The bunker dilemma

Presented by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America

Nearly everyone who plays golf knows that bunkers are supposed to be hazards. That's how the Rules of Golf, define them--"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."

For golfers, the object should be to avoid them.

But for golf course superintendents, the subject of bunker maintenance is often a subject that falls under the category of “Hazardous Duty.”

In fact, that's the title of a seminar offered by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Taught by Robert M. Randquist, GCSAA board member and Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Boca Rio Golf Club in Boca Raton , Fla., the course helps GCSAA superintendents understand the complex and often contentious subject.

According to Randquist, the difficulty of bunker maintenance begins with the fact that both golfers and golf course superintendents exhibit a wide variation in how they look at bunkers.

At one extreme you hear, “A bunker is a hazard, I shouldn’t have hit the ball here.” Or, “Golf is like life, it’s not supposed to be fair.”

At the other extreme there are those who think, “I can’t believe how unfair this bunker is. Even the best golfer in the world couldn’t get on the green from here.”

With such a wide range of opinions and expectations about bunkers place in the game, and how they should be maintained, Randquist says it’s vitally important that golf course superintendents, green committees, private owners, supervisors and tournament governing bodies discuss the issue. Arriving at a consensus regarding playing conditions for the course’s bunkers is important, but it is equally important that they determine if the golf facility has the financial ability to provide those conditions on a regular basis.

The kinds of questions that must be answered include:

  • Should a golfer ever have a buried lie in a bunker?
  • Should a golf ball always roll back to the flat portion of the bunker?
  • Is it possible to define the difference between a “fair” bunker and an unfair one?
  • How often should golfers be able to get the ball out of a greenside bunker and into the hole in two shots?
  • How often should golfers be able to hit a shot from a fairway bunker onto the green?
  • Should a golfer ever have to play a shot from underneath or against the lip of a bunker?
  • Should the sand surface be smooth or furrowed?
  • Do the bunkers provide equal hazard to low and high handicap players?

The answers to these questions make it possible for the golf course superintendent to define the expected difficulty of the course’s bunkers, establish a plan for bunker maintenance that will deliver that level of difficulty and develop a budget for that level of maintenance.

GCSAA golf course superintendents are accustomed to creating these kinds of plans, and balancing the desires of golfers with the available labor and equipment assets. But golfers are often unaware of how many factors affect the condition of bunkers.

Randquist says the primary factors influencing the decisions golf course superintendents make regarding bunker maintenance include: type and depth of sand in bunkers; raking, grooming and edging methods; and, of course, bunker maintenance costs and budget.

The technical aspects of sand selection include everything from particle size and particle shape to crusting potential, infiltration rate, color, and even measuring firmness with a penetrometer. Management of all these factors to produce the desired bunker playing conditions is primarily the superintendent’s responsibility.

So, too, are the decisions about raking and grooming methods. Over the years, these have ranged from almost no grooming in the earliest days of the game, to the infamous furrowing rakes employed at Oakmont Country Club, to the modern power bunker rakes that can dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to rake a bunker.

But if golfers want the kind of bunker conditions they see on television at championship venues they need to understand that getting there comes with a substantial cost.

That kind of maintenance demands a commitment of manpower that most courses simply aren’t able to muster. Although there are many factors that influence the cost of bunker maintenance, Randquist says that many golf facilities commit as much as 15 to 25 percent of their golf course labor hours to bunker maintenance.

In preparation for a golf championship, it is not uncommon to have a bunker maintenance crew of 10 to 20 people working full time for two to three weeks prior to and during the event. Achieving “tournament” conditions may include packing the sand, adjusting depths, removing debris and stones, controlling moisture content, adding amendments to the sand, and hand raking—all of which are extremely labor intensive.

If a golf course sets a standard of providing those conditions on an every-day basis, labor costs for bunker maintenance alone can be $300,000 to $350,000 a year. For golf courses with annual maintenance budgets under $1 million such a commitment is obviously out of the question.

Randquist says that golfers are often surprised to learn how much strain bunkers can put on a golf course maintenance budget, but once they are aware of the balance between labor costs and bunker playing conditions they alter their expectations.

Despite a trend in recent years to maintain bunkers in a manner that provides a relatively low degree of difficulty, bunkers are still hazards. When golfers express a desire to have them be less of a hazard, they need to understand that achieving that standard comes with a significant cost.

For more information regarding golf course management practices, contact your local superintendent or the GCSAA at 800-472-7878 or www.gcsaa.org.