Year of the rebuilt bunker

Features - Course Construction

Bunker renovations are on the rise. So let’s celebrate the process of enhancing a maintenance menace and look at how we started moving dirt like it’s 1999.

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January 14, 2015
Guy Cipriano

Those sandy, deep, curvy design elements causing superintendents to shout unprintable words and crew members to think about calling in sick following heavy rain might not look or play the same as they did in 2014 at many golf courses.

Of the 569 superintendents who participated in GCI’s State of the Industry survey, 71 percent report their course is planning at least some form of bunker construction in the next three years. The volume of bunker projects has provided a jolt to the industry.

Golf course builders entered 2015 knowing, instead of hoping, work would arrive. “We have been negotiating projects before the holidays far more this year,” says Judd Duininck, a principal at Duininck Golf. “In fact, we are almost full for the season and we aren’t even into the spring.”

Architects are scooting from project to project, a welcomed change from the days of silently refining sketches. “I don’t pick up the phone and check for a dial tone as often as I did a few years ago,” says architect Brian Silva, principal of Brian M. Silva Inc.

Companies dedicated to providing bunker solutions are among the industry’s fastest risers, going from curiosities to bustling businesses in less than five years. “We already have more orders for the first quarter of 2015 than we did over the first half of 2014,” says Martin Sternberg, inventor and developer of Capillary Concrete. “I think we are going to do 100 percent more in the first half of the year than we did in 2014.”

Hustling at Hazeltine

Some serious hauling recently occurred at the site of the 2016 Ryder Cup.

Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., needed less than two months to renovate its 107 bunkers. Duininck Golf started work in mid-September and finished in early November, despite having leeway to complete the project in 2015. Work involved excavating down to existing subgrades, providing detail shaping to restore bunkers to their original design, and installing new drain tile and the Better Billy Bunker system. Duininck Golf principal Judd Duininck says the club’s decision to allow his company to work freely expedited the project. “If you’re talking about speed, it comes down to the club really understanding the contractor and being able to give us their entire golf course and deal with some downtime,” Duininck says. “Hazeltine allowed us to get in and work while they played. They knew the short-term pain of that would compress the time schedule quite a bit, and it did. Things drag out when we have to go one or two bunkers at a time.”

Entering 2015 with a completed bunker renovation excites superintendent Chris Tritabaugh. The club now has two full golf seasons to hone maintenance practices before the Ryder Cup. The three-day event begins Sept. 30, 2016.

“The next year two years are going to be huge for us,” Tritabaugh says. “(This year) we are going to be one year out from the Ryder Cup and we didn’t want to do a bunch of work on the course. We wanted people to come, whether it be members, guests or whomever, and experience the course as it’s going to be in the 2016 Ryder Cup.”

Other changes for the Ryder Cup include a new route, with current holes 1-4 and 14-18 comprising the front nine and 10-13 and 5-9 serving as the back nine. The routing should create a dramatic, spectator-friendly setting because the 16th will be a par 5 and the 17th will play as a par 3 over water. The yet-to-be-selected American captain also may suggest course set-up changes to create a home-field advantage.
 

Unless you are intrigued by washouts or contaminated sand, the designing, digging and investing should create palatable excitement in 2015. A properly executed bunker renovation can be the quickest route to giving crews something easier to maintain, players something different to experience or, in many cases, both in 2015.

It might be preposterous to proclaim 2015 “The Year of the Bunker.” The USGA, after all, considers bunkers hazards, and they might be the game’s most polarizing feature. “For some reason, they are everybody’s angst on every golf course,” says Allan MacCurrach, CEO and founder of MacCurrach Golf Construction. “And they are the quickest thing to deteriorate.”

One thing most can agree on, though, is that we’re bracing for “The Year of the Rebuilt Bunker.” Let’s celebrate the process of enhancing a maintenance menace and look at how we started moving dirt like it’s 1999.
 

Quantifying

Discolored sand, impromptu ponds, inconsistent lies, eroding edges and mud-caked golf balls are images of problematic bunkers. The images are powerful, but sometimes getting a needed project approved requires metrics.

Chris Tritabaugh took over as the superintendent at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., early in 2013. The job presented career-defining opportunities – How many superintendents get to host a Ryder Cup? – and plenty of bunkers to maintain. Hazeltine, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, features 107 bunkers accounting for more square footage than the course’s greens.

Tritabaugh examined the numbers and estimated the club was spending $50,000 per year in labor costs associated with fixing bunkers following rain events. The total translates to the salary of nearly four full-time seasonal employees, according to Tritabaugh. With the 2016 Ryder Cup looming and the club’s last major bunker renovation occurring before the 1991 U.S. Open, Tritabaugh presented bunker-related metrics to Hazeltine’s membership. “We were spending somewhere between a third and maybe even half of the dollars that it would take for us to do a full renovation,” Tritabaugh says. “Just to put in new sand for the Ryder Cup wouldn’t really solve all of the problems long term.”

