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Bunker maintenance: where it’s been, where it is and where it’s going

March 12, 2012  By  Mike Jiggens

How important are bunkers on a golf course, exactly what role do they play, and to what lengths should they be maintained?

Robert Randquist, superintendent at the Boca Rio Golf Club in Boca Raton, Fla., addressed the issue in February at the Canadian International Turfgrass Conference and Trade Show in Calgary. He explored bunker maintenance practices with the impact of the current economy as well as the need for modification of golfers’ perceptions and expectations towards them.bunkerweb

“Bunkers on golf courses are so different from one location to another that it’s impossible to develop a template that says this is exactly the way you need to do things,” he said.

Randquist, who was host to two PGA Championships and two Tour Championships at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.. prior to moving to Florida, said superintendents must deal with varying sand types and bunker designs, “and all of those things play a great part in how you need to maintain your bunkers.”


He said that with only 150 members at Boca Rio and a mere 10,000 rounds played there annually, he is spoiled with regard to his maintenance practices.

“It’s easy for us to get out and get things done, but I never take that for granted.”


Most other superintendents, however, don’t have the luxury of time or adequate staffing to do many of the things they wish to do. Bunker maintenance is a labour-intensive practice which often takes away from other tasks.

Randquist wondered if golf should return to maintaining bunkers in the style of yesteryear, when maintenance requirements weren’t quite as stringent.

Prior to the start of the 20th century, bunkers were naturally “wallowed out” areas where sheep and cattle grazed on golf courses in Great Britain. Early in the past century, bunkers became features incorporated into the design of golf courses, rather than being naturally-occurring hazards. Golfers soon discovered that bunkers added an interesting facet to the game.

The United States Golf Association defines a bunker as “a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand. Grass-covered ground within the area of the bunker is not part of the bunker.”

First and foremost, a bunker is considered a hazard, Randquist said, adding the dictionary’s definition of the word gives it a negative connotation.

“Golfers will never be happy to be confronted by something that is defined as a source of danger, an obstacle or a chance event when they don’t have full control over their next shot.”

No matter how well superintendents groom their bunkers or how well they are prepared, most golfers will never be happy to find themselves in a bunker, he said.

“It’s impossible to provide playing conditions that will make every golfer happy. You can have the best and whitest sand or the most consistent sand in the world, but occasionally a golfer will get a bad lie in the bunker. You cannot eliminate that possibility.”

No matter how much time, money or effort is spent on bunker maintenance, they will always be regarded as hazards to most golfers.

“There has to be a cooperative effort between us as golf course superintendents and the folks that we work for to set a standard for playing quality on our golf courses,” he said, adding that bunkers and how they are to be maintained are a key part of that playing quality.

Ideally, a superintendent should meet with his employer and members to reach an agreement about how bunkers should play, Randquist said. Unless there is a consensus agreement among the parties, members will never be satisfied about how bunkers are maintained. They must be educated and reasoned with or there will always be complaints.

Along with a golf course’s greens, bunkers are the object of most golfer complaints.

Randquist said it is important that an understanding be reached as to why bunkers are on the golf course, including why they are designed the way they are and how they affect the strategy of playing the game.

The renowned architect Donald Ross once said, “A golf course without bunkers is a very monotonous affair.”

Randquist said that when he began his career as an assistant superintendent, his first golf course had only one bunker which was maintained about once a week. At Boca Rio, there are 120 bunkers.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time maintaining those bunkers…raking them,” but he added they provide a level of interest. “They hold your attention so that you absolutely have to play around them, over them…whatever works best for you.”

Architects incorporate bunkers into their course designs for a number of reasons, including to help frame the landscape and to provide a challenge for golfers. The number of bunkers on a golf course can vary, but usually number between 20 and 100, Randquist said.

When deciding on the number of bunkers they wish to work into their design of a course, architects are influenced by several factors, including the construction and project maintenance costs of the facility, whether the course is private or public, the severity of the existing contours, how difficult they wish the course to play, the desired speed of play (the more bunkers, the slower the play), the strategic impact of other design features (if there are several trees and water features, a lesser number of bunkers may be desired), and what looks good to the eye.

The style of bunkering will also differ from one architect to another.

“You can almost pick out who the architect is many times just by the bunkering style. It tends to be their signature style that sets them apart from a particular golf club.”

During his presentation, Randquist showed photographs of golf holes at other Florida golf courses, some of which seemingly had more sand cover than turfgrass. Such overkill unnecessarily increases the workload of the superintendent in having to maintain so many of them, he said.

“All of these things make your job and my job more challenging because this does require a significant amount of maintenance.”

Some golf courses have gone to the extreme with the number of bunkers on their properties, including Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis. which has more than 1,100.

“Can you imagine having 1,000-plus bunkers on a golf course?”

