Sunday, 12 February 2012

Do Bunkers Represent the Same Strategic Value They Once Did?

I watched a presentation on bunker maintenance this week. In the presentation the speaker talked about the cost of maintaining “tournament” quality bunkers for every day play. His talk covered sand selection, bunker preparation and included the use of custom tools and techniques designed to get the ball away from the faces of the bunkers. He shared with us that 25% of the club’s maintenance budget is being used on maintaining the bunkers.

In his presentation he touched on two key points and both got me thinking about how much bunker maintenance is undermining strategy.

While talking about the techniques they use he said “the player expects the ball roll down the faces of the bunker and end up in the middle.”

Being in this position provides a player with a flat lie with enough room to comfortably get over almost any face even in fairway bunkers. If the ball has rolled to this position the ball will sit almost completely on top of the sand and allow for a cleaner contact than the rough. In fact in many instances this lie will allow the player to control the shot through the additional spin they can place on the ball.

Throw in the improvements in the ball and the use of patterning on the face designed to add spin and the players are in a much better position to score from the bunkers than in the past.

The bunker (in theory) is supposed to be a lost stroke unless an exceptional shot is played to save that stroke. I’m not sure if that is the case anymore. Apparently the average tour player is just shy of 50% around greens for sand saves and the best professionals are close to 60%. That’s not much of hazard when you compare that to rough and even some short grass situations.

The speaker continued with “The players expect every bunker shot to be played from consistent conditions.”

What he might as well of said is the player expects the ball to sit up in a perfect lie every time. We spend an enormous amount of money in construction techniques, in maintenance and on “creating” specialized sand designed to provide the perfect combination of firmness and moisture content. Essentially a lie in a hazard is being designed to be perfect every time.

A bunker is supposed to provide a consequence for making either a poor decision or failing to execute a shot. Strategy is created through the balance of risk and opportunity and the decisions that come with assessing what lies between you and the hole. If there is no consequence there is no risk and therefore the strategies are weakened by this fact. A perfect lie in the bunker every time removes a large portion of the risk.

I think we are maintaining bunkers to the point of reducing their strategic value.


  1. Ian,

    I couldn't agree with you more on this. I grew up playing golf at Oakmont and I think it's safe to say that Henry Fownes would agree as well. Why should a player be rewarded with a good lie after a bad shot? Bring back the furrows!!

  2. do you remember the year Jack Nicklaus used a larger gap rake for his bunkers? He tried to remind the pros that a bunker was a punishment for a misplay. He was raked over the coals. I believe that it was Ray Floyd (?) that purposely played into a large bunker on a par 5 because the lie was far better that the rough and other grass around the green. I can't remember which tournament, but I think it was a major, not Augusta.

  3. I have been playing from well maintained bunkers for over 40 years and have long thought that rakes should taken off the course and that bunkers should be allowed to evolve naturally over time, managed only to the extent that these hazards remain strategically smart and sufficiently penal. I also think that courses should stop watering the rough and "rough" maintenance be restricted to weed control and cutting to heights that accommodate pace of play. Accuracy should be rewarded with pristine conditions (tees, greens and fairways).


  4. I believe one of the fundamental problems with the golf industry today is the generally held view that golf courses should be perfect in every respect. Fairways should provide perfect lies, bunkers should provide perfect lies and greens should roll perfectly consistent. The more perfect the better!
    The average golfer sees the perfect conditions on TV and assumes this is the way it should be and don’t give any thought to the fact that the TV courses are in most instances given kid glove treatment for months and months prior to the tournaments. I’m not certain when this belief that courses should be perfect crept into the average golfers psyche but given that it has, it then leads course owners to devote resources to making the courses perfect to meet the golfers expectation. This then forces costs to rise which then must be passed along in green fee costs.
    I’ve always thought that course conditions overall should be left to Mother Nature as much as possible with the exception of the greens. Granted, this would be a radical departure from what we have seen over the past 20 or so years but I believe it could have a positive impact on reducing costs, increasing participation rates and providing a more natural golfing experience.
    Greg McMullin

  5. Here is an example showing the kid glove treatment of greens for the PGA Tour event at Riviera