During the 1980s and early ’90s, this fledgling golf addict would watch the European Open from the Old Course at Sunningdale Golf Club outside London and enjoy the ever-entertaining Peter Alliss mixing witty, playfully acerbic dialogue about the players with keen insights about the course. One observation in particular has remained with me these past 25 years.
Every time the par-five 14th was on-screen, Alliss invariably reminded viewers of the innocuous-looking bunker to the right of the fairway. When player after player found it, Alliss tutted disapprovingly, “Such a harmless-looking thing, but it catches yet another careless soul.”
That, surely, is the definition of an effective bunker—a sinister, silent nuisance that doesn’t look like much, but which foils even the finest golfers.
Whatever their shape or depth, the color of their sand, or how big they are, making good players think about strategy is a must for a bunker to be great. Great bunkers get in players’ heads, causing apprehension, anxiety, and unease. Here are some of our favorites:
Road Bunker—17th hole, Old Course, St. Andrews
Though just a few yards wide, the basin-like effect of the surrounding terrain effectively makes the Road Bunker significantly bigger. Once in, the depth and steep face make getting out pretty tough.
Principal’s Nose—16th hole, Old Course, St Andrews
Yes, two of our favorites on back-to-back holes. The Principal’s Nose was surely the first centerline hazard, inspiring the strategic design of Golden Age architects. Bail left for a harder approach or take the risky line between the Nose and OB right for the easier second.
Centerline bunker—4th hole, Woking Golf Club
“The true hazard should draw play towards it,” said John Low, the Woking member who, along with the club’s greenkeeper Stuart Paton, was responsible for digging the bunker in the 4th fairway, giving players the choice of the risky drive and easier approach, or easy drive and tough approach. “It should invite the golfer to come as near as he dare to the fire without burning his fingers.”
Centerline bunkers—14th hole, Bandon Dunes
David McLay Kidd’s centerline bunkers at the 14th have plenty of safe haven either side, but the closer your tee shot skirts them the easier the second shot. Low would have approved.
Behind the 12th green, Augusta National
The two back bunkers were cut out of the hillside a few feet above the original green. When the green was raised two feet in 1960 to alleviate drainage issues, the bunkers became level with the putting surface, meaning the shot from the sand back to the flag became perilous with water a few yards the other side. As the green became increasingly firm and fast so the shot became ever more dicey.
Devil’s Asshole—10th hole, Pine Valley
Six feet deep and just eight feet wide, the Devil’s Asshole is a tiny, sand-lined perdition best escaped backwards (see picture above).
2nd hole, St. George’s Golf and Country Club
Canadian architect Ian Andrew says the bunker to the right of the 2nd fairway will really get inside the players’ heads at next year’s Canadian Open. “There are two big bunkers and OB down the left,” he adds. “A deep diagonal valley runs from left to right down the fairway at a 45-degree angle. On the right side, close to the top of the valley, is a simple bunker. If the drive doesn’t clear the valley, it will likely bound right into the sand. The bunker doesn’t look intimidating, but it is six feet and at a difficult angle to the green. Once you find that bunker, you soon realize it is a terrible place to be.”
17th hole, Mossy Oak Golf Club
As you’d expect of Gil Hanse, the bunkers on this minimalist Mississippi masterpiece are beautifully built and thoughtfully positioned—nothing excessive, unnecessary, or out of place here. The huge bunker short and left of the 17th green is the course’s most memorable and demands a decision be made with the second shot—carry it and get close to the green with your second, or stay short and have nothing to do with it.
Himalaya—6th hole, St. Enodoc
Okay, sometimes it is just about sheer intimidation. Favor the left side of the fairway to avoid having to clear James Braid’s enormous bunker which most certainly does influence the line to the hole.
4th hole, Barnbougle Dunes
The fear factor is also pretty high at Tom Doak, Brian Schneider, and Mike Clayton’s brilliant 4th hole at Barnbougle in Australia.