Superintendents are having more success justifying potential savings provided by a bunker renovation to members and owners. Industry officials cite an improving economy, increased spending on golf acquisitions by investment funds, enhanced bunker technology and a desire to standout in a competitive marketplace as reasons for bunker renovations.

Hazeltine renovated its bunkers using the Better Billy Bunker method, which experienced significant sales spikes in the past year. The company had 16 active projects in December 2013. The number increased to 26 at the same point in 2014, according to vice president of sales Todd Jenkins.

“It’s the one area of a golf course that has had a Band-Aid put on it time and time again,” Jenkins says. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s costing more to put a Band-Aid on it than if you go ahead, bite the bullet and do it right. In our industry, we spend entirely too much money on bunker maintenance.”

Bunker renovations provided contractors with work throughout the recession, because Duininck says they provided a way to “cut costs without spending a pile of money.” But 2015 promises to be a frantic year. “If you haven’t gotten a contractor or bunker specialist under contract for the fall, you might have to delay your project,” Duininck says. “Either that or you might see very, very inflated pricing. We are turning down work right now.

Everybody looks for something different in a bunker project. A superintendent, for example, views a renovation as a way to disperse maintenance resources to other areas of the course. “I think that $50,000 has been spent four times already in discussions,” Tritabaugh says. Tritabaugh adds that 20 percent of the $50,000 projected savings could be devoted to fine-tuning Hazeltine’s bunkers through practices such as maintaining sand depth and moisture levels.

Differences between pre- and post-renovation bunkers should become noticeable when Minnesota receives its first significant spring rain. Hearing extended drips on his home roof at night would cause Tritabaugh to rise, check his watch and worry. Tritabaugh lauded his staff for remaining upbeat while preparing bunkers for play, a grueling task with the potential to demoralize a crew. “We are excited to find out what it’s like to come out there after a three-quarter-inch-rain and not spend 75 percent of our labor the next day doing bunkers,” he says

MacCurrach also examines bunkers following rain, although he’s looking for something different than a superintendent. “From my standpoint, as the builder, no matter how pretty or well-placed strategically a bunker is, if a bunker doesn’t structurally work, it just doesn’t matter,” he says. “If a bunker doesn’t hold up after a rain event, it doesn’t matter. If there are not good in-grass points, it doesn’t matter. You can get romantic with all aspects of a bunker, but if it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t matter.”

Silva is responsible for adding charm to a golf course. Ask him about trends in bunker design, and he smashes a 280-yard drive in your direction. He says golf, unlike other sports, is played on a field with no dimensions. The absence of length and width requirements leaves room for individuality in bunker placement and design. The stories he hears of bunker reduction or simplification don’t match his philosophies or the desires of many clients. Bunkers are being renovated because he says clubs view them as “integral” parts of their facilities.

Once bunkers are considered worthwhile enough to enhance, Sternberg says owners, members and superintendents must examine the “whole picture” regarding where bunkers fit into a particular course’s long-term plans. “They should make a decision on the design of the bunkers,” says Sternberg, a CGCS who also manages and co-owns a course in Sweden. “Then, they need to make decisions how they want those bunkers to play. A lot of people try to build bunkers because they think they look nice and they don’t think about how much they cost to maintain.”
 

Style points

Clubs that ask serious questions about bunkers, and provide ample time and room for a superintendent, architect and contractor to collaborate, can reap major rewards.

Before polymer, gravel and even some liners started entering bunkers, Cape Cod National Golf Club in Brewster, Mass., opened for business. Play started on the 18-hole course in 2000. The Cape’s sandy soils led to a decline in the consistency of the sand inside and the quality of turf outside bunkers.

Superintendent Eric Strzepek says bunkers weren’t a prominent feature when the course opened. Tastes evolved, so the club contacted Silva, who originally designed the course, about enhancing all 90 bunkers. Explaining the value of a bunker project to the club’s membership proved easy.

“The members were the ones kind of beating down the door, saying we have a great golf course, greens, tees, fairways, everything is really good,” Strzepek says. “Our bunkers, of course, they are always complained about the most … It was just time. It didn’t take much convincing.”

In anticipation for the renovation, which started this past fall, Strzepek avoided ordering new sand and minimized the amount of time and money spent on the bunkers. Depending on a club’s location, new sand costs $60 to $150 per ton. “We accepted that they were substandard compared to everything else on the golf course,” Strzepek says. “Now, when you get the USGA involved and say, ‘Hey, we have stones in the bunkers and they are inconsistent.’ They go, ‘Oh, perfect.’ But that’s not the reality of today’s high-end club membership.”

