Bellyaching about bunkers

Columns - outside the ropes

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October 2, 2019

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I was standing in our golf shop recently when a member came in and started complaining about the condition of the bunkers. “I expect to get out of bunkers 75 percent of the time,” he said. Hmmm. Interesting self-evaluation, I thought. After his flagellation of the golf course staff – without the superintendent present, of course – I let this chucklehead know that the best player on the PGA Tour averaged 63 percent for sand saves in 2019, a fun fact I like to keep on hand when the NARPs (Non-Agronomic Real People, for those who missed my August column) get a little full of themselves.

Bunkers, penalty areas, sand traps, pits – whatever you want to call them (I prefer bunkers) – are designated penalty areas and I, for one, am tired of trying to make them perfect for golfers who know little to nothing about the rules, agronomy or strategy. Rule 12 defines bunkers as “specially prepared areas intended to test the player’s ability to play a ball from the sand.”

In other words, if you land in a “hazard,” deal with it. Instead of placing the onus on the superintendent to make the sand surface practically flawless, you should 1) practice and 2) understand that these features are there primarily to piss you off.

Or as a wise long-time superintendent once said, “I can do anything you wish to the golf course, but I cannot fix your inability to hit a golf ball!”

One fundamental of good course design is that hazards are to be avoided. They’re supposed to be hard to get out of (hence the term “hazard”). So why are superintendents spending so much time and money making bunkers easier? It looks to me that at many courses more work is going into tending to bunkers than putting greens, where nearly 50 percent of the game is played. That’s just wrong.

The Average Golfer should be happy if they find a bunker that is raked, the sand is smooth, there is a margin around the hazard, and there are no roots, rocks or other crap that might cause injury. And that’s all.

In case you don’t understand the purpose of bunkers – and certainly if you want to enlighten any NARPs you might know – here are the five principal functions of bunkers:

  • Strategy – to define shot values, options and direction
  • Retention – to prevent errant golf balls from worse fates
  • Safety – to prevent errant shots from injuring people or damaging structures
  • Direction – to define the correct path to play toward or away from
  • Aesthetics – to look pretty

Relating especially to the last item, golf architects would be wise to limit what they create. Unfortunately, some architects like to use bunkers and other hazards as “signature” elements. I wonder how they would feel if they were the ones manually raking them every day in 100-degree heat and humidity?

Beyond aesthetics or to force the player to make a strategic decision, is there any reason the club should spend more money, take more time to repair and utilize more labor to prepare the hazard for shot opportunities? I think not. As for being able to extricate yourself from said hazards? Take a lesson.

And don’t blame the superintendent. Wind, rain, exposure to sunlight, design, position, and the age, quality and size of the sand itself all influence the playing quality of any bunker. I don’t have to tell you that it isn’t just raking, and that it is damned hard to maintain a consistent sand surface day after day after day.

If we’re assigning blame, give some to Augusta National. Every April, we’re mesmerized by The Masters, ogling those beautiful, stark-white, pristinely maintained bunkers. Did you know the club has more than 100 volunteers helping out during Masters week?

Also, when you start packing bunker faces, similar to the Aussie method, water percolation is impacted, and algae can form in the sand. So now superintendents are applying hydrogen peroxide and fungicides to cure the algae – in sand!

Here is all you and your staff should worry about when preparing bunkers:

  • Using sand of the right quality and particle size range for your region
  • Maintaining uniform sand depth throughout the course
  • Crusting potential, color, infiltration rates and daily preparations
  • Establishing the margin to the penalty area … hazard!
  • Eliminating rocks, roots or sub-sand liners that could cause injury

That’s all. Your job is to make the course fair, not easy.

Tim Moraghan, principal, ASPIRE Golf (tmoraghan@aspire-golf.com). Follow Tim’s blog, Golf Course Confidential at www.aspire-golf.com/buzz.html or on Twitter @TimMoraghan