Sunday, 2 January 2011

A Complete Look at Bunkers

Bunkers in Nature

For the architecture enthusiast, this series will make a good run for at least a week. I’ve decided to concentrate my efforts strictly on bunkers.

I have no illusion that somehow someway I can provide a tutorial that will explain to you the placement and depth of every bunker, but I will certainly do my best to help you gain some insight. After all some of the best bunkers simply "occurred" without ever being created and this in itself is a great place to begin.

A lot of the revered bunkers at the great links came to be by circumstance. Often they were small hollows created by sheep or blow-outs created by wind. Some were depressions that were almost natural bunkers right from the start while others were scars that are still there but just kept a lot more formally than they once were. Many of the greatest bunkers were natural.

I’ve been reading extensively about the Old Course once again and the quest for the origin of the Road Hole Bunker caught my attention. I had always assumed that the bunker was added by Allan Robertson when he made alterations to the 17th green. Well it seems that the bunker was in place already by his 17th birthday since it is shown on an early map of the course. It was originally thought that he added the bunker when he did his work to expand the 17th green, but now we know differently. The origin [as I understand it] is the people of the town apparently used to dig in many of the bunkers to get shells and this location was a particularly good spot close to the town. The bunkers depth came from the people’s quest for shells; which eventually was stopped when the golf course became to busy and popular to allow this activity to continue.

Even the Road Hole Bunker itself has evolved from its origins throughout the years. Think of the constant build up of sand on the lip and the regular replacement of the revetted bunker face that takes place now and you will understand how much this bunker changes on a regular basis. I have pictures from 1989 where the lip wasn’t near as high, the bunker was slightly smaller and the bottom was not near as deep. They have restored the bunker fairly frequently and usually now use old photos as direction. Each recent change has been well documented in golf magazines for each of the British Opens. The bunker is now so deep, with a lip so high, that recovery is nearly impossible for all but the most skilled. I often wonder how much of the bunkers greatness has to do with evolution.

Now think of what I have said so far, the bunker which I think is the best in the world was not placed by an architect, and the depth was determined by circumstance. Even evolution seems to have made the bunker even more of a factor than it initial was. The initial lesson is to go find the natural bunkers that nature has already provided right on the property.

Modern architects generally bulldoze everything and then build the bunkers into the locations that make the most sense by distance and intended strategy. This myopic view does not deal with mixed abilities or the constant changes in technology. Bunker placement needs to sometimes be more natural and happenstance to make the game interesting for everyone. It’s too bad so many architects don’t seem to see that the land often makes many of the best decisions for you by providing natural hollows and scars to be used in the routing of the course. The reason that Coore and Crenshaw are so respected by their peers is there ability to use the existing site. Just look at Sand Hills many of the holes are designed around a series of very impressive natural blowouts. Bill Coore explains why they routed many tee shots diagonally over the blow outs at Sand Hills when he states, “There is nothing more thrilling or appealing than skirting over an impressive or fearsome hazard.” Coore and Crenshaw found and used the natural hazards of the property at Sand Hills, as opposed to making them, and that is what makes that course more memorable than almost any other course in the world.

Find the natural bunkers first, then start adding new ones.

Why we need bunkers

1st at Sand Hills

While bunkers are inconvenient and frustrating to the player, they are essential to the core spirit of the game. They are used, in combination with other hazards, to define the risk and set the requirements of the hole. They are the architect’s most common tool to force players to make decisions and to think.

Willian Flynn describes the role of the architect best when he said,“The principle consideration of an architect is to hold the interest of a player from the first tee to the last green” I can not find a better quote to explain our role. Please notice how at no point he mentioned the words difficulty or challenge! The way we create interest is by careful placement of bunkering and other hazards to creates decisions. Decisions lead to strategy and options, and as Bobby Weed always like to say over and over again, “Options equal interest.”

Max Behr one of the greatest writers on golf of all time had a beautiful explanation what golf architects are trying to accomplish with bunker placement. “The direct line to the hole is called the line of instinct, and to make a great hole you must break up that line in order to create a line of charm. The line of charm is the provocative path that shaves off distance and provides an ideal an ideal line into the green, usually by skirting bunkers and other hazards. The golfer wants the most direct line he can find to the hole, while the architect uses bunkers and other hazards to create risk and reward options that suggest the ideal line for the player, or the line of charm.”
16th at Garden City
Imagine a hole that has no bunkers, or more importantly any other deterrent to playing directly at the hole. The hole is simply a test of a prescribed length requiring a set of shots to reach the putting surface. Now if there is even one bunker added to the front left of the green, the ideal tee shot is down the right to open up the angle in. Now there is a rudimentary strategy. Add a bunker placed in the right rough and you have a situation where you need to skirt that bunker for the ideal line, and the strategy is stronger. That is the first basic of strategic bunker placement.

