COURSE CARE
Rethinking Bunker Maintenance June 21, 2018 By George Waters, USGA Green Section

Embracing some bunker imperfections at Sweetens Cove helps keep green fees down and allows staff to focus on greens and fairways. (Rob Collins)

 

Bunkers play a prominent role in golf. They provide strategy, challenge and aesthetic beauty and are a topic of many spirited and enjoyable discussions after a round. The earliest bunkers were naturally occurring areas of bare sand scattered throughout the links landscape. They were rough and rugged places, scoured by wind and filled with footprints and clumps of vegetation.

Over time, bunkers became formalized and golfer expectations for bunker playability increased. Today, the bunkers at most golf courses are intensively maintained and account for a large part of the maintenance budget.

Paul Jacobs, a USGA agronomist for the Northeast Region, finds bunker maintenance to be a common topic during Course Consulting Service visits.

“When I hear that there are concerns about bunker playability at a golf course, consistency is often an underlying issue,” said Jacobs. “What I try to explain is that total consistency in bunkers is impossible to achieve because of a wide range of factors outside the superintendent’s control. Striving to achieve consistency becomes an increasingly expensive proposition that draws time and money away from other parts of the course.”

“Just because it’s possible to maintain bunkers at an extremely high level doesn’t mean that level of maintenance is desirable at most golf courses,” said Jacobs. “I think we’re going to see more facilities reevaluating their bunker maintenance programs and deciding that some of that time and money would be better spent elsewhere.”

Sweetens Cove Golf Club, a public nine-hole facility in South Pittsburg, Tenn., is demonstrating that bunkers don’t have to be perfectly manicured to enhance the golf experience. A recent redesign of the golf course has brought the facility national attention for its approach to providing affordable and enjoyable public golf.

Rob Collins was one of the golf course architects involved in the renovation, and he went on to become the owner and operator at Sweetens Cove.

“We felt strongly that interesting bunkering was going to be an important factor in attracting more golfers, but we also knew that we were going to be limited in the level of maintenance,” said Collins. “Managing golfer expectations was going to be key to our success.”

Collins and the staff emphasize to their customers that sand is meant to be a challenge at Sweetens Cove and that a certain level of imperfection in the bunkers is to be expected. Embracing that imperfection helps to keep green fees affordable – $20 to play nine holes during peak season – and allows superintendent Brent Roberson and his team of four to focus more resources on maintaining smooth putting greens and wide fairways.

Roberson explains that prioritizing is the key to bunker management at Sweetens Cove: “Our goal is to fully rake the bunker floors at least twice each week. Beyond that, we touch up areas that see a lot of play and address any major disturbances in the sand that could cause playability issues. We don’t edge bunkers and we don’t always rake the bunker faces; that helps us save time that we can focus on other tasks.”

“We use a mechanized bunker rake to make the raking process as efficient as possible and every member of our team pitches in where they can, but we aren’t going to be able to get to every footprint every day. We accept that, and it seems like the golfers do, too.”

Reducing the time and resources devoted to bunker maintenance is not something that only appeals to affordable public courses. Golf facilities across the spectrum are finding ways to streamline bunker maintenance while maintaining good playing conditions.

At Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., superintendent Mark Kuhns and his team are fortunate to have plenty of resources at their disposal. However, with 36 holes to maintain and high expectations from golfers, time is one resource that always seems to be in short supply. With more than 200 bunkers spread across two courses, any efficiencies in bunker maintenance can have a big cumulative effect. A few years ago, Kuhns decided to try a new method of raking bunkers to improve playability and ended up saving a lot of time in the process.

Using the “Aussie Method” at Baltusrol, where bunker faces are not raked daily, can improve playability and save maintenance time. (USGA/Russell Kirk)

“We were getting some comments about the bunkers – that the faces were soft, balls were getting stuck against the edges and so on,” said Kuhns. “To address these issues, we decided to try a method of raking called the “Aussie Method” where you leave the bunker faces smooth and only rake the floors.”

Raking bunkers in this way keeps the sand on the faces firm, which helps prevent plugged lies and encourages balls to gather toward the bunker floor. The bunker faces are not raked on a daily basis, which can generate significant time savings over the course of a year.

“Golfers have really appreciated the playability and aesthetics that come with this method and we’re happy to save some time raking that we can devote to other areas,” said Kuhns.

“Our goal is to provide a very high level of playability in our bunkers, but we don’t want to spend more time on them than necessary. In addition to using the Aussie Method, if we see a bunker that hasn’t been touched I tell the staff not to rake it as long as the playability and presentation is still up to our standards. Why go through the motions if you don’t have to? We have plenty to do out here.”

As golf facilities work to focus limited resources where they are most needed, bunker maintenance is sure to be an ongoing topic of discussion. The USGA’s Jacobs reminds us that golfers have a tremendous influence on how maintenance dollars are spent. “If golfers can be open-minded to more efficient techniques for bunker maintenance and accepting of the occasional tough lie in a bunker, a facility can focus more resources on the greens and fairways where we all try to spend most of our time.”

George Waters is a manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.

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