News & Opinion

Bunker-busting strategy would help golf

BELEK, Turkey – Golf is an interesting game, with a history older than the beginning of any of the major sports in the U.S.

Although baseball, football, basketball and hockey developed from their inventors’ individual ideas about sports, the birth of golf is not as certain. The Scots claim to be the “home of golf,” dating to the 15th century, but there is evidence of the game’s origins centuries earlier in the ancient world.

As with every game, golf has its inherent intricacies, with water and sand being integral components. Which brings me to sand bunkers – specifically, greenside bunkers.

Bunkers in modern golf endure as a curious aspect of the game, tracing their origins to sheep. Centuries ago, when golf courses in the British Isles were unkempt and emerged as part of the landscape, sheep would graze on the land. When the cold wind blew off the adjacent sea, the animals would burrow into the soft turf to protect themselves from the elements, creating what we now know as bunkers.

Watching golf recently on TV, I noticed how players would hit shots into bunkers when in trouble versus taking the chance of making a more difficult shot. Professional golfers avoid one of the most important aspects of the game, using bunkers as a bail-out option. They know that they stand a better chance of getting up and down from the sand than from other, less predictable spots around the green.

In the amateur game, bunkers ruin many a round, because they act as true hazards for most of us who don’t play golf for a living.

Considering that professionals use bunkers to their advantage and amateurs despise the experience of playing from the sand, should an alternative be pursued?

Bunkers typically consume 25-33 percent of a golf course’s annual maintenance budget, according to course owners and superintendents. Add the costs of occasional bunker restoration and the replacement of sand. That is money that could be spent in ways that would enhance the golf experience with better-maintained facilities, plus removing the frustration of bunker play for the average golfer.

On the professional side, many insiders are looking for ways to return the game to pre-2000 levels, specifically regarding distance.

The modern touring pro despises uncertainty with lies. How the ball will come out of high rough or what type of shot to play from a bare or tight lie around a green can give most professionals pause.

If golf course architects were to eliminate greenside sand bunkers and instead incorporate mounds with long rough or even a depression with rough, the conditions would make the game more interesting versus watching a player continue to get up and down easily from a greenside sand bunker.

“Now, all the bunkers are so perfect, there's no penalty anymore,” Jack Nicklaus said in 2006 before his Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. “Bunkers are really supposed to be a penalty. I don't care about them being a penalty. Right now, guys look at a par 5: If I don't get it on the green, and put it in the bunker, I know I can get it up and down and we move on.”

Nicklaus’ approach that year was to use a rake with wider and deeper teeth, to create furrowed sand in the bunkers and produce inconsistent lies. The experiment lasted only one year as players complained, prompting the PGA Tour to restore the bunkers to their familiar, pristine conditions.

Since 2013, sand-save percentages on the PGA Tour have averaged 49 percent or higher. The typical amateur doesn’t come close to that mark. With golf participation down, bunkers remain as an obstacle to fun, faster play.

Bunkers were designed in collaboration with Mother Nature and the sheep that wandered the links land of Scotland. Is that a good-enough reason to keep them?

The ability to make a golf course harder for professionals and easier for amateurs would provide a significant revenue upside by eliminating bunkers.

Bunkers likely won’t disappear any time soon, but it’s a thought that makes sense.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli