Golf’s Boldest Bunkers

Golf’s boldest bunkers belong to Royal Melbourne

A bemused smile would crease my face every time PGA-Championship-winner-turned-broadcaster Dave Marr described a par four or par five on TV as “a good driving hole.” What exactly did he mean? The same goes for an expression: “Bold bunkering.” Does that infer the most artistic bunkers? The most effectively placed? The most innovatively designed? The most voluminous or intimidating or punitive? Perhaps.  

After consulting with a fistful of architects, a few criteria emerged. The bunkers should be visible, numerous, sufficiently deep enough to intimidate, and positioned so as to compel a player to show thought and courage. And I added my own touchtone: They should be large, varied, and artistically shaped.

In short, the bunkers should dominate the proceedings, framing the fairways, defining the greens, messing with the player’s mind. The logical choice for boldest bunkering thus became Australia’s Royal Melbourne.     

The bunkers at Royal Melbourne’s West course are big, beautiful, and impactful. Stemming from the mind of Alister MacKenzie—as well as the construction talents of architect Alex Russell and superintendent Mick Morcom—Royal Melbourne’s bunkers are works of art, sculpted with razor-sharp curved edges. They are invariably immense, to fit harmoniously into a big landscape. Current superintendent Richard Forsyth is trying to restore some of MacKenzie’s jagged edges, but even the more linear-edged traps fit the landscape perfectly.  

royal melbourne
Royal Melbourne (West), 5th Hole (Photography by Gary Lisbon)

“I love the way the bunkering frames and almost intrudes into the putting surfaces and the brilliance of the bunkering style with the native scrubby look,” says Sir Nick Faldo. Ben Crenshaw concurs, praising the variety as well. “I love this course,” he says. “The bunkers are massive and so natural. It’s not as if a big cookie-cutter came out of the sky and put bunkers in.” 

Architect Brian Curley, who has teamed with Faldo on several projects that employ Australian Sandbelt-style bunkering, adds another insight. “I like them as they gain their depth not by being carved into a landform, but by rising above the turf surface behind it, then down,” he says. “This gives depth and the added difficulty of a slope running away from the top lip into the green, making pins set just over the bunkers even more difficult.

Aussie architect (and 2006 U.S. Open champ) Geoff Ogilvy identifies the West’s drivable, dogleg-left par-four 10th as one of the layout’s best holes, due in part to the challenge of a “monstrous bunker on the corner of the dogleg.” Five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson favored the tee shot at the par-five 2nd, “a spectacular hole that retains an ancient ‘sandblow’ bunker on the skyline crest of the first half of the fairway.” Tom Doak, the consulting architect at Royal Melbourne, says it’s “bunkered to reward bold play and bold decisions.”  

So, bold bunkers do exist. Royal Melbourne’s bunkers are the boldest of all.    

3 More Bastions of Bold Bunkering

Of George Thomas’s work at Riviera, Doak writes, “In the contouring of sand hazards, not even MacKenzie was a greater craftsman.” Thomas and builder Billy Bell’s massive, deep, lacy-edged bunkers dominate the 7th and 10th fairways and the 4th and 16th green complexes. Yet, the bunker that resonates most is the smallest one—the audacious, tiny pot in the center of the 6th green. 

Though they can’t compare to their furrowed 1930s counterparts, the 175 bunkers at Oakmont remain the frightening sand hazards of nightmares. They are deep, vast, and framed with dense grasses. And they are everywhere. Some scare with names such as “Church Pews” and “Big Mouth.” Others terrorize without names, like the Sahara fortress guarding the 8th green. As a group, they’re bold—and mean.  

Any discussion of bold bunkering must include Pine Valley. True, these aren’t the eye-catching swirls found at, say, San Francisco Golf Club, but they certainly qualify for size, fear factor, and sheer number. Pine Valley has been called “George Crump’s 184-acre bunker,” so pervasive is the native sand, but “Hell’s Half-Acre,” “the Devil’s A-hole,” and the five traps fronting the 18th green are bunkers at their boldest. 

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