If that were it, and it is for some architects, then we would all understand how to break down great architecture…but it’s not. Consider Alister Mackenzie’s quote of, “No hole is a good hole unless it has one or more hazards in the direct line of the hole” Why not in the middle of play like the Principles Nose at St. Andrew’s. This may be another of the finest bunkers in the history of the game. The bunker is exactly where you want to play to. Play safely to the left but receive a much tougher angle; play right, risking the out of bounds, and get rewarded with the ideal approach line. That is a superior fairway bunker placement and outstanding strategy. This also must open your eyes to realize that the options and reasons for placement are becoming limitless.


Garden City

I thought I would explain the value of a hazard and talk about depth before we take on the concept of fairness. I thought I would begin with my favorite quote regarding the value of a bunker and what it is supposed to accomplish. Walter Travis stated, “The primary idea of a hazard [bunker] is to punish, to the extent of one stroke, a poorly placed shot, and to make the recovery exceedingly difficult, and even by the virtue of the following shot being extraordinarily good. If this end is not attained, the existing hazard fails to fulfill its function.”
I regularly deal with greens committees where players believe you should be able to get out of a bunker easily and advance the ball as far as you want to. If they had there way all bunkers would be flat. Yesterday I provided you with Max Behr’s quote to do with the line of charm. “The line of charm is the provocative path that shaves off distance and provides an ideal an ideal line” The line of charm only works when the bunkers offer enough of a deterrent to make the player not follow the line of instinct. If the bunker is shallow a player will play exceeding close and have no fear of having to extricate themselves. They will also swing the club freely since they have no fear of punishment for missing the shot. If the bunker is very deep, and the possibility exists of losing more than one shot, the player will play further away to lessen the risk. The line of charm may still be very tight to the bunkers, but the player will tend to play further away. They will also swing a little less freely if they have fear of going into the bunker. The importance of depth works on more than one level.
St. George's 12' deep fairway bunkers
Often because of human nature we find ourselves in a situation where we want to risk the carry. If the bunker is shallow, there is little to be gained but an improved position on the fairway; but if the bunker is fearsome enough, then we gain the undeniable thrill of carrying a ball over such a dangerous bunker. The thrill we feel is very much related to the depth of the hazard we just carried. There is also nothing so deflating as attempting a carry over a deep bunker and realizing the ball came up short, particularly if you know you had the ability to make the carry. Part of this is the realization that we must now make a tough recovery.

The recovery is what defines the punishment or value of the hazard. If we can get to the green or have a great chance of getting up and down the bunker has limited value. The need to play backwards or “just get it” out has a place, but is not completely desirable either. The best bunkers suggest we can make the shot, but only the best recovery that we can play, one that may erase the lost stroke. Pete Dye expressed this idea of hazards and the recovery shot, “Hazards are essential to the game of golf. I cannot imagine playing without experiencing that marvelous feeling of hitting a recovery shot from a hazard, or the anticipation of my opponent trying to recover from a deep pot bunker only to have the ball catch the upper lip and roll back towards his feet. This is what makes the game exciting and keeps the players coming back for more.”

The F-word…. Fairness

Fox Harbour's flat bunkers

The origins of golf only had two rules that applied to hazards, play it as it lies and the rub of the green. Now there is too much money and too much ego wrapped up in the game to accept a bad break. We insist that bunkers be uniformly maintained, consistent in condition from course to course and fairly easy to get out of. We have gone from a bad lie being a bad break, to questioning the golf superintendent’s ability and the design of the bunker. The game has changed….for the worse.

We began with the uncertainty and unpredictability of links golf where bad lies were expected and simply played. We learned the lessons of humility and perseverance through the game, but all that has gone out the window for certainty and fairness. The whole modern concept of players aiming at bunkers because they can reach the green from the fairway bunker or get up and down easily from a green side bunker shows us how much the game has changed from the origins of golf.

George Thomas says, “Hazards should be arranged to tempt and challenge, but laid out so all classes of players have optional routes to the hole. Hazards should not unduly penalize from which there is no chance of recovery.” What he is saying is that the bunkers should encourage good players to flirt. The weaker player should have options to play around and away from trouble, and all golfers should have an option to recover based upon their ability.

Others are harsher in their thoughts on the fairness of bunkers. Willie Park Jr. said, “If a bunker is visible to the player, and there is sufficient room to avoid it, it is the player’s responsibility to steer clear of it.” Once again there is the mention of options to play away from or around the bunker, and this is another form of fairness. Fairness has nothing to do with removing the hazards, but instead has everything with providing enough room beside the bunker to avoid it even with extra shots.

