Brickyard Crossing resides within the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a sprawling complex in a flat, densely populated Heartland neighborhood. Even those responsible for maintaining the course understand matters involving engines, tires and concrete, not irons, drivers and turf, dominate decisions.
A.J. Foyt and Jeff Gordon established legacies on the complex’s 2.5-mile oval racetrack, which includes four golf holes inside the legendary loop. The race to enhance an amenity in the ultracompetitive high-end public golf market took a wild turn when Pete Dye renovated the course in 1993.
Dye designed six deep, sod-stacked hazards, known as revetted bunkers. In non-golf terms, think intricately constructed decorative brickwork. Every two or three years, the Brickyard Crossing agronomy team resembled a pit crew as they scurried to fix the bunkers. “About the time you got them finished and had them looking really good, it was time to tear them up and redo them,” says superintendent Jason Stewart, a prideful Hoosier and full-time Brickyard Crossing employee since 1999.
Just like racing, technology evolves in golf course design, construction and maintenance. Preserving links golf features within the design became less nettlesome following an in-house project that has, so far, restored all six of Dye’s original bunkers and added three new revetted bunkers.
A booming bunker business created through the industrywide hustle to offer enhanced, easier-to-maintain course features and the emergence of United Kingdom-developed synthetic edge technology is making revetted bunkers feasible options for U.S. courses. Durabunker and EcoBunker list numerous American courses as clients and both companies sell into the U.S. market. PermaEdge, a system developed by EcoBunker inventor and CEO Richard Allen, is being old directly into the U.S. under the EcoBunker Advanced brand.
Natural revetted bunkers struggle in most U.S. markets because warmer climates promote microbial activity that “eats up” stacked layers, causing sod to compress and eventually collapse, says architect Dave Whelchel. Trips to Scotland through the years introduced revetted bunkers to Whelchel and curious colleagues. But architects strayed from widespread implementation because natural faces proved expensive and labor intensive.
Take away the frustrating build-rebuild cycle synthetic edges prevent, and revetted bunkers become serious options for American courses. “I’m very happy to have it as a tool,” architect Lester George says. “Where I did it with real sod before, I didn’t like the outcome because it was costly to keep looking right and functioning right. Now we have a function for it that’s reliable and therefore it’s back in my mental palette if I want to use it. You don’t have to look far for examples of it. There are some magnificent ones out there.” Since encountering synthetic edging at the 2017 Golf Industry Show in Orlando, George has designed revetted bunkers on multiple sites, including Vestavia Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., which reopened last year following a massive renovation.
Stewart, who says Dye’s original revetted bunkers had become “dilapidated and unplayable” because of maintenance reductions sparked by the Great Recession, first associated synthetic edging as a possible long-term solution at Brickyard Crossing before the technology reached the U.S. Then, after becoming head superintendent in 2017, Stewart pushed to elevate the course’s overall conditioning, with work commencing on the first revetted bunker toward the end of the year. His crew juggled regular maintenance with the start of a bunker renovation last spring and the course restored had nine revetted bunkers with synthetic edging in time for LPGA’s Indy Women in Tech Championship in August. Blending links golf aesthetics and strategy within a parkland setting makes Brickyard Crossing a Midwest golf anomaly.
Scottish flair in Appalachia
The rooms in the stately Old White Hotel and surrounding cottages are the only spots where the ocean can be observed at The Greenbrier, a venerable resort in wooded southern West Virginia. Following a historic and tragic flood in 2016, director of golf course maintenance Kelly Shumate led a redesign of the resort’s Meadows Course.
The Meadows starts from the same clubhouse as The Old White TPC, site of the A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier PGA Tour event. The Greenbrier steers outings to the Meadows, so the course receives more group play than its PGA Tour brother, Shumate says. Besides various mountain views, the course lacked visual punch and the presence of greenside bunkers as far as 40 feet from putting surfaces bothered Shumate.
Presenting a memorable product to complement The Old White TPC led to a thorough evaluation of bunker design and function. Demonstrating superintendent practicality and architect creativity, Shumate designed just 39 bunkers, all of them using synthetic revetted edges.
