Help Your Bunkers Make The Grade
Ask a golfer what he or she thinks about the bunkers on a golf
course and you are likely to get an earful. Ask a golfer why the
bunkers perform the way they do and you are likely to get a blank
stare. Oh, they may be quick to tell you the bunkers need to be
rebuilt, but they really do not understand bunker performance.
The first step in improving the condition of the bunkers on a
golf course is to understand the factors that influence bunker
performance. People have a tendency to look at a problem on a
golf course and assign a single reason to why the problem
occurred. After all, they reason, if one factor is identified for
the poor performance, then one solution can be implemented to
resolve the problem. In reality, bunker performance is related to
a number of factors.
To develop a plan for improving the bunkers at your course, take
the time to complete the Report Card for Bunkers. The Report Card
discussed in this article will enable the decision makers at a
golf course to understand bunker performance and develop a plan
to improve many or all of these factors. It may not be possible
to raise all the grades to an A, but raising the ratings one or
more letter grades can make a difference.
Bunkers at thousands of golf courses throughout the country have
been rebuilt because they were performing below expectations. In
many cases, the factors that caused the bunkers to perform poorly
were not remedied during reconstruction and, within a few years,
the new bunkers were in the same unsatisfactory condition again.
Taking the time to understand the factors that influence bunker
performance and assessing those factors at your course will
enhance the chances for a successful bunker program.
Are your bunkers measuring up? If not, completing the Report Card
for bunkers is an ideal first step in improving the bunker
performance at your course. To achieve the best results, a rating
team that includes the golf course superintendent, the golf
professional, and key personnel within the club (e.g., Green
Commitee, general manager, etc.) should be assembled.
Step 1: Assign an overall historical performance grade to
the bunkers on each hole.
Before heading out onto the course, the rating team should
discuss the historical performance of the bunkers on each hole
and assign a single letter grade from A to F. Make the decision
whether or not to include fairway bunkers in this Report Card. Do
not rate each bunker individually, but treat all the bunkers on
one hole as a unit. This will simplify the process and will
eliminate the cumbersome record keeping involved with rating each
bunker individually. The historical performance grade represents
an average over the last three or four years and will provide a
reference point for the other ratings on each hole. A grade of A
reflects superior performance over this period, while an F
Step 2: Visit each hole to complete the Report Card and
identify where changes should be made.
Listed on the accompanying table are a variety of factors that
should be rated. There is room on the Report Card to add
additional factors at your discretion. The Rating Team should
assign one letter grade from A to F for the bunkers on each hole.
After 18 holes, the rating team should have a total of 18 ratings
for each factor. The rating process is subjective and it is
important for each individual to be consistent throughout the
entire process. The rating process should take approximately
three hours and should be completed in one day.
Step 3: Implement the changes.
Implement as many of the changes as possible. Improving the
factors that limit the success of the bunkers will make a
difference in how they perform and play.
The factors discussed below have a tremendous influence on how a
bunker performs. Sample criteria for determining a grade are
included with each factor. These criteria are not meant to be set
in stone, but are a starting point for the rating team. It is
quite possible the rating team will want to modify the criteria
or add additional factors to meet the needs of their course.
This category provides an overall assessment regarding the
quality of the bunkers over the past several years. Has there
been a uniform depth of sand in all parts of the bunkers? Are the
bunkers properly raked each day? Is the sand quality
- A = Bunker conditions meet or exceed expectations all the
- B = Bunker conditions usually meet expectations most of the
- C = Bunker conditions meet expectations some of the
- D = Bunker conditions consistently fall below
- F = Bunker conditions never meet expectations.
Intensity of Daily Maintenance:
The intensity of daily maintenance is one of the most important
factors that influence bunker quality. The bunkers can be
constructed according to the latest standards, but if routine
maintenance is neglected, unsatisfactory conditions will be the
Few people realize that when viewed on a per-square-foot basis,
bunkers are the most labor-intensive part of the golf course.
