In both the golf booms of the 1920s and 1990s, courses were built without regard for the possibilities of tougher financial times. That notion reversed in the harder years of 1930s and 2010s. In the depression era 1930s, famed architect A.W. Tillinghast toured the country for the PGA of America, recommending the removal of thousands of bunkers, including some of his own making just a few years earlier. Alister MacKenzie, who still had a few commissions in the depression, sought economy by minimizing bunkering, with exhibit No. 1 being Augusta National, which opened with 22 bunkers.
This philosophy dominated most of golf course design until the golf boom of 1980-2005, when architects forgot history. A good economy, and the need to build award-winning, highly photogenic, residential-enhancing courses, gave rise to the birth of over bunkering. Sand bunkers proliferated like weeds, but this time, it wasn’t just the top architects building courses with innumerable bunkers – most of us did it to literally and figuratively “keep up with the Jones’.” Combined with other trends of bunker liners and imported white sand, sand bunkers were becoming more expensive to build and then maintain.
The Great Recession reversed that trend again. In new design and major renovations, the “average” bunker square footage probably reduced from 80,000 to 125,000 square feet to 40,000 to 80,000 square feet, depending on the course type. There is steady work in preparing sand bunker reduction plans. It’s logical to evaluate bunker quantity before installing expensive bunker liners to improve quality.
The question always is, “How do you pick bunkers to remove or reduce in size?” Here are my criteria:
Bunkers that aren’t near main landing zones
After the Golden Age, fairway bunkers were strictly placed only “in play” for top golfers, at main landing zones and close to the greens. Gone were aesthetic random bunkering that often looked great, but seldom saw meaningful play. Besides cost savings, the theory was/is that golf is hard enough for mediocre players without fairway hazards, especially if placed over 200 yards from the green, where they are unlikely to reach the green because it exceeds their maximum second shot distance.
Bunkers that rarely catch golf balls
After 10 years of play at my design at Sand Creek Station in Newton, Kan., the GM noticed no activity in the outer area of the fairway bunker on the eighth hole, while the inner area was often used. We determined they could eliminate the outer half of the fairway bunker without affecting looks or play.
The image at the start of this section is of the eighth hole at Sand Creek Station. Removing the outer (left) portion of the fairway sand bunker reduced it by half, but it was rarely used and not clearly visible from all tees.
Catch too many golf balls
The flip side of taking out bunkers that catch too few shots is to remove those that catch “too many.” Average golfers have predictable shot patterns – mostly missing short and right. We eliminate many existing sand areas that are short of the front edge of the green, widening the effective fairway approach width. Every yard of width seems to allow one more shot to reach the green in an average foursome.
While on the hook side, converting the front part of the bunker in the above picture to sand reduced the number of time consuming sand bunker recovery shots.
St. Andrews’ original sand bunkers were dug by huddling sheep, and often blind as a result. Modern design theory favors complete visibility of strategic hazards. And, with the current cost of sand bunkers, there is no reason to build sand you can’t see. However, portions of many sand bunkers aren’t visible to golfers. On a recent project, I was told that the architect’s style was to make a large bunker look like several smaller ones, but it was probably careless design or faulty construction, with the bottom of their “turf tongues” too low to be seen as designed. The solution is to convert that big sand bunker into two (or three) round bunkers without changing visibility. The cluster of smaller bunkers saves sand and may ease mowing by eliminating tight turns on capes and bays of turf.
With many bunkers, only the flashed-up sand near the back slope is visible. Converting the front part (or some blind side areas) of sand bunkers to grass usually has no effect on visibility/aesthetics from the landing zone (as seen in the photo above right).
Proper construction for maximum visibility requires simple front lips, fill to build above surrounding grade and building the entire bunker base at a gentle 3 to 7 percent up slope, rather than flashing the back of the bunker at steeper slopes. We either raise it, if practical, or convert the bunker into an example of how much sand can be removed.
We reduced the bunker size at this green by 40 percent without changing the visual character. As I stood in the landing area, I realized bunker 12 was visually “too far” from the green and could be reduced. The left side of bunker 13 had become hidden behind maturing trees since opening. Converting the right edge of bunker 13 opened up the fairway to the green, speeding play. The base of bunker 14 was hidden behind bunker 13 and looks the same as before.
Our charge in renovation planning is usually to find ways to increase course attractiveness (because it sells greens fees) while simultaneously reducing costs. Using these techniques, we have reduced total sand bunker area by 10 to 25 percent, helping cost conscious courses achieve both.