Whistling Straits was the scene of controversy in 2010 when Tour professional Dustin Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty late in the final round of the PGA Championship when he grounded his club in a bunker located outside the gallery ropes. Because the area had been trampled by spectators, he was unaware that his ball was, in fact, in a bunker. The penalty cost him the lead and the championship.

Randquist said golfers today demand uniformity above all else in golf course bunkers and want them raked without deep furrows.

“They don’t want it silky smooth, but somewhere in between.”

Randquist praised modern manufacturers for producing equipment which groom bunkers in a manner satisfactory to golfers. Yet bunkers aren’t as “hazardous” as they once were due in large part to the “Augusta National syndrome.” That image of picture-perfect bunkering has led many other golf courses to tailor their bunkers accordingly, and this has added greatly to the labour-intensity of their ongoing maintenance.

Sand is packed and amendments added to ensure the sand beneath the lip is as firm as can be. He said that’s fine for four or five weeks until there is a heavy rain, forcing the process to be repeated. If a golf course is hit by heavy rain three or four times during the course of a season, there is a significant expense attached to that level of maintenance.
Some golf courses will install perimeter irrigation to keep the surrounding turf watered yet the sand dry. “This is crazy.”
The cost of maintaining bunkers depends on their number, their size, the frequency in which they are raked, whether they are hand or machine-raked, the frequency of edging, how difficult they are meant to be played, the uniformity and depth of sand, the architectural design of the bunkers, the type of sand, weed invasion pressures, and the amount of debris which typically collects in them.

Of several golf courses Randquist surveyed in recent years, he said he learned 15 to 20 per cent  of their total course maintenance hours were devoted to bunker maintenance. He said that if a golf course wished to set a bunker maintenance standard in which they were to be maintained at a major championship level for 365 days a year, it would cost between $350,000 and $400,000 a year.

Golf courses which are host to major championships will typically have at least 20 people dedicated to nothing but bunker maintenance for a period of two to three prior to the event, and those same 20 people will be among 40 people maintaining bunkers during the tournament.

“If you have 20 working every day for a year, how much is it going to cost you?” Randquist said $400,000 wouldn’t cover it.

At Boca Rio, members demand U.S. Open conditions for their bunkers every day of the year.

“It’s amazing how much we’re willing to pay for preparing a hazard.”

Most golf courses will spend between $50,000 and $125,000 a year on bunker maintenance, he said. Others will spend as little as $5,000 to $10,000 “because they leave their bunkers in a more hazardous condition.”

In order for superintendents to get a real grasp on their labour costs associated with bunker maintenance, they must track those costs on a regular basis and figure out how much labour is being generated. At Boca Rio, 21 per cent of all labour hours go toward greens maintenance with bunker maintenance a close second at 19 per cent.

“A lot of our players and a lot of our owners are shocked when we show them these figures. They say there’s no way we can be spending that much on bunkers.”

Randquist said superintendents are, in fact, spending that much because they are regularly maintaining a hazard and are expected to provide perfect conditions within it. He said superintendents need to inform, educate and remind golfers that bunkers are, indeed, meant to be hazards and are there to challenge golfers, and there is a considerable expense attached to removing the hazardous nature of bunkers.

“Can we speak to this issue in the future? Can we go back to a style of bunker maintenance that introduces that concept of bunkers being a hazard, or is the horse out of the barn so far that we’ll never get it back?”

Randquist said he holds out hope that superintendents can get that message across.

During his involvement in hosting major championships, the players were dictating the standards of bunker conditions, he said. The players said bunkers had to be absolutely perfect with no deep furrows, a perfect depth and no more than 11/2 inches of sand on their faces to ensure balls wouldn’t plug under the lip. Golfers wanted the ball to consistently repel from under the lip to the base of the bunker.

“Have you ever tried to maintain an inch and a half of sand on the face of a bunker?”

That degree of maintenance is extremely expensive, he said.

Randquist gave credit to the USGA for its stand on bunkers over the past seven to 10 years, in advocating the need to return bunkers to being hazards. As a result of the USGA’s position, several Tour players have since changed their attitude toward bunkers.

Much has been said in recent years about the importance of sustainability to the future of golf. When the U.S. economy began to hit hard times in 2008, golf courses realized they could save money in certain areas without compromising the quality of the game. Bunker maintenance was one such example.

Randquist said there are three factors which are part of every sustainability definition as it pertains to bunker maintenance: people, planet and profit.

People have an impact on sustainability because they have certain expectations of playing conditions. Superintendents have an impact on golfers when they deliver a more hazardous style of bunker maintenance.

When it comes to the planet, “when we talk about becoming sustainable, if we want to leave a smaller carbon footprint, if we want to have less inputs into it, rake less often and use less fuel and less equipment usage…we can gain ground there.”