12th at San Francisco
Bill Coore has always been one to advocate a mixture of bunkers from the simple to the fearsome thinking all have a place on the course. His philosophy comes across well through the open-mindedness of his opinion on hazards and bunkers, “No element that creates interest can ever be seen as unfair” The player must simply deal with what’s put in front of them with the most efficient use of strokes that they are capable of using. It is up to them on what they are going to contend with and how they are going to avoid the potential pitfalls. Everything is up to them and everything is fair.

The most unfortunate part of this is for nearly 50 years our architecture was dumbed down for fairness. When the difficulty was eased or the maintenance made more “player friendly” it all had a detrimental effect on architecture. Tom Doak has long been advocating the return to a more natural rugged bunker with a less clearly defined outcome. His bunkers bring back a much more natural appearance closer to the origins of bunkers. There is also more risk in getting a difficult lie; and most importantly it places more emphasis on the hazard being where you will likely drop a stroke.

The last word on this should go to Mike DeVries who simply says, “It’s a hazard, deal with it.”


6th at Pine Valley

If a bunker is easy to get out of you will give it little thought during the round, but if a bunker requires you play backwards you will always be aware of its location and what you need to do to avoid it. Pete Dye made the comment, “Strategic placement of bunkers subconsciously forces the golfer to head away from the bunkers, when the better route is to hug them….when you get those dudes thinking they’re in trouble.” I think the comment is missing a reference to depth and how it affects the thoughts and mind of the player. There still must be repercussions that force those dudes to think. What gets a player thinking is the difficulty of the recovery. If a player faces a bunker where any club is an option then they will hug the bunker looking for an ideal line since they have no fear of missing the shot. They will also swing without fear since there is nothing to loose and nothing to get nervous about. Tell me how that hazard offers any strategy other than to high handicappers who fear sand in general?

If the bunker is nasty and recovery may not be possible, now the player is aiming away out of fear. He will also make a tentative swing at the ball trying to steer by the trouble rather than hitting a confident stroke. This is when a bunker has enough presence to get into the players head. Donald Ross said, “Hazards and bunkers are placed so as to force a man to use judgment and to exercise mental control in making the correct shot.” If there is no risk, why should a player exercise either judgment or control? The usual complaint is about recovery from such a bunker, but if the player has tried an aggressive line and failed you must ask them why not choose a line further from the bunker? I’ve never understood why a deep bunker in a key location is unfair when an architect provides either width or an alternative route around. As Donald Ross points out, “Often the highest recommendation of a bunker is when it is criticized. There is no such thing as a misplaced bunker. Regardless of where a bunker may be, it is the business of the player to avoid it”

16th at Tobacco Road
I must admit I love Mike DeVries blunt comment of, “it’s a hazard, deal with it.” It always strikes me as absurd that many a member will tolerate or enjoy the most penal of hazards on the links courses and yet be so critical of a feature at their own club. It is the great hazards at our own courses, and how we handle them that define us as a player. Maybe the issue is ego, since I often deal with players who continue to attack a hole or pin where better judgment will yield better results. The fault is not with the depth or difficulty of the hazard; it is with the player’s decision making. Charles Blair MacDonald said, “The object of a bunker or trap is not only to punish a physical mistake, to punish a lack of control, but also to punish pride and ego” The game is about management and execution, shallow bunkers do not identify either skill.

Pine Valley remains the ultimate psychological test for a player. You are immediately intimidated by the amount of sand and the perception that every miss will be punished. The brilliance of Pine Valley’s waste areas is that players begin to visualize disaster rather than concentrating on execution. When you look beyond the trouble, you find the course has plenty of width between trees, wide fairways and large greens; but all you see is trouble! Mike Stranz borrowed from this psychological ploy to develop his courses, including the use of depth and punishment to keep the players attention. He pointed out that we get a bigger sense of accomplishment in overcoming these holes than we would a course without any penalty. I agree.


6th at Cypress Point

Alister MacKenzie said it best with, “It is much too large a subject to go into the placing of hazards, but I would like to emphasis a fundamental principle. It is that no hazard is unfair wherever it is placed.” St. Andrew’s has bunkers at an infinite variety of distances in some of the more unusual locations. What works well there is they affect all classes of players and all lines of play. All bunkers punish the misadventure yet all offer another route around them to the hole. What begins to make many strategies is when the player can play safely to the left but face a tough approach, or they can play among more bunkers on the right to receive a much more open approach to the green. Therein lies a strategy that is often missed but very much part of the course.

I thought I would provide a series of architect’s comments that sum up their beliefs on the use of bunkering to make strategy. Jack Nicklaus said, “What I like to do is make [the golfer] decide between the glory of the long ball and the practicality of another alternative route.” I find Jack bunkers often on both sides saying if you want to hit driver, than you better hit is straight. I’m fonder of the carry angle that is described by Mike Stranz when he says, “The more you flirt with a hazard – the closer you stay to hazards or successfully carry hazards – the shorter the distance you should have to a hole with a better angle of approach” If you choose to play wide, you avoid the hazard, but face a longer approach in. You take on the hazard and succeed, you have the best and shortest shot in.

