concept of fairness. My favorite quote regarding the value of a bunker and what it is supposed to accomplish is by Walter Travis, “The primary idea of a hazard [bunker] is to punish, to the extent of one stroke, a poorly placed shot, and to make the recovery exceedingly difficult, and even by the virtue of the following shot being extraordinarily good. If this end is not attained, the existing hazard fails to fulfill its function.”
I regularly deal with greens committees where players believe you should be able to get out of a bunker easily and advance the ball as far as you want. If they had their way all bunkers would be flat. Remember Max Behr’s quote regarding the line of charm: “The line of charm is the provocative path that shaves off distance and provides an ideal line.” The line of charm only works when the bunkers offer enough of a deterrent to make the player not follow the line of instinct.
If the bunker is shallow golfers will play exceeding close to them with no fear of having to extricate themselves. They will also swing the club freely since there is no fear of punishment for missing the shot. If the bunker is very deep, and the possibility exists of losing more than one shot, the player will play farther away to lessen the risk. The line of charm may still be very tight to the bunkers, but the player will tend to play away. They will also swing a little less freely if they have fear of going into the bunker. Thus, the importance of depth works on more than one level.
Often because of human nature we find ourselves in a situation where we want to risk the carry. If the bunker is shallow, there is little to be gained but an improved position on the fairway; but if the bunker is fearsome, then we gain the undeniable thrill of carrying a ball over such a dangerous bunker. The thrill we feel is very much related to the depth of the hazard we just carried. There is also nothing so deflating as attempting a carry over a deep bunker and realizing the ball came up short, particularly if you know you had the ability to make the shot. Part of this is the realization that we must now make a tough recovery.
The recovery is what defines the punishment or value of the hazard. If we can get to the green or have a great chance of getting up and down the bunker has limited value. The need to play backwards or “just get it out” has a place, but is not completely desirable either. The best bunkers suggest that we can make the shot, but require an exceptional recovery, one that may erase the lost stroke.
Pete Dye expressed this idea of hazards and the recovery shot, “Hazards are essential to the game of golf. I cannot imagine playing without experiencing that marvelous feeling of hitting a recovery shot from a hazard, or the anticipation of my opponent trying to recover from a deep pot bunker only to have the ball catch the upper lip and roll back towards his feet. This is what makes the game exciting and keeps the players coming back for more.”
The origins of golf had only two rules that applied to hazards, play it as it lies and the rub of the green. Now there is so much money and so much ego wrapped up in the game to accept any bad breaks. We insist that bunkers be uniformly maintained, consistent in condition from course to course and fairly easy to get out of. We have gone from a bad lie being a bad break to questioning the golf superintendent’s ability and the design of the bunker. The game has changed … for the worse.
We began with the uncertainty and unpredictability of links golf where bad lies were expected and simply played. By playing the game we learned lessons of humility and perseverance but all that has gone out the window in favor of certainty and fairness. The modern concept of players aiming at bunkers because they can reach the green from the fairway bunker or get up and down easily from a green-side bunker illustrates us how much the game has deviated from its origins.
George Thomas says, “Hazards should be arranged to tempt and challenge but laid out so all classes of players have optional routes to the hole. Hazards should not unduly penalize from which there is no chance of recovery.” What he is saying is that the bunkers should encourage good players to flirt. The weaker player should have options to play around and away from trouble and all golfers should have an option to recover based upon their ability.
Other opinions are harsher regarding the fairness of bunkers. Willie Park Jr. said, “If a bunker is visible to the player, and there is sufficient room to avoid it, it is the player’s responsibility to steer clear of it.” Again, there is the mention of options to play away from or around the bunker, and this is another form of fairness. Fairness has nothing to do with the removal of a hazard but everything about providing sufficient ground beside the bunker to avoid it even with extra shots.
Bill Coore has always advocated a mixture of bunkers from simple to the fearsome, believing that all have a place on the course. His design philosophy is evident in his open-minded opinion of hazards and bunkers, “No element that creates interest can ever be seen as unfair. The players must simply deal with what’s put in front of them with the most efficient use of strokes that they are capable of using. It is up to them on what they are going to contend with and how they are going to avoid the potential pitfalls. Everything is up to them and everything is fair.”