Routine bunker grooming provides a smooth, uniform playing
surface for golfers. While routine grooming is time consuming
enough, a heavy rain can wash the sand off a bunker face down to
the low point in a bunker. Shoveling the sand back on the face is
the only way to restore the face of the bunkers following a heavy
rain. Another storm a day later will wash the sand off the face
again and the repair process must be repeated.
Decision makers at every golf course must decide how intensively
the bunkers will be maintained. The number of bunkers, the size
of the bunkers, and design features such as flashed faces are all
factors that must be considered when developing a daily
maintenance program. How the bunkers are groomed and how
frequently they are groomed will have a major impact on bunker
quality regardless of the changes made to the bunkers themselves.
Some golf courses prefer to use a mechanical bunker rake, while
others prefer to hand rake the bunkers. Hand raking is performed
if the highest level of surface grooming is desired. Even if the
sand in the bunkers is not the best quality or purity, hand
raking is the method that provides the best day-to-day playing
The mechanical bunker rake was developed to allow the bunkers to
be raked more efficiently, but there is a reduction in grooming
quality with a mechanical rake. It can cause damage to the edges
of the bunker and contributes to contaminating the sand. In all
likelihood, this factor will be graded the same on every hole
since it reflects the overall intensity of the bunker maintenance
- A = Bunkers hand raked daily; washouts repaired
- B = Bunkers mechanically raked daily; washouts repaired
- C = Bunkers hand raked daily; washouts repaired
- D = Bunkers mechanically raked when time allows; washouts
- F = Bunkers raked when time allows; no consistent program
for washout repair.
Steps to improve the grade in this category involve changing the
grooming techniques and adding more man-hours to bunker
maintenance. Some courses find an immediate improvement in the
playability of the sand by changing from mechanical raking to
hand raking. Hand raking generally produces firmer playing
conditions. Some superintendents retrofit their mechanical rakes
with leaf rake attachments to simulate hand raking. This
modification reduces the tilling of the sand and helps to firm
If the bunkers are not raked daily, implementing a daily raking
program is another way to improve the grade this category
receives. The sight of freshly groomed bunkers each day makes a
strong impression on the golfers. Raking daily eliminates
unsightly footprints and other disruptions in sand.
The frequency and severity of washouts is directly related to the
amount of water that runs into a bunker from the surrounding
area. If the bunker has flashed faces, the washout problem will
be even more severe. Repairing washouts is hard work and time
consuming. Sand must be physically shoveled from the low points
back up onto the faces every time a heavy rain occurs. Bunkers
with flat bottoms have fewer problems with washouts, even though
surface runoff from surrounding areas can create problems.
Failing to repair bunkers properly after washouts creates
inconsistent sand depths throughout the bunker. Washouts also
contribute to sand contamination problems, shortening the life of
There are several ways to improve the surface drainage in and
around bunkers. Consider installing interceptor drains at the
base of a hill or slope that normally channels water into a
bunker. Picking up water before it enters the bunker greatly
reduces labor time needed to shovel sand back onto the faces.
Flashed sand faces are dramatic
architecturally, but when surface water is allowed to run
into a bunker with a flashed sand face, washouts are
If the bunkers are going to be rebuilt, consider building them
with flatter bottoms and fewer flashed faces. Be forewarned that
eliminating high sand faces will change the architectural
integrity of the bunker. Nevertheless, if the course does not
have the budget to properly maintain the high sand faces, then
this may be an option to help improve the playability of the
bunkers. Extending turf down steep bunker faces reduces the
potential for washouts and improves the bunker quality.
- A = None of the bunkers on the hole have flashed faces; no
surface water from surrounding areas flows into the
- B = Fewer than 50% of the bunkers have flashed faces; no
surface water from surrounding areas flows into the
- C = More than 50% of the bunkers have flashed faces; only a
few bunkers wash out severely from surface water flowing into
- D = More than 50% of the bunkers have flashed faces;
surface water runs into many of the bunkers.
