Ian Andrew Golf Design
Restored 13th Green at Laval-sur-le-lac
(photo by Evan Schiller http://www.golfshots.com )
A Collection of Essays
My plan to periodically add essays on golf course design to this site.
The Value of Playing Freedom
Very few players may be familiar with because
almost all his work has disappeared through development. But he is well studied
by architects because Max was one of golf course architecture’s great
philosophers. Below is my favourite quote on the original spirit of the game,
which is also the foundation of my own personal philosophy.
Max Behr wrote, “The concern of the architect should be positive and have solely to do with what a golfer should do. His mission is not that or a moralist, the principle word of whose vocabulary is DON’T. The golfer should not be made to feel that he must renounce, that the primary object for him is to conquer his faults. It is not for the architect to inform him he played badly. That is for the professional. No, the mission of the architect is that of a leader. By the development of his hazards he exhorts the golfer to do his best, enticing him at times ‘to shoot the bones for the whole works.’ Thus, he instills the golfer a spirit of conquest by presenting him with definite objectives upon which he must concentrate. It is for the golfer to stamp his law upon the ground. It is no way the business of the architect to stamp his law upon the golfer. But thus, it is in most cases. The penal school of golf spells death to that spirit of independence, life and freedom which we are all seeking, and which we should find in all places of our recreation.”
I prefer my golf holes to have alternatives. I’m not talking about a hole where I can try cutting a corner to gain a better angle in, but a hole where I can play it a multitude of ways in order to secure a score. Think of the 14th on the Old Course at St. Andrews as a perfect example. The hole is full of optional routes and it favors no particular type of player. You can choose so many different lines in order to suit your own ability and set up your own preferred route to the green. The 14th can be played so many different ways that it would take more than a dozen rounds of discovery to figure out what work best for you. The possibilities increase even more when you factor in the wind and how you’re playing that day. All holes should involve discovery and the freedom to choose. These are the two basic foundational principals that I believe are fundamental to a player enjoying a golf course. Golf is at its best when the route and risk are completely up to you.
The goal of the architect is to provide as interesting a playing experience as possible. There is nothing more interesting than having to figure out where you should go, deciding what risks you will take, selecting the shots you want to try. The success or failure of the round will be based as much on your decision making as it is on your skill to play a shot. These are the moments of “playing freedom” that Max Behr describes in his quote. This is when we are most engaged in our beloved game.
Individual Hole Design
Every Golfer’s Favourite: The Short Par Three
This is the one hole that I believe golf architects should include in every design, because the hole represents a clear opportunity for all. There is no other hole in golf where the expert and duffer stand equal, both thinking of one perfect swing. It is the only hole in golf that offers all levels of player a realistic opportunity at making a birdie. Even the weakest or shortest player has only to make one good shot for a birdie. No hole is more anticipated or appreciated when an architect includes one on the course.
There are two types of short par threes.
The most common of these is the
short iron version, which involves playing an 8 iron or less.
The other type is the pitch type,
which can vary from a full a
wedge down to a knock down shot. These are some of the greatest holes in golf.
But they are rarely if ever built because architects fear having their pitch
hole being labeled as mickey mouse. Yet when around 100 yards, these are often
the most delicate little feel shots, usually surrounded by disaster. This type
of hole often proves to be more difficult for a longer player since they tend
to need a knock down or three-quarter swing, but the spin they generate makes
it extremely difficult to control the ball on the green. The average person is
more likely to still need a full swing, generates very little spin and the ball
will sit quietly where it hits the surface.
For the architect, this also represents a clear opportunity too. They can crank up the difficulty because that will balance out the short distance required from the player. The player stands on the level tee with the advantage of a perfect lie, so it is seen as reasonable for the architect to request a near perfect shot. The great ones tend to play as hit the green or else. If you make the shot, you get a great chance of birdie, but if you miss, the second shot often becomes the hardest one you will face all round.
With one swing of the club, you will either have an endless smile, or the need to return tomorrow and play that shot again.
Golf’s Great Concept: The Redan
My favorite hole concept is the Redan. I feel there should be a Redan green on almost every course because of the interest it creates for the player. The Redan is a concept that favors the shot maker over the bomber.