The most unfortunate aspect is that for nearly 50 years our architecture was dumbed-down in the name of fairness. When the difficulty was eased or maintenance made more “player friendly” there was a detrimental effect on architecture. Tom Doak has long been advocating for the return of more natural, rugged bunkers with a less clearly defined outcome. His bunkers appear more natural appearance and closer to their origins. There is a greater risk of getting a difficult lie; and most importantly more emphasis on the hazard being where you will likely drop a stroke. The last word should go to Mike DeVries who simply says, “It’s a hazard, deal with it.”
If a bunker is easy to get out of you will give it little thought during the round but if a bunker requires you to play backwards you will be acutely aware of its location and that you need to avoid it. Pete Dye commented, “Strategic placement of bunkers subconsciously forces the golfer to head away from the bunkers, when the better route is to hug them….when you get those dudes thinking they’re in trouble.” I think the comment is missing a reference to depth and how it affects the thoughts and mind of the player. There still must be repercussions that force those dudes to think.
What gets a player thinking is the difficulty of the recovery. If a player faces a bunker where any club is an option then he will hug the bunker seeking the ideal line because there is no fear of missing the shot. He will also swing without fear since there is nothing to loose and nothing to get nervous about. How can that hazard offer any strategy but for the high handicappers who fear sand in general?
If the bunker is nasty and recovery very unlikely the player aims away out of fear. He will make a tentative swing to steer away from the trouble rather than hitting a confident stroke. This occurs when a bunker has enough presence to get into the players head. Donald Ross said, “Hazards and bunkers are placed so as to force a man to use judgment and to exercise mental control in making the correct shot.” If there is no risk, why should a player exercise either judgment or control? Players often complain about the recovery from such a bunker but if he has attempted an aggressive line and failed you must ask them why a safer line wasn’t chosen?
I’ve never understood why a deep bunker in a key location is unfair when an architect provides either width or an alternative route. As Donald Ross points out, “Often the highest recommendation of a bunker is when it is criticized. 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.”
I must admit I love Mike DeVries blunt comment, “it’s a hazard, deal with it.” It strikes me absurd that many a member will tolerate or enjoy the most penal of hazards on the links courses and be so critical of a similar feature at their own club. It is the great hazards at our courses and how we handle them that define us as players. Perhaps it’s a matter of ego. I often deal with players who continue to attack a hole or pin where discretion would yield better results. The fault is not with the depth or difficulty of the hazard; it is with the player’s decision-making. Charles Blair Macdonald said, “The object of a bunker or trap is not only to punish a physical mistake, to punish a lack of control, but also to punish pride and ego.”
The game is about management and execution, shallow bunkers do not identify either. Pine Valley remains the ultimate psychological test for a player. You are immediately intimidated by the amount of sand and the perception that every miss will be punished. The brilliance of Pine Valley’s waste areas is that players visualize disaster rather than concentrating on execution. When you look beyond the trouble you find a course with plenty of width between trees, wide fairways and large greens. However, most players get fixated on the trouble! Mike Stranz borrowed this psychological ploy in developing his courses and uses depth and punishment to keep the players attentive. He believes out that we get a bigger sense of accomplishment in overcoming the obstacles on such holes than we would on a course without any penalty. I agree.
Alister MacKenzie said it best, “It is much too large a subject to go into the placing of hazards but I would like to emphasize a fundamental principle. It is that no hazard is unfair wherever it is placed.” St. Andrews has bunkers at an infinite variety of distances in some of the more unusual locations. They affect all classes of players and all lines of play. All bunkers punish the misadventure yet all offer another route to the hole. Strategy begins when the player can play safely to the left but then face a tougher approach or he can challenge bunkers on the right to receive a much more open approach to the green. Therein lies a strategy that is often missed but very much part of the course.
