Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Guest commentary: The hazards of sand bunkers, Part II

By Mary Armstrong/For the Sun-News
Posted: 09/24/2010 12:00:00 AM MDT


In my last article I explained some of the basics of selecting the right sand for bunkers. It was good information to know, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s not the most interesting reading. Bunkers are probably the single most prolific designed feature on the golf course. They are wonderfully versatile. As hazards —as they are most often employed — they can be used as strategic elements. But that’s just the beginning.

Bunkers are sometimes used to catch errant shots to protect an adjacent location or keep balls from leaving the playing corridor. The fairway bunkers to the left of the 10th at Sonoma Ranch Golf Course fit this bill. A shot that is hooking to the left can easily hit the ground in that area and bound further left into the hazard or out of bounds.

Directional bunkers are located to provide an aiming reference. Often they are used where the terrain makes it difficult to determine what the intended line of the tee shot should be. Donald Ross was perhaps the best I know at this. The terrain of the sand hills in North Carolina made for some semi-blind tee shots and Ross gave the player a “hint” by placing a bunker, usually near the fairway horizon line, which could be easily carried. His directional bunkers usually protruded into the fairway so that the aiming point was the edge nearest the center of the fairway. The right fairway bunker on the 18th at Sonoma is the best example of a directional bunker in this area. Today, directional bunkers are not used as often because architects have larger, more efficient earth-moving equipment at their disposal as well as more plentiful budgets.

In my opinion, the aesthetic bunker is perhaps overdone. Architects feel a lot of pressure to deliver the dramatic image which often translates into the aesthetic bunker. Today visuals are king-curb appeal, the ubiquitous “signature” hole, marketing materials to sell the playing experience and more often, marketing materials to sell the surrounding real estate drive the design.

Bunkers are of nearly any shape and size, subject only to the architect’s imagination. An exception is that very large and especially very long bunkers can impede players’ movements as they avoid walking through a bunker and subsequently rake their tracks. Very large bunkers can also be a greater playing hazard for the average to novice because they often hit errant shots further off line. This in turn means that their bunker shots will be much longer and we all know that the toughest shot in golf is the 40-to-70 yard bunker shot. The edges of the bunker are ordinarily vertical — for perhaps a height of one-to-two inches, but certainly not more than three inches. The reason for this is to contain sand, but also to prevent players from putting out of the bunker. Anything higher than a few inches makes the edges susceptible to degradation and is too penal.

The grading around the bunker — usually called shaping — is critical to making the bunker fit aesthetically. Bunkers that are freeform — that is the edges curve in and out several times — have areas called capes and bays. Imagine the ocean shoreline. Where the land juts out into the water it is called a cape. Conversely, where the bunker is wider, it mimics a seaside bay. So, typically, the capes are fingers of rough that will have mounds or other rises in grade, while the bays are surrounded by turfed ground that generally has a lower elevation or at least a more moderate slope. If you have read my articles previously, you know that the architect strives to direct surface runoff around the bunker. The effect is a “mini-continental divide” around it, basically along the tops of the mounds and swells (or subtle ridges) that create the bunker shape. And so, the old adage of “form follows function” in design applies perfectly well. The landforms created to control water flows also serve to fashion an aesthetic context for the bunker itself. The effect that I look for is for the landforms to appear as though they are “coddling” the bunker — protecting it, containing it, you might even say indulging its form.

There is also a safety or accessibility aspect. A good bunker will allow access for players without requiring them to scramble up and down a steep slope.

Finally, bunkers must be maintained. Bunker raking is a daily or near daily procedure and the vast majority of bunkers should be constructed so that mechanized bunker rakes can enter the bunker, rake most of the sand surface and then exit in another location. Careless operation of the bunker rake — either in its entrance or exit (when sand may get jarred off into the adjoining grass) can cause damage to the bunker edge or surrounding rough turf.

Bunkers receive a large portion of the maintenance budget at the golf course. We as players demand it and the competition for players can often come down bunker quality. As players we need to do our part: always rake the bunker carefully when you finish your shot; never exit the bunker toward the green surface unless the slope is slight and inviting; be careful at the bunker edges not to step into an unstable area which could damage the edge and worse yet send you to nasty spill.

And remember — the bunker shot is the one shot in golf that favors you novices!

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces last January. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog:


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