- F = Most bunkers have flashed sand faces; severe washouts
occur in many of the bunkers from surface water running into
From a maintenance perspective, overhead rain and irrigation
water is the only water that should enter a well-built bunker. At
times, water accumulates in a bunker faster than the subsoil can
absorb it. As a result, many bunkers have an internal drainage
system to drain away excess water. In sandy soils, no drainage
system or a poorly functioning system may be sufficient most of
the time. In clay soils, a properly functioning drainage system
is a must or the bunkers will look like swimming pools every time
The first step to improve drainage is to determine if the
existing drainage system is functioning properly. If a drainage
system exists, observe how well the bunker drains or does not
drain following a significant rainfall. How long does the water
remain in the bunker following the rain?
Poor drainage may be due to heavily contaminated sands or a
drainage system that no longer functions efficiently. The rate of
internal drainage affects the sand contamination rate. Puddling
leaves contaminants on the surface as the water recedes. A
properly functioning drainage system with clean sand in the
bunkers reduces puddling and contamination. If no drainage system
exists at all, it will be necessary to install a new drainage
system in the bunker.
- A = Functional internal drainage in all of the bunkers on
- B = Functional internal drainage in 75% of the bunkers on
- C = Functional drainage in 50% or more of the bunkers on
- D = Functional drainage in less than 50% of the bunkers on
- F = Functional drainage in none of the bunkers on the
This factor measures the level of contamination in the bunkers.
The presence of silt, clay, and organic debris in the sand can
act as an impediment to drainage by reducing the infiltration
rate of the bunker sand. Contaminated sand is often hard. The
appearance of rocks in the bunkers is distracting and disruptive
Little can be done to improve the purity of sand without taking
out the old sand and replacing it with new sand. It is tempting
to top off the bunkers with a few inches of new sand, but this
process will not remedy the underlying problems. Within a short
period of time, these new bunkers will look just like the old
- A = Sand purity and contamination levels are
- B = Sand purity and contamination levels are acceptable on
75% or more of all the bunkers on the hole.
- C = Sand purity and contamination levels are acceptable on
50% to 75% or more of all the bunkers on the hole.
- D = Sand purity and contamination levels are acceptable on
25% to 50% of all the bunkers on the hole.
- F = Sand purity and contamination levels are acceptable on
none of the bunkers on the hole.
The relative firmness of a bunker plays a key role in the
playability of the bunker. Some players prefer firm sand, while
others would opt for softer sand. Developing a grading scale for
sand quality is difficult because it is such a subjective factor.
The Report Card is a valuable tool to evaluate how bunkers are
performing on the course. If the rating team decides that the
sand in an ideally constructed and functioning bunker is
undesirable, new sands should be evaluated. To learn more about
how to select bunker sands, please refer to "How to Select
the Best Sand for Your Bunkers" by James F. Moore in the
January/February 1998 issue of the Green Section Record.
The performance of bunkers on a golf course is largely a function
of architectural design, the physical properties of the sand, and
the intensity of bunker maintenance. Although bunkers are
classified as hazards and fall below greens, fairways, and tees
in terms of maintenance priority, the topic of bunker performance
is discussed frequently at courses everywhere. Before making a
quick decision that the only way to improve the bunkers is to
rebuild them, complete the Report Card For Bunkers. Evaluate the
factors that influence bunker performance at your golf course and
implement programs to improve them. After six months, repeat the
Report Card program and compare the results. The time invested in
completing the Report Card for bunkers and learning what factors
influence bunker performance will pay big dividends as a club
makes a decision about upgrading the quality of its bunkers.
CHRIS HARTWIGER makes the grade as an agronomist in the Southeast
Region of the USGA Green Section. Golfers desire a consistent
bunker sand with no contaminants, such as clay or rocks.
Green Section Record Nov/Dec 1998 Vol. 36, #6
"OUR BUNKERS are too soft! . . . Our bunkers are too hard! .
. . Our bunkers are terrible!" These are comments typically
heard at golf courses throughout the country. Whether or not you
like the bunkers on your course, you can be sure there is at
least one golfer who thinks the bunkers fail to make the grade.
Bunkers by definition are hazards, and maybe this is why bunker
conditions elicit so many strong opinions. After all, playing a
recovery shot from a hazard usually is not a pleasurable