“I go to a lot of courses, and I just think there are way too many bunkers,” he says. “If there’s an ugly patch of ground or if they are trying to steer your eye toward something else, they’ll stick a bunker in there and it really doesn’t come into play. Being a superintendent and being on the design side, I wanted to eliminate that. The best bunkers are hazards and very strategic.”
Reopened toward the end of the resort’s 2017 golf season, the Meadows bolsters The Greenbrier’s post-flood golf business by introducing Scottish flair to Appalachia. The challenge of playing a shot from a style of bunker rarely seen in the U.S. removes angst from a wayward shot entering a tricky hazard, Shumate says. “It’s going to catch their eye. They are going to think about it more, and they are probably going to get a little more excited and think less about the bad shot they just took to get in there. Instead, they are going to be excited to get it out.”
Shumate shifts to superintendent-speak when discussing the impact of the bunkers on agronomy. The flat-bottomed bunkers include an aggregate liner beneath the sand, and preparing a course averaging slightly more than two bunkers per hole, even after rain, yields less than two hours of labor on heavy play days. Occasional weed removal by hand is the only form of maintenance Stewart and Shumate have encountered on synthetic revetted faces. Moss pockets and weeds, coincidentally, give the bunkers a natural look.
“I think you’re going to see more and more of it,” Shumate says. “But the revetted look is not for everyone. If I’m designing a course for a membership where that membership is playing the same course over and over, I’d probably not go with it. For here and what the Meadows is, it was a very good fit for us. We don’t have a lot of repeat play.”
Perfecting the process
A call from former Fieldstone Golf Club superintendent Damon DiGiorgio sparked architect David Whelchel’s interest in the long-term possibilities offered by synthetic edging. Fieldstone, a 20-year-old private club in Wilmington, Del., designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, boasts an 8 ½-foot high sod-stacked bunker called “Lisa’s Heart” on its par-5 18th hole. The bunker, a memorable course feature, crumpled every two to three years and rebuilding it cost the club more than $10,000 each time, says Whelchel, who was involved in Fieldstone’s original design.
When DiGiorgio explained he discovered a synthetic solution to keep Lisa’s Heart intact, Whelchel flew to Wilmington and spent four days with a Southeastern Golf crew learning how to install synthetic edging on the 800-square foot bunker face. Sore from cutting tiles, laying sod and dispersing backfill, Whelchel returned to his Arkansas home thinking, “Yeah, that’s something I can use.” Whelchel has rebuilt multiple bunkers using synthetic edging since Fieldstone fixed Lisa’s Heart and colleagues now view him as a revetted bunker guru.
Whelchel has provided revetted bunker guidance to multiple fellow architects, including George, who was looking for a solution to restore a pair of dynamic revetted bunkers he designed at Kinloch Golf Club, a renowned private club in Richmond, Va. “They only lasted about three years with the inherent problems of trying to grow cool-season sod stacked up in Virginia, because we are not sand-based like Scotland and Ireland,” George says. “You just end up spending too much money rebuilding them every 36 months.”
At Vestavia, George used synthetic face technology to design multiple revetted bunkers, including a 6-foot deep hazard on the drivable par-4 9th hole. Whelchel trained the contractor working at Vestavia on how to build the bunkers. Once trained, Whelchel says a crew of five or six can install around 120 square feet of synthetic face per day. Steps, according to Whelchel, include: constructing a “firm and unyielding” base, packing the base with a plate compactor, cutting tile, and stacking layers horizontally and vertically to desired widths and heights.
The Greenbrier used a crew of six to construct bunkers on the Meadows. Work started with Shumate painting lines, followed by excavation, drainage installation, sod stacking, aggregate liner installation and sand dispersal. The crew completed a bunker every two days.
Brickyard Crossing experimented on its early bunkers, even disassembling one twice before crafting a suitable hazard. A three- or four-person crew installs bunkers at 70 degrees angles, using what Stewart calls “a two-stack” method and a 60-20-20 sand-soil-peat backfill to support the synthetic sod. Stamping is a methodical layer-by-layer process. “It’s time-consuming at first,” Stewart says, “but by our second or third one, we had a process down and moved pretty quick after that.” Positive feedback from the Midwest golf community and LPGA players will likely result in Brickyard Crossing adding more revetted bunkers as the renovation progresses.
