All links bunkers need not be revetted!

  • St Davids

    A rough-edged bunker at Royal St David’s in Harlech, Wales

Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie
By Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie

In recent years, links courses have been reconsidering their approach to bunkering by looking back at how their courses have evolved.

Golf course architecture history enthusiasts will have seen the ebb and flow of bunker styles over the last 150 years or so. Bunkers originated as blown-out dunes, animal-created sand scrapes and rabbit warrens in the pre-golf dunescapes, before they became essential components in the laying out of the early links. As the game grew and spread inland, the bunkers travelled too, becoming entirely artificial features on these new courses. Links bunkers increased in number and, as they were created, a varied style was produced.

The busiest and most exposed bunkers struggled with their faces collapsing. Photos from the early twentieth century of the Old Course at St Andrews show some faces being reinforced with cut turf – now known as revetting or revetment. Manpower restricted how many bunkers were treated in this way. Other approaches for face reinforcement were also used, such as the sleepers that so characterise Prestwick to this day. These same bunkers inspired Pete Dye’s ‘railroad tie’ designs.

If there was a criticism, then it is perhaps that these bunkers were not that tidy and that they varied in style across many courses. Once the Open was seen in colour on television, pressure grew to provide bunkers of consistent presentation that came across well on the screen. There was also a need to limit sand blow from bunkers especially in the days before irrigation of fairways became widespread. In the space of about a decade from the mid-1970s, most bunkers on Open courses were revetted, if they were not already, and most other links followed suit.

As this approach became adopted widely, the style evolved, with many bunkers becoming deeper and steeper faced. It was like an arms race to see how hard they could become. Soon, it became the case that almost any ball going into a fairway bunker could be advanced little more than fifty yards, becoming virtually a full shot hazard except for those players with extraordinary skill and guts – Lee Westwood’s recovery on the final hole at Turnberry in 2009 being a notable example. (What a shame he followed it with a three putt to miss out on the play-off). Those familiar with links golf may get a masochistic enjoyment or perhaps just have a resigned acceptance of a shot lost from finding themselves in these hazards. Some become relatively proficient in recovering from them, but the average inland golfer finds them overwhelming and harsh. Many, perhaps the silent majority, find the unerring punishment of revetted bunkers from tee to green soul-destroying, a little tedious and anything but fun. The deeper and steeper they are, the harder they become.

Huge amounts of turf are required to revet a full set of bunkers on a links course that can have more than 100 – some clubs have even bought neighbouring properties to feed the demand. Others are buying specially grown turf at considerable cost – both financial and environmental. Financial, manpower and materials resources have come under strain to cope with the demand to keep the revetted bunkers in pristine, or at least very good, condition. Clubs started to wonder why.

A few years ago, we looked through links clubs’ photo archives to show that the revetted style is, in many cases, fairly recent. This evidence proved that links bunkers had certainly not always been like that and perhaps this style need not be used universally.

Our research highlighted another aspect. In recent years and, most probably, in response to the work involved in having every bunker revetted, there has been a move towards making bunkers significantly smaller. This makes them play even harder as the chances of ending up stymied by an awkward stance or right under the revetted face are greatly increased. In some cases, revetted faces have started to be reduced in height and the result is that the bunkers have less visual impact.

These conclusions have led us to a rethink about the playability of links bunkers, free from the constriction of ‘it is a links course, so all bunkers must be revetted’. This categorically does not mean the end of revetted bunkers, but it does mark a return to the pre-1970s approach.

Before that period, what were the bunkers like? They had much less clearly defined edges with longer grass on the faces and edges and were far less manicured. We have photographs of Bobby Jones, on his way to winning the Open at Royal Lytham in 1926, having to play from bunkers with stones, grasses and weeds in the bases and without a rake in sight! Not everyone likes the rough-edged style and such people are perfectly entitled to their opinion. Some complain that they look untidy and that balls end up in unplayable spots. All bunkers are hazards and there will always be times when the punishment outweighs the crime, but, to use the words of Bernard Darwin, they are ‘places of penance’. Revetted bunkers leave many more unplayable lies.

Read More: design options for links bunkers

One fundamental issue is whether there should be a chance for golfers to hit a heroic shot from a fairway bunker to a green with associated risk or not. Some critics of the Open at Royal Lytham in 2012 suggested that the ferocity of the bunkers led to a very defensive strategy for the playing of the course and yet the brave, attacking approach of Ernie Els in the last round reaped the rewards and the Claret Jug.

So, in our view, there is no right answer. Hence, we are not advocating a one-size-fits-all approach, but a review of what is appropriate for each course. Factors to consider with this are:

• Visual impact required from the bunkers.

• How tough fairway bunkers need to be.

• How many bunkers are there in total?

• Has the course been characterised by a large number of bunkers in its past?

• Has the course been reliant on bunkers and their hazard to produce the challenge that the course presents?

• How pristine does the club want its presentation to be?

This does not mean the end of the revetted hazard but the reintroduction of more variety in bunker styles on links courses. It also marks a move away from the penal use of revetted fairway bunkers that stifle shotmaking through fear. There is a historic precedent for this and it is a good thing for links golf.

The principals of Mackenzie and Ebert International Golf Course Architects, Tom and Martin, have worked on many of Great Britain and Ireland’s leading links courses

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.