Historically, the “Redan” was an efficient technique used to thwart enemies from approaching. The use of this unusual fortification caused many “failed attempts at gaining on this position.” The description describes the old fortification called the Great Redan in Sebastopol Russia, but it could also be describing the effective defense posed by the 15th green complex at North Berwick.
Horace Hutchinson described the front bunker complex at North Berwick as the Redan. “The Redan is a deep steep-faced bunker close to the green, but is of no great length or breadth. The driven ball may go nicely to the right of it and curl round as to lie on the green without crossing the great escarpment of the fortification at all. But it has an aspect of no little terror as one face’s it from the tee."
The name of the hole comes from the angle of the bunkering and the diagonal it creates since it is reminiscent to angle of the Redan fortification. But in today’s context the name Redan means something different. It is used to describe the green contours and the concept of a fall away green also set on a diagonal. The French use of the word Redan means “jagged notch.” In fortifications, the Redan is the extension outward of the wall between two parapets. That extension is projected outwards in the shape of a “V” and the Redan is used to describe the extension. The tooth on a saw, if that helps you visualize it.
The original Redan found in North Berwick is thought to be a creation of the green keeper David Strath. The Redan has a single shot of around 180 yards to a green that falls away diagonally to the left. The hole is partially blind, playing over a couple of carry bunkers that provide the line. The left diagonal is defined by the two deep fronting bunkers. The right side has three deep bunkers and the green falls off sharply all the way around the back.
Strategically the hole is set up by the diagonal line presented by the front left bunkers. The player must deal with the hazard, by playing over or around as Hutcheson suggested. Where the hole begins to get clever is that the land falls sharply off at the right, and if a player plays too safe away from the left “Redan” bunker, they often end up in one of the three deep bunkers. The recovery shot from this position is the most difficult on the hole. The best position to miss is long, but this area has some rough ground and you may come up with a delicate lie. The joy of the hole remains the dilemma from the tee, a high fade to hold the green, or a slight draw to feed the ball, either way it certainly is a fun hole to play. The key to the hole remains in a contour of the green and how it slopes away to the back and left. Since there is no backstop or upslope commonly used to receive the ball, judgment and precision are put at a higher premium on the approach shot. The green is slightly funnel shaped so a ball finding the surface will be rewarded unless it comes in too hot to stay.
This green style has been used on par four’s by architects like Seth Raynor and been re-created on countless par threes by Tillinghast, MacDonald, Thomas and Flynn just to name a few. Many copies of the Redan were built at well over 200 yards, since the architect’s like Flynn, felt that length was important to retaining the original strategy. The green itself is an architectural technique, used to combat length and reward shot making. It may be the single greatest concept ever introduced to golf architecture.
The Importance Grassing Lines
Grassing lines determine how a course will play. The shorter the turf, the more the contours of the ground will come into play. The more short turf around greens, the more options players will have to play alternative types of shots. The more fairway width you have, the more options they will have to play for position. Short turf makes the game more interesting to play.
No golf course has gotten worse during my golf design career than Bethpage Black. When I first saw the course, I was blown away by immense size of the property and the dramatic terrain. The course had broad fairways and enormous bunkers that made it fit perfectly into that epic scale. The wide fairways allowed players to play both passively and aggressively to try and deal with a really difficult test of golf. While it was still as tough as nails, it was also fair and fun, because of the scale of the fairways allowed some latitude and flexibility off the tee. It gave you a chance to take some bolder lines in order to make the approach shots more manageable through better position.
They have narrowed the course down to bowling alley fairways based upon specific widths. In theory, they are designed to make driving the ball incredibly difficult. But in doing so they have inexplicably managed to remove almost all the fairway bunkering from play. The bunkers now have a wide expanse of thick rough between fairway and sand and the only way to reach the bunkers is to fly the ball into the hazard.
Once you have narrowed the fairways to this point, the game becomes all about execution. The margin for error is so small that even the very best player will only play for the centre of the fairway. Since the fairways no longer wrap around the fairway hazards, there is no longer a better angle of attack to try and achieve. The golf course has been dumbed down target golf. Rees Jones has removed all the decisions and all the thought from Bethpage Black. When you take this approach, rather than identifying the best player through their ability to make great decisions and play superb shots under pressure, the golf course now identifies the player that will make the least number of mistakes. It’s survival rather than strategic golf.