Gil Hanse said, “that perhaps centerline bunkers should be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to fairway hazards” Now this is a far more interesting idea when you consider how effective this idea is on the 16th hole at St. Andrew’s (the Principal’s Nose). The player now has to either; skirt the bunker, try fly it, or play short. Where this works best is with keeping strategy when using wide fairways. Alister Mackenzie said, “A hazard placed in the exact position where a player would naturally go is frequently the most interesting situation, as then special effort is needed to get over or avoid it” If you think about bunkers like the 6th at Carnoustie, the Principal’s Nose or Braid’s bunker at Nairn each one makes you realize how valuable they are “in” the landing area rather than lost on the sides. This technique represents an important reintroduction of width and options to the game, all while keeping strategy and challenge.

William Langford said, “That hazards should not be built solely with the idea of penalizing bad play, but with the object of encouraging thoughtful play and rewarding a player who possesses the ability to play a variety of strokes with each club” When we set up a hole with bunkers we have many intentions. We want the player to flirt with most in game of cat and mouse. We want them to challenge a few for the reward of accomplishment. We also suggest that at least one or two should be avoided at all costs. All bunkers should make the player think.

Robert Hunter has a quote that best approaches my own personally philosophy, “The best architects seek, in placing their hazards, to call forth for great shots. Some of their best holes reward handsomely fine golf, but have no obvious penalties for bad golf. Such holes are so cunningly laid out that those playing bad shots lose strokes by the position in which they find themselves” CB MacDonald’s interpretation of the way to use The Road Hole bunker accomplishes this best of all.

I haven’t taught you hardly anything yet, so now you understand why nobody can teach placement and strategy, it is a long slow learning process through observation and understanding.


2nd at St. George's

Bunkers are the most visual and memorable of all the elements found on a course. So much so that some including myself would argue that too much attention is spent on the aesthetics of the bunkers. This may be funny considering most feel that one of my greatest strengths is the quality of my bunkering. Almost all golfers and critiques revolve around the look and playing characteristics of the bunkers and often fail to notice the quality of all the other elements that make up a golf course. A great set of greens are far more important than great bunkers, but everyone is drawn to evaluating a course by the bunkers since they are far easier to judge and far more obvious to the eye. Since bunkers are so obsessed over, particularly the aesthetics, let’s take a look at that aspect.

16th at Garden City
The one wonderful impact of bunkers is there are so many possibilities. We have the rugged look of Coore and Doak, sod walls of the links, the wild fingers and bays of Thompson, Tillinghast and MacKenzie, the rugged faces and depth of a Colt bunker, the engineered steep walled bunkers of Raynor and Banks, right through to the dull maintenance and player friendly bunkers of modern architecture. Again, there are ven more from the raw scars to sand blowouts to the inverted bunkers of Travis and Emmet; I really only touch the surface with this list too. So we have established that the actual options are limitless. So why do some projects like Pacific Dunes and Sand Hill work so much better that Atlantic or other modern projects. Or a better question may be, why do architects only make one type of bunker when we have all this limitless option to choose from (that answer is comfort). The answer is that most great bunkering has more to do with reflecting the nature of the site than it does with even with placement.
15th at Cypress Point
Alister MacKenzie said, “All the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.” When adding a bunker to a site, you have two options, you can have it blend in which will always work, or you can have it offer a contrast which when done well is spectacular. When done poorly it is a disaster! The work of Raynor and Banks offers an example of contrast that works well by contrast. Why does there work fit? Because they tie everything back into original grade despite the severity of the hazard form. The remainder of the hazard is a s natural as can be. Where it gets more interesting is the chocolate drops of Travis and Leeds that still are spectacular despite their obvious complete contrast. That is a harder thing to explain other than to point out that each feature is hand-made and none look quite like any other. The reason modern features look lousy is they are repeated endlessly because a machine has that ability. Robert Hunter describes this well when he said “All artificial hazards should be made to fit the ground as if placed there by nature. To accomplish this is a great art. Indeed, when it is really done well it is, I think it may truly be said a fine art, worthy of the hand of a gifted sculptor.”

1st at Sand Hills
In my experience only a handful of architects have been able to create bunkers that blur the line between strategy and art. The greatest of all was Alister MacKenzie. He was able to comine artistry, with scale, a little intimidation, a tremendous amount of strategy and the greatest blending an architect has ever done. He to this very day remains the standard to what any architect must hold his bunker work, since he is the only architect to manage to have it all work perfectly.

There is one alternative to all of this to achieve really great bunkering. Go out and find a natural one that you won’t have to create. After all Donald Ross pointed out to us, “The fascination of the most famous hazards in the world lies in the fact that they were not and could not have been constructed.”

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