How Bunkers Show the Evolution of Golf Course Architecture

To understand how golf course architecture has evolved, just look at bunkers

Don’t plan on a discussion about Donald Ross’s bunkers being a quick one, especially if you’re talking with architect Ron Forse. After two hours on the phone with the Ross-renovation specialist (well over 50 courses, plus others by Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, William Flynn, etc.), it becomes patently clear the subject is largely inexhaustible.

“He certainly couldn’t be typecast,” says Forse of Ross. “Over a long career and something like 400 courses, he created huge variety scars, blowouts, waste, deep, shallow, contoured, flatbottomed, flash-faced, grass-faced, rectangular, oval, fingered, straight-edge, frilly/wavy edge, large, pot…everything. Yes, his bunkers might have had regional similarities, but they also might vary throughout the course. There are even a few examples of slight stylistic differences on a single hole.”

(photo by Getty Images)

What he built depended on soils, location, available sand, climate, who would play the course, and, perhaps most importantly, says Tyler Rae—another architect with several Ross renovations to his credit—the size of the owner’s wallet.

“If legitimate funding was available and the site was special, Ross would have one of his associates lead the construction effort,” says Rae. “He would then note if the soils were heavy or sandy and give his designated associate his thoughts and a bunker style to run with.”

For many golfers, bunkers are nothing but ghastly, sandy blots best avoided. Most would rather have nothing to do with them, much less study them. For architecture devotees, however, bunkers tell stories and, like greens, say much about a course and its past. They’re not merely functional hazards but reflections of the architect’s and shaper’s skill. Their style and dimensions contribute hugely to a course’s identity and character. And, like anything formed with creative expression and that’s subject to our shifting tastes, their style and character change with the passage of time.

Donald Ross was a leading light of the Golden Age of golf course architecture, when more natural bunkers took over from the unsightly, artificial cross-bunkering of the Victorian Era (the second half of the 19th century). The earliest bunkers, such as those at Royal Dornoch in Scotland where Ross had grown up, were natural scars on sandy links caused by wind, sheep, rabbits, and continual play. But when golf came inland, that crude randomness was abandoned for a more regimented system of penal, man-made bunkering.

“The type of bunker mostly in favor on the new inland courses proved to be a bank of soil of varying height,” wrote five-time Open Champion J.H. Taylor contributing to Joshua Taylor’s 1913 The Art of Golf. “These cross bunkers, as they were called, were certainly not natural looking, appearing as much like walls if anything.”

Royal Dornoch (photo by Kevin Murray)

The most prolific cross-bunker builder of the time was Scotland’s Tom Dunn, who laid out well over 100 courses using a formulaic style featuring a fairway-spanning hazard to be cleared with the drive and another for the approach. It sounds dull and unimaginative to us now, but Dunn, like Tom Bendelow in the U.S., was meeting a growing demand for the game without the benefit of any prior study of the profession. And though a Scotsman born in Musselburgh, Dunn grew up in London, at Blackheath, where his father, Willie Dunn Sr., was Custodian of the Links.

Blackheath, where golf had been played since the early 1600s, sat upon heavy soil and was to links golf what the slow, clay-like surfaces of Roland Garros, site of tennis’s French Open, are to Wimbledon’s much quicker grass courts. Besides hitting a small ball into a slightly bigger hole, the game played near London—where a growing population was demanding golf of any kind—bore little resemblance to that enjoyed on the sandy coastline.

Dunn took advantage of his family’s standing in the game to advance his conveyor-belt-like construction. And although his “architecture” would ultimately be roundly criticized, he wasn’t entirely without creativity: At Hanger Hill, in West London, his bunkers feature bizarre looking formations—the Apennines and Pyrenees—which, not unreasonably, are often referred to as “Dog Turds.” In America, brother Willie Jr. was doing something similar at Shinnecock Hills.

J.H. Taylor also perpetuated this Victorian approach, but, at the same time, challenged it. Around 1910 at Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, nine miles west of Big Ben, he built a series of irregular hills and hollows, “the idea being to copy nature as closely as the hand of man admits.”

He called his work there part of “a new phase of golfing architecture.”