Randquist said it’s possible to take care of both the people and planet aspects, “but if you can’t make a profit as a business at the golf course, you’re not going to worry about sustainability.”

If the superintendent can convince the golf course owner and/or its members that their profit is going to improve by becoming more sustainable, he has a chance of them wanting to become more sustainable.

Randquist said he recently read an article which stated 35 to 40 per cent of all American corporations are finally buying into the idea of sustainability because they can save money.

Superintendents generally care about the land they work on and are among the most environmentally-conscious of all professionals, he said, but course owners and members generally don’t share that same sensitivity.

“We’re beginning to develop it slowly but surely, but what they (owners and members) do really care ab
out is this profit.”

If superintendents can show owners and members how they can save money through altered bunker maintenance practices so that bunkers can become hazards again, there is a chance of improving the sustainability of golf course operations, Randquist said.

Savings will come in the form of reduced labour, equipment and fuel costs. Owners and members can be educated to understand the significance of sustainability in golf course operations.

The No. 1 challenge superintendents face in leading this change are golfers’ perceptions and expectations.
In another reference to Donald Ross, the famous architect once said there is no such thing as a misplaced bunker, stating it is the business of the golfer to avoid it, no matter where it is located.

What golfers fear most about bunkers is having a plugged lie or the ball settling under the lip. If in a bunker, golfers expect their ball to be sitting atop firm sand, away from lips and not inside deep furrows.

Randquist said there are two extreme and contrasting perceptions golfers have of bunker shots. One golfer will say, “The bunker is a hazard and I shouldn’t have hit the ball in there. I deserve whatever penalty results from the shot I must make and it’s up to me to rise to the challenge and hit my shot out of it.”

Most amateur golfers, however, are not particularly good bunker players and hope never to hit into them. Their take is apt to be, “I can’t believe someone put a bunker in this location. This bunker is so unfair. You have got to do something about this bunker.”

If superintendents had unlimited funds, they could ensure sand is firmly packed in the bunkers at all times, consistently ensuring a good lie, and that the ball would always roll down from the lip. Most superintendents don’t have the financial ability to provide such playing conditions which makes it important for them to discuss these issues with their owners and members and reach a favourable consensus as to how bunkers should be maintained.

Even when a bunker’s sand is smooth and firm, guaranteeing a good lie, most amateur golfers are still terrified about playing from them. Low handicappers want bunkers to be smooth and furrow-free.

Randquist said he thought it was humourous that Hall of Famer Jack Nicklaus wanted no part of furrows while an active Tour player, but insists on putting in them in his bunkers for the Memorial Tournament he hosts each year at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio.

Maintaining smooth sand in bunkers gives the low handicapper a distinct advantage of getting the ball out successfully because of his higher skill level. When high handicappers find themselves in a bunker, they figure they’re “screwed,” Randquist said.

Over the past 20 years, superintendents have consequently been tailoring their bunker maintenance practices to the five per cent of golfers at the low end of the handicap scale to whom bunkers are not perceived as hazards.

Golfers who demand consistency from bunker to bunker concern themselves with sand particle size and shape, infiltration rates and sand depth. If the particle size is too big, they fear buried lies. If it’s too small or too hard, they worry about improper drainage.

Randquist said the USGA’s biggest concern about bunker sand in the 1970s was particle size. In later years, particle shape became the primary concern. The organization argued that if particles were too round, it would lead toward buried lies and greater difficulty to firmly pack the sand. Angular particles had become the desired shape.

One of every four golf courses continues to rake their bunkers by hand. A major problem from a sustainability standpoint is that 60 per cent of all golf courses still rake their bunkers seven days a week during the playing season.

“It’s crazy.”

Randquist said he has skipped raking on the occasional day for the past couple of years to promote better sustainability, all the while fearing it might prove disastrous. Edges are raked only a couple of days a week and in the summer, when play is lighter, raking is done only three days a week. Golfers at Boca Rio haven’t yet figured out the changes to the bunker maintenance regimen, but it’s allowed him to have fewer staff than he had five years ago.

“My players do not know the difference.”

When a bunker is raked well, it will remain that way for a couple of days, he said.

Although it’s important to get out of the habit of keeping such stringent and unnecessary bunker maintenance practices, play cannot be compromised, Randquist said, adding that even though superintendents want to save money and do better, it destroys golf course architecture if one’s staff isn’t trained to do things the right way.

There is nothing wrong with shaggy-edged bunkers, such as those at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, he said.

“It looks great. It doesn’t look unkempt. There’s nothing wrong with going with this style of not-so-intensive edging.”

Like ponds, heavily-wooded areas and parts of the course which require forced carries, bunkers are also hazards.

“Golf is about avoiding, escaping and even appreciating the hazards that are placed in our path.”

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