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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Fewer bunkers means less time maintaining them

072822 bunkers.jpg

Use of the existing landforms can make for compelling golf course design with minimal use of bunkers. Photo by Staples Golf Design

Just because bunkers can be maintained at a high level, does that mean they should be?

Historically, only putting greens require more time and labor to maintain than bunkers. Since the pandemic and the resulting volume of play and shortage of labor, superintendents and architects have been rethinking bunkers.

Some prefer a hairier look for the sake of classic architecture, while others are increasingly focused on playability and ease of maintenance.

In a recent post on his design firm's web site, golf course architect Kevin Norby wrote: "I'm still a fan of designing bunkers that fit the maintenance budget, the weather and the soil conditions of a particular course."

That makes sense. After all, you can't have bunkers maintained like they are at a place like Augusta without Augusta-like resources. 

Architect Andy Staples has been beating the drum for fewer bunkers. Less space dedicated to bunkers serves many purposes: They are easier and cheaper to maintain and can help grow the game by making the game more inviting to newcomers to golf. He told TurfNet two years ago, in the early stages of the pandemic, that his career goal was to design a bunker-free golf course. He mentioned one project in which he reduced the amount of square footage dedicated to bunkers by one-third. That also reduces the amount of time spent maintaining them. Another project was completed with just seven bunkers.

More than two years later, he is still sounding the same message.

"Overall, I have seen a drop in overall size and number of bunkers over years past, based on long term maintenance," Staples said. "(A total of) 50,000 to 60,000 total square footage, and less than 65 total bunkers seems to be normal."

The biggest objection Staples has received in his quest for less bunker sand on golf courses has been from players who equate fewer hazards with boring, challenge-free golf.

But that's not necessarily true. Fewer, well-designed bunkers cane still make golf challenging.

"My personal preference is for less-maintained sand bunkers," said golf course architect Jason Straka. "After all, they are supposed to be a hazard. I prefer rougher outer edges with more maintenance as you get closer to the centerline of a hole."

Challenging golf also can be achieved through fewer bunkers and compelling hole design. 

"Due to the reduction of sand bunkers, I’m also now offsetting the strategy of the golf hole through the use of shortgrass swales, grass bunkers and other landforms like drainage ditches, much like to old days," Staples said. "The gap between the better player, and the bogey golfer has never been wider, so there is still a need to present different questions to the different classes of players, so just because we’re doing less sand bunkers, doesn’t mean we aren’t challenging the players in different ways. We have to be careful that our reduction of maintenance costs doesn’t wash out good, thoughtful design."

Many superintendents chucked bunker maintenance during the pandemic, even going as far as removing bunker rakes to minimize touchpoints. Many have since brought back rakes, but still have not changed how they feel about bunker maintenance.

Brian Boyer at Cinnabar Hills in San Jose removed bunker rakes during Covid. Rakes are back, but he told TurfNet in December that golfers are on their own to maintain bunkers throughout the day.

"If I have a rake out there, I don't feel guilty about us not (raking bunkers)," he said.

Staples has not completely dismissed bunkers, and believes they can add to the aesthetic appeal of a golf cours.

"Sand is still one of the best ways, other than just pure, natural golf land, to create beauty on a golf course. Sand contrasted against turf, with a variety of tones and textures is still a major focus of mine, so if we are going to build bunkers, I want them to creative works of art. I might just do less of them."

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