This new “golfing architecture” was taking shape primarily in the heathlands west of London. John Low and Stuart Paton had delivered a hammer blow to Dunn’s original design at Woking, 35 miles southwest of London, positioning bunkers in the middle of the 4th fairway that greatly affected the hole’s strategy. Meanwhile, H.S. Colt had begun making big changes to Willie Park’s design at Sunningdale, while also giving the world the delightful Swinley Forest and St. George’s Hill. Colt built big, beautiful bunkers, often with grassy or heather tops, that sat effortlessly in their surroundings. “The preservation of the natural landscape is very important,” he said, “for it adds tremendously to the pleasure of the game. It can be very easily destroyed, as it has too often been in the past by breastwork and a geometric type of bunker.”

St. George’s Hill (photo by Kevin Murray)

In 1907, Colt advised a 37-year-old military surgeon and camouflage expert on his proposed layout of Alwoodley in Leeds, England. Alister MacKenzie was a proponent of this new natural, strategic philosophy and the figure whose globetrotting helped spread its message around the world. MacKenzie built bunkers not unlike those of Colt, with whom he formed an alliance, alongside Charles Alison, from 1919 to 1923. And although MacKenzie’s Leeds, Australian Sandbelt, and American (Augusta National, Cypress Point, Crystal Downs, Pasatiempo) bunkers had their differences, they were invariably big, natural, and not only asked strategic questions of the golfer thanks to their careful positioning, but also added to the course’s beauty in a way Dunn’s Victorian bunkers never had.

MacKenzie, Colt, Tom Simpson, John Abercromby, Tillinghast, C.B. Macdonald, Raynor, George Thomas, Perry Maxwell, Stanley Thompson, Ross, and other Golden Agers on both sides of the Atlantic were now creating attractive bunkers, recognizing that the contrast of sand against turf, water, and shadows was a beautiful thing. (Macdonald and Raynor were certainly known for geometric bunkers, but their variety of shapes, sizes, and placement was very different from Dunn’s geometric bunkers that Colt had referred to.)

The Golden Age, and its natural bunkers, came to an end mid-century thanks to industrialization. Large machines dug largely homogenous bunkers without the fine-detailing, subtleties, and diversity of their predecessors. “It may have been good for business,” says Forse, “but it wasn’t a very exciting period for course architecture. Everything was boiler-plated.”

One shining light, toward the end of the 20th century, was Pete Dye, who sought to do the opposite of what the mid-century architects—specifically Robert Trent Jones—had done.

“I noticed Mr. Jones was using big machinery to carve out long tees, huge bunkers, and massive greens at nearby Palmetto Dunes,” Dye said about his design at Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island. “I decided to do the opposite. I figured small greens, tiny pot bunkers, and a low-profile design would separate my identity from the other designers.”

During an incredible 45-plus-year career, Dye’s assortment of bunkers actually resembled that of Ross, especially in his early work. “In my arsenal are several types of bunkers that may be used as guardians of the course,” Dye said. “I used shallow, grassy-banked bunkers, waste bunkers, steep-walled bunkers, and the infamous pot bunker.”

Harbour Town (photo by Kevin Murray)

Inspired by Dye’s willingness to experiment and follow his own path, one of his acolytes, Bill Coore, more or less instigated another new phase of architecture and bunker-styling with his, and partner Ben Crenshaw’s, pioneering design of Sand Hills in Nebraska in 1995. Tom Doak and his Renaissance Golf team were already six years and five courses into their naturalist, “minimalist” movement, but Sand Hills was the real game-changer.

“I’m prejudiced, but I’ve always been a fan of big, natural bunkers,” says Coore. “I prefer blowouts, and sandy scrapes. Even on non-sandy sites like Trinity Forest [near Dallas], we try to build bunkers with a natural, eroded look.

“Maxwell, Tillinghast, and Ross were designing courses in the days when bunkers really were hazards,” Coore says, looking back on 20th-century course design. “They were nasty, imperfect pits where you really didn’t want to be. In the name of uniformity, playability, and maintenance they slowly lost that character. But new liners and the greatly improved way we build and maintain bunkers nowadays allow us to restore them to what they once were.”

The irregular, contoured, sand-faced, wind-eroded look that Doak rekindled in the late 1980s, Coore & Crenshaw made popular in the mid-’90s and ’00s, and which Gil Hanse, Mike DeVries, David McLay Kidd, Rod Whitman, Dave Axland, and others have all now perfected, has been trending for quite a while.

I, for one, am happy for it to stay. But man is a fickle beast and desires variety. Change will inevitably come, and we shouldn’t rule anything out. It’s conceivable we’ll even see a return to cross-bunkers one day. But please, no dog turds.