Could Bunkerless Golf Courses Gain Footing?

At the conclusion of a site visit for a much-needed overhaul of the aging Eisenhower municipal golf course outside Annapolis, Md., consulting architect Andrew Green stopped 50 yards from the 18th green, turned to Damian Cosby, chief of golf operations for Anne Arundel County, and asked, “What do you think about going to no bunkers?”

Cosby stopped in his tracks.

He said his initial reaction was basically, “Are you out of your mind? No.”

Green, who recently engineered a makeover of Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course in preparation for major tournament play, told him not to say anything else and just give it some thought.

Sheep Ranch, 13th hole (photo courtesy Erik Matuszewski)

Cosby considered the money savings. He thought about how the most common complaints from customers were about the poor condition of the bunkers. He thought about how a sister facility in the county was littered with sand and how going bunkerless could give two distinct feels. Cosby pitched the concept to his bosses, who initially had the same negative reaction he did. But after a month of mulling the idea over, they decided to go for it as part of a $5 million renovation, eliminating all 56 bunkers on the course and replacing them with depressions, mounds, and grassy hummocks.

“We thought about the savings in construction and the savings in maintenance every year. We thought about the sustainability,” Cosby says. “It wasn’t a no-brainer, but we figured it was worth a shot.”

Is it a path that other golf courses might follow?

Around the U.S., a few others have already embraced the concept, whether it’s to save money on maintenance, speed up play, make the game a little easier for the majority of golfers, to create something unique and memorable, or a bit out of necessity.

Sheep Ranch, 2nd hole (photo courtesy Erik Matuszewski)

The most visible is Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes, which debuted in 2020 with no traditional bunkers. It was an idea that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw talked about through the years, provided they could find a property that didn’t need the visual or strategic aspects of traditional sand bunkers. There’s a caption on an old black and white photo in Robert Hunter’s book from the 1920s, The Links, that always stuck with Coore about there one day being a site with interesting enough contours that bunkers might be rendered unnecessary.

“We’d done numerous golf holes with no bunkers, but never any course,” Coore says. “We knew they existed. I actually played a 9-hole public course growing up in North Carolina that had no bunkers. But it wasn’t something where we said we’re absolutely going to do this. (Sheep Ranch) had the landforms that are interesting enough, it isn’t a sand base, and trying to maintain bunkers out there in windy conditions would just be a nightmare.”

Given the immense popularity of Bandon Dunes, you can bet there’s interest from the operations staff about how the lack of bunkers might speed up pace of play at the newest of the resort’s five 18-hole courses.

Ten years ago, architect Nathan Crace was set to do a bunkerless golf course for the United States Air Force on a piece of land in New Mexico where the wind was so strong that any sand would be blown out of bunkers. The project was scuttled when funding was cut.

The routing of Smuggler’s Run (courtesy Watermark Golf/Nathan Crace)

Now, Crace is working on an 18-hole public course in Jackson Parish, La., called Smuggler’s Run that will be a bunker-free project for the Jackson Parish Recreation Commission, which currently has a 9-hole course and purchased a neighboring 80-acre property to expand to 18 and meet demand.

“I’ve been wanting to do a bunkerless golf course for 20 years,” says Crace. “The idea is to have a lot of rolling and rollicking shaping throughout the fairways and around greens—but not crazy contours on the greens themselves—with collection areas, run-offs, rolls, mounds, banks, and slopes to give each hole a unique look and be fun to play. It really opens up creativity not only around the green, but also from tee to green.”

Bunkerless courses undoubtedly won’t become a trend. As Crace notes, most course owners and operators will spend on bunkers to ensure that distinctive look. A good number of courses are actually reducing the square footage of bunkers but increasing the quantity of them because of the enhanced visual component. And advancements in bunker liner and drainage technology have enabled many facilities to upgrade and cut long-term maintenance costs.

At the renamed Preserve at Eisenhower Golf Course, Cosby estimates the elimination of bunkers will save the municipality up to $50,000 in annual maintenance costs. And it also enhanced a redundant design, as he said the old muni’s greens were basically big circles that seemingly had three bunkers in front of every one, no matter how long they were.

(Photo courtesy The Preserve at Eisenhower)

“It grew on me,” says Cosby. “Although I did send Andrew (Green) a text after I was in a hummock on a par three and made a six after swinging under the ball and missing twice in thick grass. No sand doesn’t always mean easier.”

What is your opinion of bunkerless golf courses?



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