The Problem with Bunkers

Posted on 23rd March, 2016 Source: Sean Wallace, Olympic View

The Rules of golf define a bunker as: "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. A wall or lip of the bunker not covered with grass is part of the bunker". Bunkers can be a pain in the neck from both a maintenance and a golfing stand point. Golfers hate them and despise the thought of going into them. Fearless is a Superintendent that wants to add bunkers or make them bigger or even deeper. Even normal upkeep and renovations can come under the scrutiny of passing golfers.

So why do we have them? Why does a Superintendent spend so much time and money raking, weeding, removing rocks and debris, moving and adding sand, trimming edges, mowing banks, refreshing drainage, fixing wash-outs caused by rain and irrigation, repairing worn entrance and exit points, redesigning, bowling out and installing liners?  It’s funny how in depth the list of constant daily maintenance goes into a course feature that is so unpopular.

Over time, the sand from thousands of bunker shots ends up on the faces of banks causing grass to die banks to slide, liners to rip, drainage lines to clog and sand to become contaminated. The daily, monthly and yearly labour that goes into maintaining all of the bunkers on a golf course is huge. Surely it would be easier to have no bunkers, and instead, simply a vast expanse of kept grass from tee to green on every hole. Surely the only purpose for bunkers on a golf course is just to get on everyone’s nerves, a practical joke cooked up by a Scotsman all those years ago, the perfect way to ruin a good round of golf.

Unfortunately for everyone, bunkers it would seem, are here to stay. They are becoming larger, deeper and ever more complex in their design. Greenkeepers are taught at school that the importance of a bunker, its correct positioning and maintenance, is almost as important as a green, a fairway or having a good level tee box. Their importance goes beyond whether or not a golfer is going to hit a ball into them. They are an integral part of golf course design, a leading factor in how the course looks, feels and plays.

Philip Christian Spogard is a Danish golf course architect working for Thomson Perrett & Lobb in London, a company responsible for many championship golf courses in Africa and the Middle East. In an Article he wrote for a greenkeeping magazine in Europe he goes in to detail his thoughts on the importance of bunkers:"Bunkers serve many purposes; they help dictate the strategy of the golf holes, they provide character and are of immense aesthetic value. In fact, the whole look and feel of the golf course changes so dramatically depending on what style of bunkering is chosen, that the bunkers might be considered the key design feature on most golf courses.” Correct bunker placement and design can change a course. It can add drama and visual memories for golfers.

When installing a bunker, the entire surrounding area has to be thought about. How should a golfer be penalized if they hit a poor bunker shot? Does the look of the new bunker keep within the feel of the rest of the course? Is it historically accurate and does it work with the standard of play of the golfers that use the course? If a golf course had no bunkers, playing a round of golf would be akin to hitting a ball around a field. Correctly placed bunkers around a green help to frame the green site and strategic bunkers to the sides of fairways can help to catch a ball before it flies out of bounds or even dictate the club that a golfer may use off the tee. On face value, bunkers are a pain, but their value really does extend further than anyone gives them credit for.

So next time you look up and that sinking feeling fills your stomach as your ball hurtles through the air towards its sandy destination. Remember the architects thought process with the placement of a bunker on the course and the time, effort and money that goes into having them exist. Picture the view without that glimpse of sand peeking out at you, menacingly waiting for you to duff your shot, and smile.

Sean Wallace
Olympic View Golf Couse

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