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.