Bunker mentality

Features - Cover Story

Hazards are consuming too much of your crew’s time. How the industry is handling the sandy expectations and devising viable solutions.

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February 8, 2017
Guy Cipriano
© Ryan Stevenson | Dreamstime.com

Ask golfers how they want bunkers to play. OK. Don’t ask them. They are sure to approach you about them anyway.

Plucked directly behind green speeds on the list of subjects broached by golfers, are bunker conditions.

Too wet. Too dry. Too inconsistent. Too ugly. Too clean. Too tough. Too many rocks. Too little sand. Too much sand.

Features of a golf course designed to contribute to imperfect results are, well, hazards to maintenance operations. From superintendents to architects, there is no easy or uniform solution, yet viable options are being implemented.

“It’s gotten way out of control,” says Dan Grogan, the superintendent at The Sagamore Club in Noblesville, Ind. “I think everybody knows it, but how do we change it? It’s not like we can just tell everybody to set back their expectations.”

Grogan knows the business and expectations well. His father, Mark, is the superintendent at Anderson (Ind.) Country Club. His uncle, Paul, is a retired superintendent who hosted the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run. Grogan’s first exposure to escalating bunker expectations arrived when he noticed bunkers being hand watered to satisfy the demands of PGA Tour players while volunteering one on of his uncle’s tournament crews.

Now more than a decade into his own turf career, Grogan is overseeing a multi-year renovation to enhance the 90 bunkers at The Sagamore Club, where he worked on the construction crew as an intern from 2002-03. The renovation involves the in-house installation of an aggregate bunker liner. Wide, short and long shots had trickled – or splashed – into the flash-faced greenside bunkers, magnifying playability differences. Bunkers and the thickness of the 70 acres of fescue separating the course from surrounding homes incite the strongest reactions in annual surveys distributed to members.

Bunkers are a significant feature at numerous courses, including Cordillera Ranch Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus Signature design in the Texas Hill Country outside San Antonio.
© mark semm

“We were faced with a decision,” Grogan says. “You’re not going to have 100 percent consistency, but what can we do to at least give members the best opportunity to have the same shot over and over again out of those greenside bunkers?”

Achieving bunker consistency – or at least some semblance of it – comes at a major cost. The cost of bunker work has “flat-out doubled” in the last 20 years, says Ian Andrew of Ian Andrew Golf Design, and the hazards are now responsible for at least 25 percent of all golf course maintenance at many courses.

Nick Kearns sees multiple sides of bunker maintenance conundrum in his role as director of green and grounds at The Oaks Club in Osprey, Fla. The club’s Heron Course reopened in the fall of 2015 following a major renovation that enhanced numerous parts of the golf course including bunkers. The renovation transformed bunkers into a defining course feature. Faces are steep and edges are intricate. Appealing native grasses surround numerous bunkers.

Playability drives bunker maintenance on the renovated course, Kearns says. Faces are maintained as firm as possible, thus promoting play in flat areas. Three workers are responsible for hand raking bottoms daily. Only rugged-looking portions of faces are smoothed. Completing all 18 holes takes between two and two-and-a-half hours. If faces received full rakes, Kearns says the task would require at least two more workers and each worker would spend an additional 30 minutes on bunkers.

The Oaks is a 36-hole facility, and its Eagle Course provides stark contrasts. The grass-faced bunkers require 86,000 square feet of sand. Smaller bunkers are hand raked, but two mechanical rakes, including one featuring what Kearns describes as “aggressive” teeth, are rotated to perform the bulk of the maintenance. The bunkers have yet to be modernized, meaning playability issues because of contamination arise.

“The funny thing is you don’t really hear about a bunker issue until somebody is in it and plays out of it,” Kearns says. “Nobody is going to sit there or stand there and judge a bunker if they haven’t played out of it. They are only really going to judge it if they have been in it and have played a golf shot out of it.”

Line it up?

One other major difference between the Heron and Eagle bunkers exists – an aggregate liner was installed as part of the renovations. Liners are frequently included in renovation plans in regions that encounter severe weather tests such as southwest Florida. Kearns curiously inspected bunkers when touring the Heron Course after Hurricane Hermine dumped 12 inches of rain onto the property last year. “We had a few little slivers here or there,” Kearns says. “But if we didn’t have the bunker liners in those bunkers, I could only imagine what they would have looked like.”

The Sagamore Club renovated 21 bunkers with an aggregate liner and new sand in 2015, and Grogan says four workers spent four hours returning bunkers to a playable condition following significant storms in 2016. The pre-renovation labor devoted to bunker cleanup included eight workers spending five hours each. Grasses and weeds are also no longer growing in faces and bottoms. The labor saved in bunkers is being redistributed, allowing Grogan’s crew to execute additional mowings or detail work such as edging cart paths, sprinkler heads and yardage plaques.

Damaged bunkers following frequent floods in the Texas Hill Country outside San Antonio recently resulted in Cordillera Ranch Golf Club completing a bunker renovation that included the installation of new sand and an aggregate liner. Daily labor devoted to bunkers hasn’t been altered since the renovation as four to six workers hand rake the more than 100,000 square feet of bunker surface twice per week; touchups are performed on four additional days. “We were hand raking them every day when I first got here,” director of agronomy Mark Semm says. “That was a little much. That was a lot of labor hours.”