“More than anything, it just adds visually to the golf course,” Stewart adds. “I now have a robust enough operating budget and a staff where we can maintain the course back to the level it was. That’s what I wanted to push for – restoring the conditioning that we were known for. Redoing all the bunkers will be a part of it. These faces are crisp, intimidating and very noticeable. I definitely think it will enhance the experience.”
Revetted bunkers: Use judiciously
By Tim Liddy
What do superintends want? Less maintenance. What do architects want? Steep slopes adding contrast, more shadows typically adding to maintenance. The answer? Revetted bunkers using artificial turf.
What is a revetted bunker? The “Merriam-Webster” dictionary definition of revetment is: “a facing (as of stone or concrete) to sustain an embankment.” It comes from the French word “revetir,” which means “to put on, wear or don.”
The history of revetted bunkers starts in Scotland as a tool to stop wind erosion, to shore up the faces of deep bunkers when there was nothing else more practical. In golfing terms, a revetted bunker is one where sods (grass and the part of the soil beneath it held together by roots or a piece of thin material) are stacked to create a layered effect. Layers of sod have been used for this purpose for ages and have been a feature of Fife Golf since the 19th Century.
Greatly influenced by his visits to Scotland and early in my career with Pete Dye, we tried several times to build a revetted wall bunker on the third green at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind. Our mistake was building the revetted wall using locally grown sod planted in heavy clay soils. The revetted wall would invariably collapse from the weight of the soil after only a few rains. But we both loved the look with its strong shadow and textural contrast against the green surface as well as surrounding turf. He also liked the difficulty and intimidating view from the tee on this par 3.
Now let me explain how a modern revetted bunker adds contrast from a golf architect’s point of view. Notice the sketch on the following page. Let’s highlight the three hole locations on this green by using contrast: the left-front, the middle and the back-right. By adding a steeper slope at these locations, they highlight the required golf shot. The problem in the past has been these steeper slopes require additional hand maintenance and increased labor. But if these areas were constructed with artificial turf, it will actually reduce maintenance as no mowing will be required. With sustainability a major theme today, the timing for this artificial turf bunker face seems appropriate.
Conversely, revetted bunkers built with artificial turf are a great solution, but also a great worry by this architect. It is wonderful in small doses but can be overdone. Let’s Look at the Old Course at St. Andrews. Close to 90 percent of the bunker shots played on the Old Course now are sideways or backwards. The golfer who has hit into one of these has no hope. They become water hazards exacting a one-shot penalty. They should be hazards, of course, but where does hazard end and sacrifice on the alter of appearance begin? Aren’t we supposed to give a golfer hope that he can extract himself from the hazard with the potential to save par?
And let’s talk aesthetics. Do you think bunkers on the Old Course look natural? Of course not. Peter Thomson absolutely hated the bunkers on the Old Course, not so much because of the revetting, but because they are virtually all just cylinders in the ground. Don’t get me wrong. I think the judicious use of revetment is ideal, but if every bunker is revetted, it can provide an unnatural geometric appearance.
While we are on the Old Course bunkers, it is interesting that many are mostly hidden from view not for any architectural reason but mainly because they developed when the course was played in the other direction. That's why so many players who don't know the course get in them. They can't see them. On the other hand, the latest additions on the Old Course – most obvious at the 2nd where the original bunkers have been moved nearer the green – are obvious and the famous Road Hole bunker itself, which is now a pit compared to the rather shallow affair it was back in Bobby Jones's time, now stares you in the face. Is this good architecture or just making the golf course harder to keep up with tournament play?
The use of artificial revetted bunkers has many advantages, including less maintenance and improved sustainability. But let’s not get too carried by using them on every bunker of the golf course. Used judiciously, they provide interest and artistic contrast. As John Mayer sings in Gravity, “Oh twice as much ain’t twice as good.”