Warning: bunkers should be hazardous to your game

Presented by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America

Bunkers are sometimes the subject of criticism. From the golfer's perspective, they are either too hard, too soft or too wet. They can be an architect's dream and a superintendent's worst nightmare.

Instead of getting frustrated, golfers should try to understand that bunker performance is a function of architectural design, the physical properties of the sand and the intensity of bunker maintenance.

According to the USGA Rules of Golf, "A bunker is a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed or replaced with sand or the like."

From the golfer’s point of view, their design and location can affect the strategy, aesthetic appeal and playability of a hole. Since golf was created on linksland where sandy hollows occurred naturally, players today expect their courses to have bunkers.

But for superintendents, bunker maintenance is a constant thorn in the side. They are expected to maintain the best possible playing surface without sacrificing the bunker’s role as a hazard. Accomplishing those objectives makes bunker maintenance one of the most significant items in a superintendent’s budget.

Before anything else can be done to maintain a bunker, the superintendents must ensure proper drainage. Without good drainage, the bunker will too often become a water hazard.

Also, sand selection greatly impacts the short- and long-term performance of bunkers. Superintendents have found that finer sands usually do not drain as well, contaminate rapidly and blow away during dry periods. Sharp, angular sands work well for drainage and firmness, but also wear down the turf when blasted up onto greens and collars. Color is also important to course designers, television and greens committees, and is often the overriding factor in sand selection. But it is not important to good play.

Too much sand on the face of the bunker will almost always cause balls to plug on the slope and under the lip. To help maintain a consistent depth and remove debris, superintendents often prefer hand raking over mechanical raking. Which means course maintenance crews definitely have their work cut out for them, considering some courses have some 80 or more bunkers.

If a bunker is not raked regularly, it will start to deteriorate and weeds will begin to grow. If cultivation is skipped, the sand will become hard and crusty. If adding sand to the bunker is delayed, it starts to gather gravel and stones at the surface. Edge definition is also very important. To maintain it, the superintendent will trim just the grass, not the sod. Done right, the sod face will not bleed soil down into the sand.

So what can an independent-minded golfer do on his/her own to help maintain a bunker and manicure the course? One can begin with the proper method of raking a bunker after entering. Greenside bunkers are usually raked in the direction of play or toward the center of the green. Fairway bunkers are raked parallel to play from tee to green. Proper bunker rake placement is another issue for a golfer to be mindful.

There is no perfect answer for the position of rake, but most feel there is less of an advantage or disadvantage to the players if the rakes are placed outside of the bunkers.

Some argue that a ball can be deflected into or kept out of the bunker if the rake is placed outside the bunker, while a rake placed in the bunker is unlikely to deflect the ball out of it.

However, when a ball comes to rest on or against a rake in the bunker, the Rules of Golf state that a player must recreate the original lie as nearly as possible and place the ball in that lie. In some cases though, it may not be possible to replace the ball on the same or spot or find a location in the bunker that is not nearer the hole.

After considering all of the aspects, superintendents and committees generally agree that rakes should be left outside bunkers in areas where they are least likely to affect the movement of the ball. Bunker rake placement has become an issue that may never be resolved to the satisfaction of golfers, maintenance staff or course officials.

Until then, consider this a warning: Bunkers may be hazardous to your game.

For more information regarding golf course maintenance and etiquette, contact your local superintendent or the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America at 800-472-7878 or www.gcsaa.org.