The biggest post-renovation change at Cordillera Ranch is noticeable following punishing spring rains – the maintenance department phone doesn’t ring as often. “Prior to the renovation, it seemed constant that we were getting phone calls about liners showing or pea gravel that had washed up,” Semm says. “We scheduled a guy or two quite frequently to kind of look at that stuff and essentially remove it or we would chase it after the comment. We obviously don’t have to do that anymore.”

Superintendents, in most cases, are proponents of aggregate liners because of the labor and frustration saved by preventing or diminishing washouts and contamination. But aggregate liners are a debated subject among golf course architects and builders.

Todd Quitno of Lohmann Golf Designs says when he entered the business in the 1990s installing liners of any kind, including fabric ones, wasn’t a common practice. Mentalities involving liners started shifting when the new aggregate technology reached the market during the final stages of the Great Recession. More than two-thirds of the inquiries Illinois-based Lohmann Golf Designs receives stem from bunkers, according to Quitno.

Aggregate liners are a “big, but reasonable investment,” and they are allowing architects to expand their bunker palettes while helping facilities save on post-storm cleanup costs, Quitno says. “You can really change the conditioning in your bunkers,” he adds. “With that being the No. 1 complaint from golfers and No. 1 take-home message that a lot of people leave with, being able to have great conditioning in your bunkers now, I think is a bonus if you have the money to put into it.”

Money is a major reason why Andrew, who specializes in restoring the work of classic architects, strays from recommending aggregate liners.

“Something has to give here,” he says. “Winged Foot can afford their bunkers, but not everybody can afford Winged Foot’s bunkers. But it’s funny how every membership wants Winged Foot’s bunkers. I can give you Winged Foot’s bunkers, but you have to detail them to the point where they can actually stay together. And then there’s work to keep them together. That’s a lot of work and money to keep them stable. It can be done, but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”

Good rake, mate!

Two inches of sand on faces. Four inches on bottoms. Sand kept as white as printer paper. Weed-free, every square inch raked multiple times per week.

Everything the Pinehurst No. 2 crew knew about bunker appearance and expectations disappeared in the spirit of restoring Donald Ross’s architectural intent. Fitting the architecture and landscape trumped consistency following Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s restoration. Superintendent John Jeffreys says the bunkers “should be somewhat fair,” but he also stresses they aren’t going overboard to produce uniform aesthetics and conditions.

Customer surveys influence some of Pinehurst’s agronomic decisions, and negative comments regarding bunkers are rare, Jeffreys says. The No. 2 course crew spent 6,803 hours (20 percent of all labor hours) working on bunkers in 2015. The Pinehurst team is working to reduce the volume of labor spent on features eliciting little reaction. “As we dialed it back and spent more effort on greens and tees and other things, we saw that bunkers weren’t as highly criticized as we thought they would be,” Jeffreys says. “We backed down the labor, which is our biggest expense on bunkers.”

Frequent washouts and a desire to improve playability are leading to a variety of bunker construction projects.
© matt sliepka

Pinehurst’s agronomic leaders emphasize working smarter when in bunkers. Shortly after the No. 2 course reopened in March 2011, a high-ranking Pinehurst official started noticing balls were rolling through bunkers and resting on downslopes. Later that year, Royal Melbourne hosted the biennial Presidents Cup. The famed Australian course’s bunkering caught the attention of the Pinehurst and Coore-Crenshaw teams. The “Aussie” method of raking involves using fan raking bottoms and smoothing faces and edges with the backside of the rake. The method, which reduces plugs and promotes play from bottoms, has stuck on multiple courses at Pinehurst and facilities elsewhere are implementing similar styles.

Grogan adopted the method after being promoted to the head superintendent position and he has continued the bottom-first approach in the renovated bunkers. Superintendent Ross Miller considers bunkers an integral part of the Country Club of Detroit, yet he maintains them using the KISS, “Keep it simple, stupid,” principle. The “Aussie” method meshes with the approach.

“It’s a hazard, but we keep it very clean and presentable,” Miller says. “Before there used to be five people here every day to rake bunkers out and it would take them close to five hours. Now it takes us two guys and they are done in 3½ hours.”

Semm has dabbled with multiple rakes since arriving at Cordillera Ranch, and weather conditions dictate the tines and grooves his crew uses. “We have three different tines with four different styles of teeth,” he says. “Instead of going out and saying, ‘Hey we are going to rake all the bunkers the same way,’ we try – that’s a big word – to dial them in. If this bunker is a little more wet or this bunker is a little more dry, to kind of correlate with how aggressive we rake that sand.”

Even with sensible ideas from other continents and improvements in liners, sand and equipment, superintendents are bracing for another year of bunker-induced queries. Bunker advances fall on the long list of unintended consequences created by improvement.

“As the superintendent, I know the amount of time and labor and energy that goes into bunkers,” Semm says. “From a player’s side, I get it and what their expectations are. It’s a wrestling match when that topic comes up.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s as