I would like to provide a series of architects’ comments that reveal their beliefs on the use of bunkering to create strategy. Jack Nicklaus said, “What I like to do is make [the golfer] decide between the glory of the long ball and the practicality of an alternative route.” I find Jack bunkers are often on both sides, saying if you want to hit driver than you better hit is straight. I’m more fond of the carry angle that Mike Stranz describes, “The more you flirt with a hazard – the closer you stay to hazards or successfully carry hazards – the shorter the distance you should have to a hole with a better angle of approach.” If you choose to play wide to avoid the hazard, you face a longer approach. You take on the hazard and succeed; you have the best angle and shortest shot.
Gil Hanse said, “perhaps centerline bunkers should be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to fairway hazards.” Now this is a far more interesting concept when you consider how effective it is on the 16th hole at St. Andrews (the Principal’s Nose). The player has to either, skirt the bunker, fly it, or play short. This works best and creates the most strategy when the fairway is ample.
Alister MacKenzie said, “A hazard placed in the exact position where a player would naturally go is frequently the most interesting situation, as then special effort is needed to get over or avoid it.” If you think about bunkers like the 6th at Carnoustie, the Principal’s Nose or Braid’s bunker at Nairn you realize how valuable they are “in” the landing area rather than lost on the sides. This type of bunker placement represents an important reintroduction of width and options for strategy and challenge.
William Langford said, “That hazards should not be built solely with the idea of penalizing bad play but with the object of encouraging thoughtful play and rewarding a player who possesses the ability to play a variety of strokes with each club.” When we set up a hole with bunkers we have many intentions. We want the player to flirt like a game of cat and mouse. We want them to challenge a few for the reward of accomplishment but also suggest that at least one or two should be avoided at all costs. All bunkers should make the player think!
Robert Hunter has a quote that best approaches my own personal philosophy, “The best architects seek, in placing their hazards, to call forth for great shots. Some of their best holes reward handsomely fine golf but have no obvious penalties for bad golf. Such holes are so cunningly laid out that those playing bad shots lose strokes by the position in which they find themselves.” C.B. Macdonald’s interpretation of the use of The Road Hole bunker accomplishes this best of all. Truth is I haven’t taught you hardly anything yet, so now you understand why nobody can teach placement and strategy, it is a long slow learning process through observation and understanding.
Bunkers are the most visual and memorable of all the elements found on a course. So much so that some including myself would argue that too much attention is spent on their aesthetics. This may be funny considering that most feel that one of my greatest strengths is the quality of my bunkering. Almost all golfers’ critiques revolve around the look and playing characteristics of the bunkers and often fail to notice the quality of all the other elements that make up a golf course. A great set of greens are far more important than great bunkers but everyone is drawn to evaluating a course by the bunkers since they are far easier to judge and far more obvious to the eye. Since bunkers are so obsessed over, especially their aesthetics, let’s take a look at that aspect.
The wonderful impact of bunkers is that there are so many possibilities. We have the rugged look of Coore and Doak, sod walls on the links, the wild fingers and bays of Thompson, Tillinghast and MacKenzie, the rugged faces and depth of a Colt bunker, the engineered steep walls of Raynor and Banks and …… the dull maintenance and player friendly bunkers of modern architecture. There are more; raw scars, sand blowouts, the inverted bunkers of Travis and Emmet; I really only touch the surface with this list but have hopefully established that the actual options are limitless.
Why do some projects like Pacific Dunes and Sand Hill work so much better than other modern efforts? Or a better question may be; why do architects only make one type of bunker when we have these limitless options to choose from (that answer is comfort). The answer is that most great bunkering has more to do with reflecting the nature of the site than it does with placement. Alister MacKenzie said, “All the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.” When adding a bunker to a site, you have two options. You can have it blend in which always works or you can have it offer a contrast which if done well is spectacular but when done poorly is a disaster!
The work of Raynor and Banks offers an example of distinction through contrast. So why does their work still feel like it fits? Because, beyond the engineered form “of the interior,” they quickly and effectively tie everything to the original grade. So beyond the bunker placement, the remainder of the golf course is as natural as can be. This all gets even more interesting with the Travis and Leeds chocolate drops which somehow still fit the setting despite being clearly man-made. I believe that comes down to creativity and the fact that no two forms ever appear the same. It’s that randomness that somehow makes those aggressive forms acceptable in the natural setting. The reason modern mounds just don’t accomplish this end is because the work is far too repetitive and predictable to evoke anything natural. Robert Hunter describes this well when he said, “All artificial hazards should be made to fit the ground as if placed there by nature. To accomplish this is a great art. Indeed, when it is really done well it is, I think it may truly be said a fine art, worthy of the hand of a gifted sculptor.”
