Investigating hazards

Sean Dudley

Tom Simpson, the English golf architect of Morfontaine and Cruden Bay, had some very definite views on the subject of bunkering. “It is a popular delusion to suppose that the function of a fairway bunker is to catch a bad shot. It is nothing of the kind,” he once wrote. It should instead, he reckoned, catch the shot which was not quite good enough.

This quote captures the essence of strategic golf design. Well-placed hazards are designed to ask a question of the golfer. Challenge the hazard and pull the shot off, and you will reap the reward. Miss it and you will pay the penalty. The cleverer and better placed the hazard, the more difficult the question. The perfect hazard is one which leaves the golfer entirely torn whether or not to attempt the shot.

The sand bunker is the iconic hazard of golf. Whether the first bunkers emerged because the animals that shared the links with early golfers scraped away the turf, or because the golfers’ balls collected in low areas, and the wear thus created grew into bunkers remains a subject of debate. What is not in doubt is that, even on sites that have no natural sand, golf architects have since built bunkers on almost every golf course. The few courses that do not have bunkers – Royal Ashdown Forest’s Old Course in Sussex, England, for example – are very much the exception to the rule.

Bunkers allow the architect to control the examination which the golfer must face. Digging a bunker is a relatively straightforward exercise, and was so even in the early days of golf design, when horses-drawn tools were the only means of moving the earth. As American architect Paul Albanese has previously written in GCA, using horse-drawn equipment results in bunkers with a different look, as carrying the excavated soil any great distance is difficult, but actually building the bunkers is not hard.

It’s interesting that many of the great architects of the past believed that bunkers should be added gradually to new golf courses, once the hole had been in play for some time, and the way in which golfers chose to attack it had been observed. Harry Colt, for example, wrote extensively about this – his reports for courses he had laid out some years before often call for new bunkers to be added, or suggest that more may be required in the future. Nowadays, though, there is rather more of a Year Zero approach to new course openings, and most observers would suggest that the architect ought to be able to place hazards in the right place before the course is ready for play. Certainly, with the attention paid to high profile new courses, few designers or developers would be prepared to say ‘I’ll keep an eye on how people play it before adding more bunkers’.

Why have bunkers become so important? The answer is complex, but it must surely relate to the nature of the hazard. For most of golf history, a bunker – especially if relatively deep – has been a daunting hazard for the overwhelming majority of golfers. When we watch professional golfers struggle in deep pits such as the Road bunker at St Andrews, or consider how to extract their ball from up against the high wall of Hell on the same course, there is a high degree of schadenfreude – because most of us have been in a similar situation. Until fairly recently, going into a bunker generally cost a stroke even for very good golfers. Even now, the penalty is not negligible. We everyday golfers might think that the great skill of touring pros, plus the manicured sand they experience (and we now demand ourselves) and the highly sophisticated equipment on offer makes bunkers an easy recovery, but it’s not completely true. The best bunker player on the PGA Tour in 2007 was South Africa’s Tim Clark, who got down in two shots from a greenside bunker 68 per cent of the time. That’s an impressive stat, but it still means that going in a bunker will cost a shot at least once in three visits.

Not all bunkers – or indeed other hazards – are designed directly to impact on play. Certainly in the earliest days of golf architecture in the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, few designers would have had the time, equipment and inclination to build bunkers that were not designed to catch a golfer’s ball, but at some stage, probably as the game moved inland and to America – and a new breed of golf architects emerged – bunkers began to be used for other purposes.

Nowadays, sand bunkers are used for many reasons other than their direct impact on the play of the hole. In areas where fine turfgrasses are not native, and thus where extensive irrigation is required to make grass grow – bunkers are often used to blur the transition between irrigated grass and dry natural areas. The desert golf courses of the southwestern United States, many of which are subject to strict restrictions on the area of irrigated turf, are a prime example. Bunkers are used to prevent balls disappearing somewhere far worse, down a steep slope into deep trouble, for example, and, perhaps most obviously, they are used to guide the golfer’s eye.

