Bunker Mentality: An Interview with a Golf Bunker

By Forrest Richardson

First, let me say that I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.

I’m not going anywhere.

Most bunkers don’t have much to say.  What prompted you to speak up?

Well, I’m a greenside, and we see more action. Plus, I come from a long line of bunkers that have been given important roles. I suppose it’s in my blood. Or sand.

How do you define the primary role of a bunker?

We’re here to make you think. Tees, fairways, and greens are the stage, but bunkers are like bouncers: To reach the action, you have to deal with us or choose another route. You can play safe to avoid us altogether or risk a shortcut where we might meet face to face. 

Another way to look at it is to consider how bunkers affect play. Golf is an obstacle course and we set in motion how the golfer gets from A to B. We also demand skill when we do catch an errant or mishit shot.

Are you saying your primary role is to catch balls?

Pay attention. I’m saying the role of a bunker is to shape the way a player attacks a hole. If that means being tempted to play close enough to get caught, so be it. When we get bypassed, the golfer has a sense of triumph. But when we do grab a ball, the game changes. It’s an interruption of progress, and skill is required to recover. 

The role of a bunker is evident as a player takes aim, and a consequence gets added to the game when the ball finishes on sand instead of turf. There’s a term for all this: It’s called the “line of charm.” Each player has his own line of charm on a hole, the route that best suits his game and fits his sense of adventure and risk.

Do all bunkers play the same role?

In the old days, we did. Originally we were brought in to intimidate, tempt, or create options. But modern golf has created some bunkers purely for aesthetic reasons, and there are also the “savers” who spend their days preventing balls from rolling away or into a lake. One of my neighbors is a saver: Not a very exciting life, but it’s commendable.

Tell me about your ancestors.  

The earliest bunkers were natural blow-outs of sand within massive dunes, what we call “linksland,” which is sandy land formed by tides and wind. They weren’t built but found along the coastal regions of Scotland and the British Isles. 

Is it true that rabbits formed the first bunkers by burrowing into grassy areas, leading to erosion and the creation of deep pits of sand?  

Someone’s been doing his homework. Yes, I was brought up with similar tales. Rabbits and other critters, like sheep, surely accounted for early bunkers by burrowing in search of shelter. The overall credit, though, goes to wind and erosion.

How did we make the leap to constructed bunkers?  

As golf became popular, things began to change. Formal layouts replaced the open fields where players had created a new “course” every day. The formation of clubs and rules in the 1700s and 1800s was a turning point. And then there was the big move away from the coast to inland sites, far from sand dunes or natural sandy areas. By the late 1800s, golf was growing all over the world on land that was, frankly, not always suited to golf. It became necessary to build bunkers since they weren’t found naturally in the terrain.

That had to be a dramatic difference, the leap from “found” to “built”…

Look, the original game was played through the valleys and low areas of dunes, which was where the natural grasses grew best and it was easier to walk. As I said, things were constantly changing back then until the game’s “playing board” conformed to formulas. Today, almost all golf is a far cry from the 100 percent natural course. Even at St. Andrews, we now get edged and manicured, and everything is kept pretty much intact. That’s the new norm.

Which reminds me, where does the word “bunker” come from?  

It’s an early Scottish term for a bench formed from earth, like you might find in a field. It’s also a Scottish word for a chest or box. Get it?  

Speaking of names, what’s your feeling about the term “sand trap”?  

Doesn’t bother me at all. I am sand and I do trap. Seems logical to me. Besides, a story my grandfather often told was of Harry Vardon’s caddie exclaiming that his man had been “trapped” after finding a bad bunker lie during the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club at Brookline. That’s where “sand trap” got started. It’s an Americanism.

Do you prefer “bunker”?  

I suppose. Besides, the rules don’t recognize the term “sand trap.” Go figure.

You mentioned change, and we hear a lot today about restoring bunkers to their original design. What’s your take?

Bud, you’re looking at a guy who’s had six facelifts, two drainage replacements, and more sand jobs than I can recall over the last 80 years. I’ve also lived through a depression and a few recessions. I once was more mud than sand. But what’s more important than restoring us back to a particular look or era is keeping us in relatively good shape. We need to drain well and our presence on the course should always be relevant.

And by “relevant” you mean…

It’s simple. The highest priority is location. Followed by depth and size, then shape. Last should be the trendy details of how we’re edged. Haircuts change. They are the easiest makeover. Eye candy, my friend.

I see you have some wavy hair on your shoulders. Is that a trend? 

This is the problem when you rely on others to dictate your appearance. Originally, I was a bit rough and scruffy, then in the ’70s I was trimmed like an army recruit. The green committee here hired a golf designer to “restore” me a few years ago and now I look like I did in the 1930s.

How do you like it?

As I said, trendy. I wish there had been more emphasis on those priorities I mentioned. I used to be a bit deeper, and if I had my way you would be interviewing me 15 yards further over that way, where I belong. They should have paid more attention to the foremost tenet: Location. Location. Location. 

Any advice to the green committees and golf course architects out there?

It’s their call, we live the life we’re given. But a lot of us do miss having a proper name. If more bunkers were given names there would probably be more thought to our purpose. More personality.

Have you ever been given a name?

Several. But none that are printable.

What are the primary problems facing bunkers today?

There are many. We get blamed for higher maintenance costs, slowing pace of play, and, of course, there are the never-ending debates on whether we are “fair”—whatever that means.

Are those, uh, fair criticisms?

Well, I’d agree, there are too many of us at some courses. We should be used more sparingly. Maintenance should be consistent, but not over the top. When I hear players complain about the quality of my sand, my brows raise. On the pace issue, however, I don’t think we impact the length of a round as much as some features, like all those subtle cuts of grass around the greens that slow down club selection, or the deep rough where a round of golf can begin to look like an Easter egg hunt. 

And fairness?

Well, if you don’t want to tangle with me, don’t. Besides, we’re just pits filled with some sand. Get over it. 

As a bunker, who are your idols?

My father was a Thomas-Bell [George C. Thomas, golf architect of Riviera, Los Angeles Country Club, etc., and his “bunker man” William P. “Billy” Bell], so naturally I look up to those designers for what they gave to the game. Thomas and Bell, perhaps more than others, used bunkers for the ultimate in strategy and temptation. Then there’s the Old Course: What’s not to appreciate and admire there? And, of course, Oakmont with the Church Pews. I can’t wait to see those guys in action at the U.S. Open this year. 

One of my favorite quotes is from John Low, who wrote extensively about golf architecture as it became a recognized profession in the early 1900s. He summed it up perfectly when he wrote, “Bunkers, if they be good bunkers, and bunkers of strong character, refuse to be disregarded and insist on asserting themselves; they do not mind being avoided, but they decline to be ignored.” That’s my motto.

Any final thoughts?

Yes. Tell everyone that rakes belong half-in and half-out, propped against our edges where they only touch the sand a bit and can easily be found and used. This business of laying them inside me is annoying, and so is the policy of throwing them in the grass. Ever seen a rake get run over by a mower? Trust me, it’s traumatic.

Golf course architect Forrest Richardson is the author of Bunkers, Pits & Other Hazards.

2018-09-15T18:19:39+00:00