In my experience only a handful of architects have been able to create bunkers that blur the line between strategy and art. The greatest of all was Alister MacKenzie who combined artistry with scale, a little intimidation, a tremendous amount of strategy and the greatest blending an architect has ever done. To this very day he remains the standard to which any architect must hold his bunker work because he is the only architect to manage to have it work perfectly.
There is one alternative to all of this to achieve really great bunkering. Go out and find a natural one that you won’t have to create. Donald Ross pointed out to us, “The fascination of the most famous hazards in the world lies in the fact that they were not and could not have been constructed.”
Are they beginning to lose their Strategic Value?
As mentioned previously bunkers are often used to define the risk and set the requirements of the hole. They are the architect’s most common tool to force players to make decisions and to think.
In the last three decades membership expectations for bunker maintenance have reached a point of perfection at all times. In the early days of the game bunkers were considered the worst place to find your ball, but in the modern day they have often become the best place. We can credit Golf Superintendents and Architects for having a greater understanding of how to build a better bunker. New techniques in construction were developed specifically to prevent sand contamination but nothing has played a greater role in the development of perfect playing surfaces than manufactured bunker sand. It not only drains more efficiently than most native sand but maintains a firmer surface allowing the majority of the ball to remain fully exposed. Not only have the lies improved but so has the percentage of shots that end at the bottom of the bunker.
The PGA Tour statistics for bunker recovery have consistently improved from 1980 to 2000 matching the advances in bunker construction and maintence. While great teaching and a better understanding of equipment can be given some credit, nothing has played a bigger role than the quality of lie and consistency of sand found on tour. Don’t believe me? Just watch the British Open and you’ll see recoveries drop drastically because the bunker is still a hazard. In the UK there exists a more “sporting” view of what a bunker should be and nothing plays a larger role than the use of native sand that creates variety in playing conditions and lies. Over there nobody attempts to present a perfect bunker because in their view they are supposed to be hard to play out of.
One problem that all of this has created is financial. Every time golfers demand consistency or perfection it comes at a heavy price. The cost to build a bunker has risen dramatically as we have worked harder to come up with better detailing and fill them with extremely expensive manufactured sand. What is more alarming is that many courses now require 25% of their entire maintenance budget to keeping the bunkers at this extreme level. In an era where 90 bunkers are common, this practice is not sustainable.
Think about this rationally for a moment, we spend a staggering amount on the maintenance of the bunkers to make them as “easy” as possible to play out of, yet, they are a critical source of “strategy.” The traditional theory for a bunker is that they represent “a lost shot” and that lost shot can only be saved with an outstanding recovery. Yet when we watch the tour or play with the best players all we hear is, “Get in the bunker.”
In a recent presentation I identified the extensive use of short grass around greens as an alternative to bunkering and its recent emasculation. Some of the basis of this exploration was done to address the cost and maintenance of modern bunkering as many clubs are now open to reducing the number of bunkers to address the long term sustainability of operating budgets. But a lot of this was based around the fact that perfect conditions are undermining the intended consequences necessary to develop strategy.
Am I saying that the hazard should essentially go away?
Of course not, because we can never get past what a bunker does for the game. It’s the one architectural element that creates contrast as it acts the counterpoint to all the other harmonious elements of a golf course. It’s the feature that clearly distinguishes one course visually from others. When exceptionally well used bunkers can take the most pedestrian piece of ground and leave the player with a complex puzzle to solve. When brilliantly placed, even a single bunker like the Road Hole Bunker can dictate the route of play on preceding shots. When deep and disastrous enough it can place doubt in the most confident swing but most importantly even the most egregious of hazards can be overcome with one single moment of brilliance. That’s the perfect balance. No other hazard has quite the same impact.