“A water hazard is like an airplane crash, [if you hit your ball into one] there’s no hope,” Rees Jones once said. “Being in a bunker is like being in a car crash,” he continued. “There’s a chance of survival.”
There’s sound logic in the 81-year-old’s perspective, but its degree of truth can fluctuate from hole to hole. Really, it all comes down to the sheer volume of sand—the following seven holes are among the most intimidating in the United States for the amount of sand that’s either in play or appears to be in play.
Should your ball find its way into any one of the many bunkers that characterize these holes, don’t despair. Just adopt Jones’s viewpoint and remember that you’ve still got a chance.
Whistling Straits (Kohler, Wis.)—Hole no. 11
It seems only fitting that a hole named “Sand Box” should lead off our list. The moniker attached to the 645-yard par-five 11th hole on the Straits course at Whistling Straits is a fitting one. The hole is said to be named after the cavernous bunker that guards the last 100 yards or so of the fairway on the left, though you could easily argue that the more than 100 sand-filled hazards meandering up both sides of the massively long fairway were just as influential in the naming of the hole. Avoiding big numbers and the sand on the 11th is a notable achievement should you pull it off, but the sand is likely to bite you somewhere along the way on the Straits course. After all, Pete Dye built close to 1,000 bunkers across the championship layout’s 7,790 yards.
Mammoth Dunes (Nekoosa, Wis.)—Hole no. 8
On the opening pages of Mammoth Dunes’s course guide, architect David McLay Kidd, a Scotsman, points to the time in history when the game grew popular in his native country. “Its roots were set on firm sandy soils, where wiry fescue grass allows the ball to bounce, pitch and roll,” he writes, explaining that the holes that he laid out at Mammoth Dunes are intended to reward bold, aggressive play and offer the chance of recovery. In particular, he challenges golfers to “take the tight lines, read the ground contours, and work the ball to your will.”
The 8th hole, a par three playing as long as 198 yards, is one that clearly offers golfers a chance at recovery should they mishit their tee shots. They just won’t be able to play the contours of the ground. That’s because a sea of sand fronts the 6,000-square-foot green—the smallest putting surface on the course. From the elevated back tees, the opening shot that must be hit is a forced carry over nothing but sand. “From the very back, it’s a true island green,” Kidd explains. “We built this green out in the middle of an ocean of sand. It’s like TPC Sawgrass: you either hit it or you’re in the sand.”
Baltusrol Golf Club, Lower Course (Springfield, N.J.)—Hole no. 17
Much like how the 7th hole at Pine Valley is famous for the vast sandy waste area that bisects the fairway—dubbed “hell’s half acre”—the par-five 17th hole on the Lower course at Baltusrol features its own broad, sandy hazard nicknamed the “Sahara” bunker. What makes Baltusrol’s daunting par five a better candidate for this list is what comes after that desert-like hazard. Eighty yards beyond the back edge of the Sahara, golfers will reach the front edge of a collection of four greenside bunkers protecting the front portion of the putting surface. In other words, it’s not uncommon for a recovery effort out of the Sahara to land back in sand some 60 yards from the center of the green. In such a scenario, golfers are likely to wonder if they’ll ever play from firm ground again.
Heron Point (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)—Hole no. 7
Pete Dye may be most famous for one iconic island green, but 23 years after he built that dramatic hole at TPC Sawgrass he built another island green par three that is dry but no less demanding. The 7th hole at Heron Point isn’t intimidating for its length—it plays less than 180 yards from the back tees—but with a broad horseshoe of sand around the front and sides of the green (there may be four times as much sandy area as there is putting surface), it’s a one-shotter that demands accuracy. Unless you go long with your tee shot, anything that doesn’t come to rest on the green is almost certain to find the sand. As the course’s yardage book acknowledges, should that happen, “your short game will get a workout.”
Friar’s Head (Riverhead, N.Y.)—Hole no. 10
Depending on your disposition, when you stand on the tee of the 10th hole at Friar’s Head on Long Island, you’ll see one of two things. You might focus on the portion of the 18,000-square-foot putting surface that you can see to the right and behind a giant anthill-like dune. Or you’re likely to see everything around the green, and by that we mean the sprawling sand dunes speckled with native vegetation short, left, and beyond, as well as the more manicured—but equally massive—greenside bunker to the right of the putting surface. It’s a wild, natural-looking scene and the tee shot that must be hit into it is undeniably intimidating. Our advice? Remember that the green is almost as large as the double greens on the Old Course at St. Andrews and aim for the middle. Yes, there is a lot of sand. But there’s a lot of green, too.
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Marquette Golf Club, Greywalls Course (Marquette, Mich.)—Hole no. 11
From an aerial view, the 11th hole of the Greywalls course at Marquette Golf Club doesn’t appear to meet this story’s criteria. The short par four is punctuated by eight fairway and greenside bunkers, but there’s still plenty of fairway that’s in play off the tee. Yet, the 11th at Greywalls is a perfect fit not for the physical amount of sand in play, but for how much sand looks to be in play. It’s all about the bunker positioning on this hole and based on the angle presented to players on the tee, they’re likely to see only slivers of short grass.
PGA West, Stadium Course (La Quinta, Calif.)—Hole no. 16
The infamous “San Andreas Fault” hole on the Stadium course at PGA West offers a fairly generous landing area off the tee, provided golfers can cover the far edge of the first of three sprawling fairway bunkers that line the entire left side of the hole. From there, players will be left with a choice: lay up or go for the green. The prudent play, as advised in the course’s yardage book, is to make the hole a three-shot par five, which might not sit well with a lot of players, especially since the hole plays only 517 yards from the blue tees and less than 500 yards from the whites. But the “fault” in this hole reveals itself when players go for the green and miss left. There they’ll find themselves at the base of an expansive bunker almost 20 feet below the level of the green. “Getting out of this bunker,” so advises the yardage guide, “could take some time.” As a Golf Channel analyst once described, the requisite recovery shot is akin to having a bunker in your front yard “and trying to hit up onto the roof of your two-story house.” In other words, avoid the sand on this hole at all costs.