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  • Mike Clayton

Bunkers 101

Amongst the great architects who worked before World War II, the role of bunkers wasn’t much debated. They moved the game away from a penal era of architecture where designers, very often golf professionals, positioned bunkers with the aim of merely catching poor shots.

Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt, Tom Simpson, George Thomas and their contemporaries determined their bunkers would be used for dramatic effect as carry hazards and to enhance the strategy. It was Thomas who called strategy ‘the soul of the game.’

Their bunkers were placed exactly where players wanted to go and thus to capture the almost perfect shot as opposed to the simple bad shot. MacKenzie reasoned those hitting bad shots were likely having a hard enough time of it already without him adding to their struggle.

They rarely bunkered the outside edges of a dogleg, instead preferring to guard the shortest line to the hole and leave open the wide route for the weaker players or those eschewing the challenge of the hazards and the subsequent reward of a better line into the green. Nor were they much for ‘framing bunkers’ or what is colloquially known these days as ‘eye candy’.

Many golfers however come to the conclusion bunkers are simply there to make their life a misery. Related is the commonly held view bunkers should only affect ‘good players’ and should never be placed where a short hitter might go.

If players accept bunkers are placed to make the game more interesting, then why not place bunkers at random distances so occasionally the shorter hitters face the same decision a longer hitter finds on another hole? Either not building bunkers or removing bunkers likely to catch a shorter hitter, under the guise of them only affecting bad players, surely treats those with a sporting instinct with a level of contempt?

Why should ‘good players’ be the only ones dealing with the hazards?

Greenside bunker shots are the one shot in the game impossible to play with a bad grip and the resulting bad technique. You can occasionally hit a decent drive or an acceptable iron with a poor grip but there isn’t a chance of playing an effective shot out of the sand. The consequence is golfers complain constantly and endlessly about the condition of the bunkers rather than blaming, or even understanding, their own technical inadequacies.

They erroneously think bunkers should be ‘consistent’ when every single superintendent in the country will tell you it’s a near impossibility to make the sand in every bunker the exact same depth and texture and every lie flat and ‘fair’.

The wind blows sand around. Some parts of a sand-based property are likely to have parts where the native sand is more abundant than others. There is way more sand in the bunkers built into the dune at Kingston Heath’s 14th hole than there is on the flatter and heavier ground where they built the 5th green.

“Many golfers however come to the conclusion bunkers are simply there to make their life a misery. Related is the commonly held view bunkers should only affect ‘good players’ …”

Rain leaves sand moist and ‘heavy’ and long periods of dry weather has the opposite effect. Some bunkers get more water from greenside irrigation sprinklers than others. Bunkers in shade dry out slower than those exposed to full sun.

They are never going to be consistent. They never have been and thoughtful players understand they are hazards made to differentiate the skills of those capable of understanding the question each lie and stance asks and those who do not.

The theory of bunkers is one part of the discussion but as important in the debate are examples of bunkers and the varying roles they play in the game.

The most famous is the Road Hole bunker, a tiny pot cut right into the edge of the 17th green at St Andrews. It’s penal but the irony of the most strategic holes is they often rely on a penal hazard for their interest. The Road Hole, arguably the best strategic hole in the game, is made by the bunker, an out-of-bounds line hard up against the right edge of the fairway and a road behind the green for its interest.

This bunker is one dominating the shot to the green and a bunker anyone who plays the Old Course with any regularity is bound to find often.

The par-3 15th at Kingston Heath with the Big Bertha bunker in front. PHOTO: Gary Lisbon.

Another greenside bunker refusing to be ignored is ‘Big Bertha’ at the front left of Kingston Heath’s great par-3, 15th hole. It’s brutally difficult to play from and a great example of a hazard showing off the principle (as does the Road Hole bunker) that not every shot on a very playable course has to be playable for everybody.

The 17th on the West Course at Royal Melbourne is the quintessential dogleg left par-4 with the bunker on the inside of the dogleg and a huge greenside bunker guarding the right side of the green to make the approach more difficult for the ‘timids flying right’, as Peter Thomson once referred to those avoiding the challenge of a hazard on the left.

It is one of the best examples in the country of a bunker catching the ‘almost perfect’ drive.

“The most famous is the Road Hole bunker, a tiny pot cut right into the edge of the 17th green at St Andrews. It’s penal but the irony of the most strategic holes is they often rely on a penal hazard for their interest.”

Centre-line bunkers on modern courses are almost always controversial yet they are the basis of many holes at St Andrews and it was MacKenzie who argued so long as there was room to play short, over, left or right they added much to the game. Many though who think a ‘perfect drive’ is one well hit, straight and with a good flight detest it when their ‘perfect drive’ finishes up in a bunker.

It’s a failure to understand that the measure of the worth of a shot is its position in relation to the one following – and unless you prefer to be in the bunker how can it be a perfect shot?

Peter Thomson built a few at Moonah Links as we copied the principles of the bunkers in the middle of the 12th at Kingston Heath at Royal Queensland’s 7th hole.

The fairway bunker left of the 17th fairway on Royal Melbourne’s West Course is part of the hole’s strategy. PHOTO: Gary Lisbon.

They are not to be overdone but well placed they make for endlessly fascinating golf for those who understand their point. For those who don’t they are sure to be just a pain.

As much can be learnt from badly placed bunkers as well placed ones and at Killara in Sydney there are two par-5s – the 9th and 10th – showing off how not to bunker a hole. The Legends Tour for the over 50s play the Dave Mercer Pro-Am there every year to honour one of the nicest men in the game. And it’s a brilliant day but two holes there drive me completely crazy when I imagine just how much better they would be if the offending bunkers were only filled in.

The 9th is 425 metres but at some point it was presumably deemed to be ‘too easy’ and bunkers were added on both sides of the fairway with a gap at its narrowest point of about 10 metres in order to make it a ‘harder’ hole. Maybe it is harder but it’s not a principle ever shown off at a great hole.

Lest you think they do something to solve a boundary problem it’s a rare hazard on the ground that does anything to stop a big high hook.

Then at the next, a par-5 playing over a perfect piece of undulating land for a long two-shotter, there is a blind bunker over the hill. For what purpose, I’m never sure because if you are left of it by 10 metres you are stuck behind the trees on the left.

It’s a pity because a couple of days with a machine filling them in and they would be two of the best holes on the course. The course would, of course, be ‘easier’ and likely the objection to filling them in. One assumes those arguing the 9th would be too ‘easy’ would argue just as vehemently it’d be ‘too hard’ if it was just made a par-4, which at 425 meters is what it is. Or a par-71 would be unacceptable because what course worth anything isn’t a par-72? Well, aside from Pine Valley and Muirfield, Shinnecock Hills, Merion, Swinley Forest and the rest of the more than 50 percent of courses in the world’s Top-100.

Any essay on the worth of bunkers would be incomplete without mention of the great 3rd hole at Royal Adelaide. It’s one of MacKenzie’s great holes made by the uncertainty of a blind tee shot over a ridge, a wild dune bordering the right side of the hole and a gnarly diagonal ridge protecting the left side of the long and narrow green.

So vexing is the question MacKenzie set, he understood there was no need for a bunker.

The 3rd hole at Royal Adelaide is proof that some well-designed holes do not need to be bunkered. PHOTO: Gary Lisbon.


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