The placement of bunkers on a course is one of the key elements in creating strategy
By Gil Hanse
Having started our examination of golf course architecture with greens—and appropriately ascribing sovereignty to them over all other features—we turn to the most visible feature on any course, the sand bunker.
Bunkers have always had two distinct characteristics as related to course design—location and vision. This essay is about the importance of location as related to the strategy of the game. I’ll come back to their visual character in a future column.
Whatever its modern connotations, the sand bunker had humble roots on the early links, formed by burrowing animals and grazing livestock seeking refuge from the foul weather of coastal Scotland. Aided by the capricious nature of wind and water, these sandy scrapes expanded and became what we know today as bunkers.
One of the earliest written references to the placement of bunkers was in John Low’s 1903 book Concerning Golf. He sums it up brilliantly:
The greedy golfer will go too near and be sucked in to his destruction. The straight player will go just as near as he deems safe, just as close as he dare. Just as close as he dare: that’s golf, and that’s a hazard of immortal importance. For golf at its best should be a contest of risks. The fine player should be just slipping past the bunkers, gaining every yard he can, conquering by the confidence of his own “far and sure” play. The less skillful player should wreck himself either by attempting risks which are beyond his skill, or being compelled to lose ground through giving the bunkers a wide berth.
“Just as close as he dare” is one of my favorite sayings in the annals of architecture. It is the essence of strategic golf; it is why we put bunkers where we put them. That line of charm, risk/reward, however you like to say it, revolves primarily around the proper placement of bunkers.
Since the strategy of golf is based on angles of attack, the simplest form of positioning bunkers is placing them where they will yield an easier shot with the next stroke. Alan Wilson, the brother of Hugh Wilson who designed the East Course at Merion, said that, “the golfer should take a present risk to secure a future reward.” Merion’s bunker locations are vitally pertinent. “Hit it at the trouble” is often cited as the best way to play the East Course, since as long as you do not enter the trouble you will have the best advantage for the next shot.
Once or twice a round I like to employ center-line bunkering. It was the above-quoted John Low who pioneered the concept, at the 4th hole of England’s Woking Golf Club, but the most famous example is the Principal’s Nose bunkers on the 16th hole at the Old Course in St. Andrews. This cluster of pot bunkers guards the center of the fairway and asks—maybe I should say demands—the golfer to choose playing to their right or left. Going right, between the bunkers and the looming OB fence, sets up the best line into the green and, as a result, carries greater risk off the tee. Center-line bunkers often elicit cries of “unfair” as golfers believe they have hit the perfect shot yet still found the trouble. While they may have technically hit the perfect shot by sending it straight, on this hole that line is wrong. Like more traditional flanking bunkers, the center-line bunker asks a question: not long and straight, but left or right.
Another key element of bunker placement involves a visual component. We often use the top line to influence the perception of what’s beyond. Foreshortening perspective to create visual deception is one of the oldest weapons in the architect’s arsenal. If the melding of a bunker’s top line with the area behind it is carefully executed, the hole will appear shorter than it actually is.
Not every bunker needs to influence how a hole plays. Sometimes architects use them to help paint the picture, establishing scale or providing a backdrop. While “visual bunkers” should never be overused, creating too much stimulus for the eye, their restrained use is completely relevant and appropriate.
Great bunkering is first and foremost food for the brain: asking questions, providing options, and laying out the lines of attack and defense. It also can be food for the eye, through deception, scale, and beauty. Such a multifaceted feature has provided the lion’s share of strategic architecture from golf’s early days, when sheep and rabbits huddled on the links, to the present day when bulldozers and excavators do their best to replicate the sandy scrapes they started.