News & Opinion

Bunkers pose hazards for players and owners alike

Smart, strategic use of bunkering in golf can enhance a course’s playability and allow operators to avoid maintenance headaches

There has been a lot of chatter about bunkering on golf courses lately in golf publications, so I wanted to add my opinion. The views differ about why bunkers exist, where they should be placed, and their reasons for doing so, but not many, if any, take into account who takes care of them. There should be a connection between the two.

Let’s start with the basic premise that a bunker is a hazard and something to be avoided generally, although in the past several decades that thought has changed somewhat among the touring professionals.

On the 9th hole at Montgomery Bell Golf Course in Burns, Tenn., a grass outline indicates where 2 bunkers were reconfigured into 1 smaller bunker. The outlying grass bunker – with dormant Bermudagrass in the wintertime – serves as a collection area for wayward shots that avoid the nearby sand.

On many occasions, good players aim at a greenside bunker, with the thought that landing in a particular bunker would be the lesser of two or more evils. Even I have taken that approach in competition in the past, and sometimes still do. So, there often is another side of the story. For today’s discussion, I will remove that part of the equation and look at the issue from the views of the recreational player and the course superintendents. And don’t forget the owner, the person or group who pays for it all, because the final statistic always is going to be the associated cost. The options: Keep the bunkers playable or not so playable; eliminate bunkers altogether; or use what I believe is a viable alternative: grass bunkers. All of these options can be compatible, enjoyable, and cost effective. Your course just has to decide what it is or what it wants to be.

There are at least two schools of thought here. For instance, if your course has a lot of greenside bunkers, they should be reasonably well maintained, allowing the player a decent chance of getting out – maybe not close to the hole, but out nonetheless. If there are very few greenside bunkers, then that thought could change dramatically. Your course could feature a few bunkers that players deem to be off-limits: Don’t hit it in there because you might not get out. Or, perhaps something in between.

Many courses feature one or two notorious bunkers that everyone talks about, the ones that should be avoided at all costs. The “Church Pews” between Nos. 3 and 4 at Oakmont, the “Road Hole Bunker” at No. 17 at St. Andrews’ Old Course, and the bunker in the middle of the sixth green at Riviera, site of last week’s PGA Tour stop, come to mind. That’s fine. They present a great challenge. I have seen those sorts of demanding bunkers greenside and in fairways, but there really shouldn’t be more than two or three per course, or it won’t be fun for the average player.

For this discussion, I would like to focus on the average player and an average or less-than-average course-maintenance budget. With more than 80 percent of courses in America being open to the public, it stands to reason that expenses determine green fees if course owners must break even or make a profit. This is where bunkers resonate the loudest. They are expensive to build and maintain, but how expensive?

Times have changed, and in the past 10 years there have been monumental strides in how bunkers are built and/or renovated and how they are maintained. As new-course construction in the U.S. has plummeted in the past 20 years, renovations have increased, so there are opportunities to redesign older courses to help keep them up with the times. Like it or not, the times are driven by the distance that the golf ball travels. This means that many of our older courses, which were built during an era of softer, shorter-flying balls, feature bunkers that have become obsolete, not in the best location, or simply not needed. That equates to money spent on maintenance that could be channeled to some other required maintenance activity.

Enter the grass bunker. In the past few years, I have been able to renovate all of the bunkers at one of our courses on the Tennessee Golf Trail and to re-contour and convert two of our courses from bentgrass greens to Champion Bermudagrass. During the greens renovations, I had the opportunity to fill in several bunkers that were relatively out of play in order to save maintenance costs, without changing the shot value of the holes. On most of these holes, we left enough of the landscape of the bunker to make it interesting without making it impossible to maintain.

We got the best of both worlds on a few of the renovations. Most of the changes did not affect the good player but might have saved the higher-handicap player a stroke or two. For instance, we eliminated three bunkers that were in the 40-60-yard range from a green. To me, this is the worst bunker of all for the low-handicapper and a nightmare for the recreational player. For us, those bunkers were round-breakers, so we eliminated them completely.

The changes had no adverse effect on our courses – in fact, it was quite the opposite. We don’t host U.S. Opens. We offer public courses for a modest price – an 18-hole round, with cart, for $30-$60, depending on the time and day, with walking rates even less expensive – so that golfers will have fun and come back for more. So, we would rather spend our money on manicuring our courses to the best of our budgets without spending an inordinate percentage of our maintenance resources on bunkers.

Hopefully, we will be able to give all of our courses a bit of a facelift in the near future, which includes renovating bunkers by using current technology that has saved untold amounts of money in maintenance costs.

For instance, at one or our courses we were spending 18 percent of our maintenance budget on bunkers: pumping water, filling holes, adding sand, and raking, with and without equipment. Now we spend 2 percent or less of our manpower on raking bunkers, and we rake them by hand.

There are two schools of thought on the savings. One, it is possible to cut down on labor and save the money. The second way, and the position I take, is that we use this as an opportunity savings. We kept our manpower but use it more efficiently in order to get things done that we should have done all along. This would be in the manicuring of the course that our guests can see, and believe me, they see it.

It’s all about drainage in bunkers, so either fix them or take them out and replace some with grass bunkering. It’s a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later approach. The course will save a lot of money over the long haul, and that makes everyone happy, players and owners alike.

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