Silva’s philosophies meshed with what members wanted, which were clean, visually appealing, playable bunkers. “I see clubs that think bunkers are an integral part of their facility and I don’t see spectacular interest in dummying them down in terms of numbers and complexity,” he says. “But I read about it all the time that that’s where golf has to go. That’s really like saying, ‘I’m really sick and tired of having to replace the tires after every 50,000 miles on my car. Couldn’t we just have a car with no tires?’”

Strzepek and Silva spoke frequently about options. Neither the superintendent nor architect wanted to be among the early adopters of any process, so they opted against installing products using polymer. The club demonstrated similar thinking in 2000 when it decided against placing liners in its bunkers. Fourteen years later, liners had succeeded at enough courses for Strzepek and Silva to feel comfortable about installing them at Cape Cod National. “Twenty-five years ago we never lined a bunker,” Silva says. “Now it’s hard to think of a bunker we don’t line with one material or another.”

Drainage was also improved, and the sand was swapped for a local variety, which Strzepek selected following conversations with other New England superintendents. The appearance of the sand fit the look the club was trying to achieve, Strzepek says.

The course closed for construction on Oct. 15, allowing for uninterrupted work. The timing worked perfectly for the club because many of its members head south in late fall and winter. Members will return to a layout that encourages play out of bunkers. “Visually, bunkers are now more prominent features on the golf course,” Strzepek says. “And I don’t think it plays any more difficult. I think it plays easier because you’re going to have a very consistent sand throughout the golf course.”
 

Eroding edges

Bunkers are an abundantly painful feature at Tennessee National Golf Club in Loudon, Tenn. The Greg Norman-designed course opened in 2006 with 170,000 square feet of sand filling 46 fairway bunkers.

Another number flustered superintendent Andrew McClintock and his staff throughout the past seven years: Norman placed 65 sod-stacked revetted bunkers throughout the course. The Scottish-style bunkers presented immediate maintenance challenges. Two revetted bunkers were rebuilt in 2007. At least six have been replaced every subsequent year.

“It’s been non-stop,” McClintock says. “You build something and everything looks great for about a year, then little stuff erodes away. There’s a little bit of settling you have to go back and fix along with repairing the ones you are doing. Soil washes off the face and gets in the sand, which messes up your drainage. It’s never perfect, except the minute you finish it. You take a picture and that’s the last time you will ever see it like that.”

Heavy rain and cold temperatures magnified the problem as the course aged. Searching long and hard for solutions, McClintock had his crew sprayed polymers. He considered rebuilding sod walls using carpet or wood. He looked into purchasing rubber mats manufactured to a specified thickness. Nothing proved feasible.

An ownership change last year sparked numerous discussions regarding the revetted bunkers. “The owners were like, ‘We have to do something. We either get rid of them completely or come up with a solution,’” McClintock says. “We didn’t want to get rid of them. They are what makes us, us.”

An Internet search led to one of McClintock’s assistants to finding a website for Durabunker, a Wales company that uses recycled synthetic material to build bunker faces and edges. McClintock knew little about the company, and he says exhaustive research should be a major part of any bunker renovation project.Although not as expensive as a full-course renovation, bunker projects can cost six figures. A poorly executed one can damage a superintendent’s reputation. “You’re thinking, ‘Man, if I miss on this, it’s a big chunk of money,’” McClintock says. “I don’t like to miss. It’s extremely important.”

Before pitching Durabunker to ownership, McClintock spoke with the maintenance staff and membership at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., which renovated 19 revetted bunkers. He made across-the-pond calls to Turnberry, a high-profile Durabunker client. McClintock even purchased a plane ticket and flew to South Carolina to watch a crew build a test bunker at Secession Golf Club.

Tennessee National started its project late last year. The club is reducing the number of revetted bunkers on the course to 30. The remaining revetted bunkers are being renovated using the Durabunker method. A crew from Southeastern Golf Inc. is receiving training in the Durabunker process and assisting with the renovation. Tennessee National receives around 7,000 rounds per year, and disruption to play is minimal. McClintock says he expects the reworked faces and edges to last at least 20 years. When the project is completed, Tennessee National members should be noticing bunkers for the right reasons. “We got to a point where members did not like bringing guests out here,” McClintock says. “That’s what our course was, revetted bunkers, especially having 65 of them. It was all you saw. They were everywhere, so members didn’t like coming out and showing off their place because it was more than we could handle. Now the wall is always going to look the way it does right now and the sand is clean. Members are excited.”