Sand bunkers are the golf architect’s crutch. If a hole is lacking, add some bunkers. If a hole is too easy, add some bunkers. If the edge of a hole is too punishing, add some ‘saving’ bunkers to catch balls before they encounter worse trouble.
Bunkers, like golf, developed on the ancient links of Scotland. Here, they are essentially natural features. Grazing animals would shelter from the weather in low-lying areas, and their hooves would break the turf, exposing the sand underneath. The wind would remove more turf, increasing the size of the ‘bunker’. And early golfers, who simply played their game over the natural landscape, had to deal with these sandy blow-outs, which they found harder to play from than the turf that surrounded them. Eventually, as the game formalised and the first sets of rules were drawn up, and bunkers became officially hazards (though there was no mention of bunkers in the first Rules of Golf, drawn up by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744).
By the time that golf started to move inland, though, in the second half of the nineteenth century (the first ‘golf boom’ was triggered by the invention of the gutty ball in 1848, which made the game more affordable), sand bunkers were established as a fundamental part of its vocabulary, and remained so even as courses were built on ground that had nothing much in common with the links, most specifically lacking native sand.
“I wonder if they were the most easily replicable feature of the linksland that helped retain golf’s spirit of adventure on less suited ground?” asks English designer Clyde Johnson. “It’s not like bunkers would have cost a bunch to build and maintain in the late 1800s/early 1900s. To a much lesser extent, I think they were probably an important tool in formalising golf courses, once they started being located closer to bigger bodies of populations and in shared space. Standardisation seemed a pretty important facet in Victorian-age design.”
We should remember that the creators of the earliest inland golf courses had no models to follow, except the links on which they grew up. Englishman Nick Norton says: “I think in early designs they were looking to recreate the links inland, so without them it would not be the same as golf as it was known. One has to make golf interesting and that requires obstacles and hazards. Sand does, in my opinion, make a good hazard. The ball is not lost, but the shot is difficult, and was more so before the sand wedge was invented. The same thought process probably went on 100+ years ago – dig a hole, chuck some sand in, job done. Then, once recognised (rightly or wrongly) as an essential hazard, they would have realised that they need to make them look good, and their ‘essential’ tag may have developed further – a virtuous (or vicious) circle.”
“The early golf designers figured out that consequences were an interesting and necessary part of the game,” says American architect Kurt Bowman. “To me, golf isn’t very much fun without bunkers – they are the best form of hazard, better than out of bounds and better than water.”
“The use of bunkers is analogous to something buildings architects have done for thousands of years – reinterpret and reintroduce features outside of their original or natural state or intended purpose,” says Brandon Johnson of Arnold Palmer Design. “A good example is the use of the column or arch through architecture history. What, after all, is the purpose of a hollow non-load-bearing column on a building these days beyond pure ornamentation? At least the placement of sand outside a links course retained its purpose as an obstacle within the game. Its inclusion, along with other elements – rock, trees, water, artificial contour – aimed to have a strategic purpose.”
If early inland golf courses were pretty basic, it was when the heathlands of Surrey and Berkshire, south and west of London, were discovered for the game in the 1890s and the very early twentieth century that the game first found a design vocabulary that worked away from the seaside. The heathlands were – mostly – sandy, so bunkers were not fundamentally out of place there as they might have been on clay-based inland courses. Be this as it may, the heathland revolution established the sand bunker, once and for all, as a key part of the course design template. It also saw what may be the first ever wholly bunkerless course, the Old course at Royal Ashdown Forest in Sussex, England, created in 1888. The par-three sixth at Royal Ashdown, known as The Island, is one of golf’s most famous bunkerless holes – its forty-yard-long green is surrounded by hazards, a stream on two sides, and a gully on the others.
“The heathlands share many of the same characteristics as the links, so it wasn’t difficult to make bunkers look natural there,” says Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design. “When it came to heavier sites it was a case of adapting the method to ensure they drained, hence bunkers set more into banks and kops above the general ground level.”
