2005: Featured - Hazardous tendencies

Silly me, I thought bunkers were supposed to be hazards. That’s their status according to the Rules of Golf. But that’s not what most golfers think – based, that is, on what they actually say about bunkers and how they’ve come to expect them to be maintained.

By my reckoning, when it comes to how golfers evaluate a golf course, bunkers are the second-most important element they consider. Only greens are ahead in priority. Architects rely heavily on bunkers to provide shotmaking strategy and stark contrasts in color, shape and playing texture. Yet the way bunkers have come to be maintained has created a race of heightened maintenance expectations. As a hazard, bunkers should pose problems for golfers, with the chances for recovery dependent upon extremes of skill and luck.

But if that truly were the case, bunkers wouldn’t have evolved to the point where they are flawlessly groomed, manicured and nursed, the same way greens, tees and fairways are. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that some upper-echelon clubs spend as much per square foot maintaining bunkers as they do for putting surfaces. Seems a little excessive, but then when golfers expect perfect lies every time without footprints, rake lines or sand pilings, then things are a little out of hand.

To start, why are there bunker rakes? Gone are the days when sheep, deer, rabbits and night crawlers (human and snake-like) traipsed their way happily through sand pits on golf courses. I’ve scoured historic photos of courses during major championships and find no evidence of rakes until the 1950s. Turf-related catalogs and magazines started offering rakes for sale in the 1920s. Initially, only the maintenance crew used the rakes. The practice of leaving them around during play and making them available to golfers as a standard element of mid-round repair probably did not evolve until after World War II. Western civilization hasn’t recovered from this colossal mistake.

On the PGA Tour for the past 20 years, bunkers have been “half-hazards.” PGA Tour statistics show that, on average, the successful recovery rate from greenside bunkers is 50 percent, meaning that hitting it beachside exacts precisely a half-shot penalty. Of course, PGA Tour staff agronomists work assiduously with superintendents to make sure bunkers meet stringent requirements with respect to uniformity of sand depth and the playing quality of the sand. No buried lies – that would be embarrassing. And we certainly don’t want a Tour event to be decided by such a fickle thing as fate, good luck or a bad break. That would be too much like . . . real golf.

Superintendents, agronomists and architects work behind the scenes studying sand specifications and making sure it passes through high-tech lab tests for porosity, compaction and particle size distribution. If you leave the decision of sand selection up to most golfers, they’d choose the same way most people buys cars – on the basis of color. White, for instance. I love it when some star-struck green chairman who has played too much golf in the Bahamas insists on blinding white stuff for their parkland layout in the north. Usually, the color will last about half the season, then turn dull, soft brown. Not that there’s anything wrong with tawny. But if you’re pretending to be Augusta National, it can be a bit of a letdown to have the sand revert like that.

Of course it does help if you build the bunkers properly. Here’s one of the biggest changes in the industry in the last decade. Bunkers aren’t just pits in the ground; they’ve always had subsurface drainage, whether by percolation through the native soil or by installation of drain tile and an outlet pipe. Architects always have been mindful to steer water clear from the top of bunkers; a sure sign of bad design is bunkers that wash out because they serve as a drainage basin for the surrounding area.

Lately, bunker construction and drainage techniques have improved. Erosion-preventing liners covering the bunker floor help the sand adhere to slopes and prevent washouts, thereby saving on labor costs and preserving the longevity of the sand. Such techniques are, however, much more expensive up front. In a bunker renovation plan of an entire golf course, a standard 1,500-square-foot bunker will cost about $6,000-7,000 to rebuild, and upward of $10,000 apiece if the liners are used in conjunction with expanded drainage. But the added expense can be worth it because the life of the bunker will be substantially extended.

Bunker problems can’t be solved by throwing more sand into a hole, especially if the hole leaks, is clogged or overspills. Unfortunately, this is how a lot of under-financed, poorly managed courses address their bunker problems. They might as well be throwing sand into the wind. All they’re doing is piling more sand on top of gravel and dirt, in the mistaken belief that they literally can cover up the problem. Besides, there’s no need for more than 2-3 inches of sand in the face of a bunker and 3-4 inches on the floor.

What most golfers don’t realize is how playability is affected by the nature of the sand. In many cases, complaints come from golfers who have lousy sand games or who have the wrong sand wedge – with too much bounce, or with too little. Dense, compact sand requires a sand wedge with less bounce so that the clubface doesn’t skip off the surface of the bunker floor. By contrast, lighter, round-shaped, looser sand requires a sand wedge with more bounce so the leading edge of the flange can scoop under and get through the ball.

In some cases, a quick visit to the golf pro for a lesson and a purchase can solve longstanding problems that a golfer has with bunkers. If a bunker rebuild is needed, it’s best to have the full team on board in all decision-making, and that includes the pro, the greenkeeper and the architect. Cooperation on bunkers will leave golfers in the awkward situation of having no one else to blame for their incompetence but themselves.

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