Gil Hanse’s Architecture 101: How Bunkers Look

There’s more to a bunker’s visual appeal than meets the eye

The highest form of the art of golf course architecture is blending the design seamlessly into the surrounds through the use of shaping/grading or vegetation. I certainly feel that way about bunkers. Perhaps, in my case, it is a nod to the original eroded, burrowing animal scrapes from which the sand bunker evolved. However, as with beauty, the appeal of bunkers is in the eye of the beholder. What makes bunkering beautiful, what makes us stand up and take notice of the visual cues that the designer or nature has given us with these sandy features? I have some thoughts.

My eye is always attracted to the rugged, natural bunkering found on sandy sites from Ireland to Australia and a hallmark of many recent courses. The best examples are found in the sandbelt courses around Melbourne, with an artistry and unique beauty in the scalpel-like interface of the bunker edge and the putting surface. This contrasts strikingly with the blending of the bunkers’ back sides and the indigenous vegetation, all topped off with their maintenance. The difference between the packed sand faces and the raked bottoms creates a sort of Zen garden balance that is close to perfection.

Golf Course Bunkers
Kingston Heath 15th hole (photo by Gary Lisbon)

Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb., is this nation’s greatest example of natural bunkering. Through a combination of scooping, gouging, chunking, and finessing, Coore & Crenshaw set a new standard of artfulness. To do so requires not only great skill in shaping—so as not to destroy the vegetation—but great vision to the appropriate scale. When one has thousands of acres of natural bunker sites to work with, it’s important to know when to stop, and they did.

An often-overlooked aspect of greenside bunkering is the relationship between the edges and the green surface. The finest examples leave little ground between the putting surface and the bunker itself. This close proximity gives the feeling that the green is supported by the bunker, acting as a base or pedestal. When a green sits at ground level, bunkers can add scale and depth by going down into the ground and presenting visual interest and character. The Melbourne courses again shine in this regard as there is frequently zero space between green and bunker, a by-product of the amazingly firm and fine sands that comprise the base. In the U.S., we often have too much rough between greens and bunkers, which creates playability issues while stifling a congruous merging of the features.

We’ve done recent restorations—notably on the East Course at Merion—where one of the most important outcomes was restoring the intimate spacing between the greens and surrounding bunkers. With years of sand buildup and the evolving shapes of the greens, there is often a disconnect between the putting surface and the bunkers; this has become the norm at many courses. Careful study of the original interface often shows that the two were once inextricably linked, making the restoration of this character a prized outcome.

Golf Course Bunkers
Sand Hills 11th hole (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

While I prefer natural looking bunkering, I also find the angular, engineered style of bunkering created by C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor very appealing. The scale and orientation of their bunkers always seems perfectly suited to the site and the rectangular nature of many of their green complexes. Perhaps it’s this consistency that does it, or perhaps it’s the striking shadows that they project in the early- and late-day sunlight.

No matter what type of bunker style one prefers, or how the bunkers are sited, there is one feature that all good bunkering must possess: a connection between the lines of the bunker and the third dimension of the bunker shape. Jim Wagner and I always talk about the three lines we see in each bunker. The first is the line you look over to see into the bunker, generally composed of the fairway or rough in front of it. The second is the line created between the sand and the grass or soil edge along the face of the bunker. The third is the horizon line and what you see over the top of the bunker. The three should be in harmony, but most importantly they should be connected in the third dimension. Every move made by the line on the face should have a third-dimensional reason for doing so. If a line moves up or down, there should be a third-dimensional move in, out, or sideways on the face that provides the impetus for the move. This may seem a bit esoteric, but step back any time you see good bunkering and look for this connection. I can guarantee it will be there.

Scale, position, composition, and movement are all keys to great bunkering. When they come together you get a sand symphony that catches your eye, inspires emotion, and, most importantly, feels in harmony with the landscape. Not bad for something that began as an animal scrape on a coastal links.