The game is supposed to be about choice and options. The argument against wider fairways and extensive short turf around greens is the game will get too easy. The width certainly helps the high handicap player find a few more fairways. The short grass around the greens improves the playability for them since they will play to their strengths often putting or chipping a ball back onto a green.
The impact on a good player is subtle, but devastating unless they understand the increased risk. They no longer have a ring of rough around the green to corral the near miss. That ball will bound away from the green and run off into far more challenging places to recover from. Because they are trying to hit the green, this is at best at the side of greens and often in behind. They begin to find places where recovery shots are near impossible. What further complicates things for them is their desire to play a flop shot. Fairly routine from the ring around the greens, this becomes incredibly delicate from a tight lie which will place additional pressure on their game. It’s not easier, in act for good players this makes the game harder.
Grassing lines matter more than almost all other architectural decisions. It changes how a course plays and looks. It either identifies natural features in the land by being cut short or hides them by being kept long. Better grassing lines make better golf.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bunker Design
The following essay will take you from the history right through to the philosophy of how I use bunkers to make a golf course more interesting. It’s important to know that the vast majority of the greatest bunkers simply occurred without ever being created, but architects like myself are looking at the aspects of these bunkers in order to create new ones that have the same impact. Bunkering is far more than a hazard to be avoided, it’s a psychological tactic to alter the playing patterns and thinking of the player. Here is a deep dive into all the things I think about with placing bunkers, including quotes from all the great architects in the game.
History of Bunkers
Donald Ross said, “The fascination of the most famous hazards in the world lies in the fact that they were not and could not have been constructed.”
The vast majority of the most famous bunkers in golf are “natural” hazards. They may have been found by an architect and then incorporated into the design, occurred through erosion, or began as lesser hazards and then become more fearsome and interesting as a result of evolution.
We are told the origins of bunkers were the small hollows created by sheep or the natural blow-outs in the dunes created by wind. Many bunkers began as small natural depressions in the playing field that were unable to support turf and eventually succumbed to being open sandy expanses. Time, wind and eventually play added depth which increased the consequence creating an ever more important hazard.
The really famous ones are the bunkers that generate fear through intimidation, depth and being ideally placed.
About a decade ago I found myself reading about the Old Course and the quest for the origin of the Road Hole Bunker. I had naively assumed that the bunker was added by Allan Robertson when he made his alterations to the 17th green. It turns out that the bunker was already in place by his 17th birthday since it was illustrated on an early map of the course. So how did this bunker end up being the most famous bunker in golf?
It has been suggested that 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 Road Hole Bunker’s depth came from the people’s quest for shells which eventually was stopped when the golf course became too busy and too popular to allow this activity to continue. But the excavation continued through play since this bunker was so well placed lowering the bottom and adding to the lip between the bunker and green.
Most don’t realize that The Road Hole Bunker evolves continuously now. Mostly this is through play, made worse by visitors that insist on hitting multiple shots out. Think of the constant buildup of sand on the back lip after each swing and the regular requirement to remove the buildup. The constant sand splash requires the replacement of the revetted bunker face every few years. With all of this in mind, you will understand how much this bunker will change on a yearly basis.
I first saw the bunker in 1989, the lip wasn’t near as high as when I played from it in 2014. By going through the golf magazines for each of the British Open we can see the face rise and fall and the extents of the bunker change with each renovation done to repair. Even the R&A has played with the shape and depth multiple times and it is now so deep and high that recovery is nearly impossible for all but the most skilled. The bunker was far deeper in 2005 for the Open than it was when I played in 2014.
I believe this is the game’s greatest bunker. It’s not clear whether this was actually placed or whether it simply occurred. What we do know is the depth was determined by circumstance and evolution has played an enormous role in creating such a meaningful and consequential hazard.
Modern Architecture, as in the architectural movement, generally bulldozes everything and then builds bunkers into the locations at predetermined distances to reinforce an intended strategy based upon a single class of player. This myopic view does not deal with mixed abilities, constant changes in technology nor wind. Bunker placement needs to be more happenstance to make the game interesting for “everyone”.