This is controversial among golf designers. Some decry the use of bunkers or other hazards for ‘framing’ the hole. American architect Forrest Richardson, whose book Bunkers, Pits and Other Hazards offers a detailed primer on the subject, is not a fan. “I am less inclined to use a bunker for non-hazard reasons,” he says. “However, I have used them for aiming and to save balls from peril. In the latter instances, it can help pace of play by keeping balls in view and preventing the hunting of balls in deep roughs. I have also used bunkers to keep managed turf away from natural features, such as rock outcrops and large trees that should not be irrigated. In this case, I suppose the bunker is serving as broken ground, although more formal. Visually, a bunker can help guide play away from a tight area. Suppose you have a tee that might be in the way of shots from another hole. The mere introduction of a bunker along that errant line of play can certainly help, as least psychologically, keep balls more at bay. I am not a fan of bunkers for pure aesthetic reasons, although I admire much of the work I see in this area. It is just not my cup of tea. I guess I am more of a purist when it comes to bunkers: They should make the game more interesting to play, not just to see. While there may be a blending of aesthetics and strategy, I think the better courses are ones in which the hazards are truly there to make a puzzle of the game, not just to look pretty.”

Richardson’s view is not that of all his colleagues. Many modern courses – especially those built to deliver a highend experience – use large scale sand bunkers as an aesthetic tool above even their playability issues. Bunkers are built in places where they have little impact on play – perhaps on the outside of a dogleg – because the architect wants to show the golfer where (or where not) to aim. Or they are built because a hole is perceived as visually bland. But bunkers cost money to maintain, especially to the high standards golfers now demand. Mechanical raking machines may speed the process, but they merely add another area of expense. If golf is headed for a slowdown – as many good judges believe – will we see a repeat of the events of the 1930s, where courses filled in nonessential bunkers with gay abandon?

The sand bunker, of course, is not golf ’s only hazard. Water hazards have been a part of golf since its earliest days: there are streams, or burns as they are generally known in Scotland, on many of the most ancient links. In recent years, though, the use of water as a hazard on golf courses has become ubiquitous, even in Britain where it was once fairly rare. When the Belfry’s Brabazon course opened in the late 1970s, its array of ponds, streams and lakes were, if not unique in the UK at least very rare. Since then, virtually every new course built in Britain has featured many water hazards. There are good reasons for this trend. A large lake – for storing irrigation water – is pretty much a necessity on any new course, and in many cases, a series of ponds are needed to filter run-off before it can be released into the outside world.

But water, popular though it is with golfers looking for an attractive oncourse environment, is a poor hazard. Almost always, it offers no recovery: a ball in the water is lost and a penalty stroke the inevitable result. Water has become the architect’s crutch. Need fill to build interesting features? Dig out a pond, and not only will you have the earth you need, but you’ll also have an attractive hazard. Surely though, the courses we see so often nowadays, with water hazards on more than half the holes, are overkill? Golfers who relish a constant stream of water hazards must be textbook masochists.

It’s ironic, but perhaps the perfect hazard is not, by the Rules of Golf, a hazard at all. Topography offers the creative architect the chance to build holes that challenge the good golfer while not punishing the hacker too hard. Short grass, crazy though it might seem, now offers a more difficult recovery – especially as the ball is prone to running further away – than does a sand bunker. Yet the long handicapper, whose knees knock at the prospect of even the simplest bunker shot, can chip or putt and get out of trouble, even if it costs him a shot.

Topographical hazards are most famously found on links courses, because the humpy-bumpy land on which they are built makes such features natural. Consider again the example of St Andrews: the apparently defenceless eighteenth hole is not the automatic three the strong player would assume because of the dastardly depression that is the Valley of Sin. When the pin sits just over the Valley – as it usually does – coaxing the second shot up to the holeside requires a deft touch, but the duffer can bash his ball past the hole, and won’t have a horror show to finish his round.

There is one great problem though. If topography is to be used as a hazard, then the ball must bounce and roll on landing. Firm greens and hard fairways are a necessity for such ‘hazards’ to work, and in this day and age golf courses are consistently pouring too much water on to their turf. Better playability, lower costs and greater sustainability: could there be any reasons for not turning the water off?

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.