Plenty of sand but no bunkers at PGA

Ocean Course at Kiawah Island

By decree of the PGA of America, there will be no bunkers defined as such at this year’s PGA Championship.

Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, the notorious Pete Dye-designed layout on a barrier island off the South Carolina shore south of Charleston, will be set up with sandy waste areas defined as “through the green” rather than as bunkers. The delineation, announced July 24, pertains to all areas of sand that are not part of (red-staked) lateral water hazards or (yellow-staked) water hazards.

The 94th PGA Championship, to be played Aug. 9-12, thus becomes the first of golf’s four professional majors to be conducted without bunkers. It’s not the first time a championship event has been held at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course this way, however. The “no-bunker” ruling was in place during the course’s inaugural event, the 1991 Ryder Cup, and also was operative during the 2007 Senior PGA Championship held there.

The Ocean Course is a uniquely sand-strewn design, with patches of sand dotting every hole, some of them well-contained within turfed areas like traditional-looking bunkers, and others with raw, unkempt edges that transition naturally into dunes and native-grassed areas. Apparently, drawing a distinction between the two areas would have proved a nightmare for rules officials as well as for the maintenance staff.

For the PGA, all sandy areas within the gallery ropes will be raked each morning by the greenkeeping staff. But players landing their golf balls here will be able to ground their club, remove loose impediments, take practice strokes and, if needed, remove sand covering the ball in order to identity it. Rakes also will be provided in more heavily played areas so that players can cover their tracks as a courtesy to other players. But competitors also should expect to see plenty of footprints – some of which might affect the lies they encounter.

The decision to define all areas as ‘through the green” stands in marked contrast to a very different setup that prevailed at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., for the 2010 PGA Championship. There, on another Pete Dye-designed course, all of the layout’s 1,200-plus sandy areas (not even the maintenance crew had ever fully been able to count them!) were defined as bunkers – those outside the ropes as well as those inside the ropes that had been trampled by spectators. The setup contributed directly to the weird denouement on the 72nd hole, where then-leader Dustin Johnson was penalized two strokes for grounding his club in a bunker that he thought was a waste area. That transgression cost him the lead as well as a spot in the ensuing playoff between Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer.

The setup at this year’s PGA will obviate that kind of confusion. But it also might inadvertently lead to another unsettling image – a leader coming to grief down the close when his ball finds a footprint in the sand left behind by a player or his caddie.

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