Willie Park Jr. said, “A golf architect must approach each bit of country with an absolute open mind, with no preconceived ideas of what he is going to lay out, the holes have to be found, and the land in its natural state used to its best advantage. Nature can always beat the handiwork of man and to achieve the best and most satisfactory results in laying out a golf course, you must humour nature.”
Nature provides us with so much variety in large undulations and even the micro undulations that dominate the Old Course. It is up to us to identify and incorporate all those natural hollows and scars into our golf courses. Just look at the success of Sand Hills in Nebraska, most of the holes were designed around a series of very impressive natural blowouts. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw routed many tee shots diagonally over the blow outs at Sand Hills. Bill explains his reasoning for this approach, “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. The scale, depth location and appearance have all combined to make this one of the most memorable courses in golf. The lesson it teaches us, even with new courses built today is find the natural bunkers first then start adding new ones if you need to.
Why We Need Bunkers?
Bunkers may be inconvenient and frustrating to some, but they can be essential elements to the spirit of the game. They are used in combination with other hazards to define the risk and set the parameters for the journey. They are the architect’s most common tool to stimulate players to think and make decisions.
William Flynn said, “The principle consideration of an architect is to hold the interest of a player from the first tee to the last green”
He did not mention the words difficulty or challenge. The way we create interest is through the complications the player must face and the decisions they must make. Architects tend to rely on bunkering, to create decisions. Decisions lead to strategy and options, and options create interest for the player.
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.”
Imagine a hole that has no bunkers, or more importantly no 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 simplest and most obvious conceptual way to strategically place bunkers. If that was it, and unfortunately for some architects it is, 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”
So why not all bunkers in the middle of play like the Principles Nose at St. Andrew’s?
This is 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.
Hopefully, this has opened your eyes up to realize that the options and reasons for placement are limitless.
I need to 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 their way all bunkers would be flat. 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.
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 sudden realization that you 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 still make the tough shot, but only the best recovery may erase the previous mistake. 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.”
Should they be “Fair”?
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 because golfers generally blame anyone but themselves for their misfortune.
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.
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. Minimalist architects have been advocating the return to a more natural rugged bunker with a less clearly defined outcome. These 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.
Or in the simplest of terms, Mike DeVries simply says, “It’s a hazard, deal with it.”
The Psychology of Bunkers
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.” He later continued, “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 lose 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”
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 Strantz 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.
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 lays 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 flying it or playing 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 being “in” the landing area rather than out on the side of the hole. 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”
Strategic bunkering is more than placement and depth. The ground around and beyond the hazard are just as important as the hazard itself, because each bunker is part of a much larger composition. For example, if the fearsome hazard is on the inside corner on a hole that turns to the right, carrying it will shorten the hole and it becomes a key feature. But if the green is better approached from the left, the hazard has been made far less relevant by the choice at the green allowing play away from the hazard. The best hazards are the ones we need to flirt with in order to score.
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 character 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 bunkering, 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.
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 banks of Raynor and Banks, right through to the dull maintenance and player friendly bunkers of Modern Architecture. Raw scars, sand blowouts and even to inverted bunkers of Travis and Emmet, the options are almost limitless.
So why do some projects like Pacific Dunes and Sand Hill work so much better than other similar bunkers done in different locations or by different architects. 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. 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.
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 should fit or you can have it offer a contrast which when done well is spectacular but when done poorly is at best out of place and at worst ugly. The work of Raynor and Banks offers an example of contrast that works.
Why does their work fit?
Because they tie everything back into original grade despite the severity of the form. The remainder of the hazard is as natural as it can be making the architectural element a counterpoint rather than a part of a contrasting pattern. Where it gets more interesting is the chocolate drops of Travis and Leeds that are spectacular despite their obvious intrusion into the natural flow of the land. 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 can not pull of this contrast is they get “repeated endlessly” through machinery and lack of imagination and become the repetitive body of the text rather than the exclamation point. 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.”
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 combine artistry with scale, a little intimidation, and a tremendous amount of strategy. His bunker work also features some of the greatest tie-ins 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 so 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.”
Bonus: The Implications of Modern Bunker Maintenance
I watched a presentation on bunker maintenance. 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. It’s why we should be designing far more green sites using short turf and repelling slopes as the prime source of defence rather than bunkers in design.