So that is why bunkers became such a fundamental part of the golf architect’s vocabulary. Which makes the rest of this article somewhat hypothetical, or perhaps counterfactual, but no less interesting for that. The question is: how would golf designers deal with an inability to use sand bunkers? This may not ever become a real question – at least on the vast majority of projects – although, as our article from issue 66 (published in October 2021) on the growing global crisis in the supply of sand, shows, there is real pressure on golf to reduce its use of sand. But nevertheless, it is a good way to challenge the creativity of golf architects.
The deepest irony of this question is that it is the courses where sand is most natural – the links – that could best cope with bunkers being forbidden. The kind of random contour that is so common on linksland can provide plenty of challenge and interest for golfers without the excavation of bunkers – but when turf is underpinned by native sand, it is very easy and natural to remove some of that grass to create a hazard.
“If you said we can’t do earthworks then mowing line angles would be the main feature of the design, I think,” says Hiseman. “Actually, I’d like to do a course with no bunkers, just to see how creative I can be without that crutch. I like a number of courses that don’t have them.”
“It is somewhat a shame that natural non-sand hazards didn’t become the norm!” says the veteran Welsh designer David Williams. “It would have made fitting a course into an inland site and laying the course gently on the landscape a much easier and probably more rewarding task! I am not a fan of the inland links’ solution, where the golf course is totally out of character with the surrounding and underlying landscape, so I suppose the best non-bunker solution is using a variety of native grass species, defining differing fairway widths and angles from the tee and to the green, even some subtle grass hollows and swales of different grass heights and types. But without the ‘wow’ factor of dramatic bunkering, it can often be difficult to create the visual and playing interest. I have never had a ‘no sand bunker’ stipulation on a complete course, but occasionally have on a few holes – to protect views of (or from) an important building or from a nearby road. From a golf interest point of view, it is a lot easier to do this on just two or three holes than on a complete course!
“During the 1990s and early 2000s, the boom years of new golf courses, we were told that new courses were in competition for members, often on the basis of the proposed course plan and layout. People argued that, to provide that ‘wow’ factor, courses had to have lots of water and a profusion of sand bunkers just to make the glossy presentation plans look more attractive! A subtle understated design might have produced a better course – but not sold as many memberships. Personally I like trees as hazards, which is OK on a wooded or parkland site – but their slow gestation period precludes their use on a wide-open site. It would be an interesting exercise to create a great bunker-free 18 holes – there are plenty of great bunkerless holes, such as the first and eighteenth at the Old Course, the seventeenth on the West course at Wentworth being just a few examples.”
Considering alternatives: Jim Nagle of Forse Design shares examples of features that can be used instead of sand bunkers.
The young American designer Jaeger Kovich cites the fifth at Royal Worlington & Newmarket in England as a classic example of a great sand-free hole. “It might be the best par three in the world,” he says, a view that was shared by John Morrison, the design partner of Harry Colt. “Only the perfectly struck shot has any hope of leaving the ball on the green; the 90 per cent good shot which is usually good enough to get a three at the majority of short holes, is no good at all at the fifth at Mildenhall,” Morrison wrote.
Sand is, as we have seen, a very basic part of the golf architect’s bag of tools. It can almost be said that sand bunkers define a golf course. No other feature, except perhaps a flag in a green, says ‘golf’ so clearly as does a sand bunker. And, although there is much handwringing about how bunkers are no longer especially frightening to golfers at the highest level, there is no doubt that, for the vast majority, they still present a real hazard that is worth avoiding, yet at the same time does not spell immediate disaster in the way that water or out of bounds do. So, there is no doubt that, on the overwhelming majority of courses, they are here to stay. Equally there is no doubt that architects can benefit from thinking hard about alternatives to bunkers. Ground contour, as seen on courses like Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes, can be at least as good a hazard as a bunker, but where severe ground contour does not exist naturally (which is to say, away from the links), can contouring fill the same role as bunkers, without enormous and costly earthworks? Maybe not. The bunker may be a crutch. But if you cannot walk without it, a crutch is rather useful!
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.