Redundant and poorly managed trees cop most of the criticism aimed at golf courses these days, but another feature many don’t care for is the bunker located in the middle of the fairway, known nowadays as “centerline” bunkers.
Professionals regard them with total disdain because they swallow apparently good shots. Architect Bill Coore remembers the flak his and Ben Crenshaw’s design of the 6th hole at Trinity Forest received from competitors during the AT&T Byron Nelson. “The central bunkers were positioned right where they wanted to hit their drive which they didn’t much like,” says Coore.
It’s not just the pro that feels this way, of course. The typical amateur who doesn’t often find the fairway likewise feels aggrieved when their “perfect shot” finds the short grass at last, only to roll into sand.
Brett Hochstein, an architect and shaper based in California, has a simple and, well, inarguable response. Hochstein explains there is a difference between perfect contact and the perfect shot, the latter which leaves you in the ideal position for your next one: “If you’re in a bunker located in the fairway, the shot cannot be deemed perfect no matter how ‘flushed’ it was.”
Hochstein says the point of flanking bunkers is often to exact a penalty in relation to the player’s execution of a shot whereas central bunkers add the element of decision-making. “It becomes a challenge of mental fortitude as well as a test of your ability to hit the ball,” he adds.
Renaissance Golf’s Brian Schneider, who has worked alongside Tom Doak for many years and whose first original design (with partner Blake Conant) will open at Old Barnwell in South Carolina in 2023, says centerline bunkers don’t work when the hole is too narrow and are often an unnecessary expense if they’re right in the middle of the fairway with little going on at the green.
“That’s really just having a centerline bunker for the sake of it,” says Schneider, adding that they work best when slightly off-center with an area of significant danger (OB or water) bordering the narrow side. “The obvious example is ‘Corner of the Dyke’–the 16th on the Old Course. Before rough was allowed to grow to the left of the Principal’s Nose bunkers that was the safe line, while the adventurous and confident would hit to the right of the bunkers and risk going OB in an attempt to leave a much better angle into the flag.”
No article about centerline bunkers would be complete without mention of the 4th at Woking Golf Club outside London. The course opened in 1893 but Tom Dunn’s original design was modified in 1901 when, inspired by Corner of the Dyke, club member Stuart Paton (encouraged by fellow member John Low, an important figure in the evolution of course architecture) dug two bunkers in the center-right of the fairway 220 yards from the tee and just 25 yards left of the London to Southampton railway line. Anyone finding the narrower side had a straightforward 90-yard pitch to the green while those who bailed left to the wider “half” of the fairway faced two front bunkers and an awkward shot to a green tilted front left to back right.
Some are loathe to acknowledge what was built 100 years ago as being relevant to today’s game, but architects like Coore, Schneider, and Hochstein appreciate their risk/reward value.
Coore is “enamored” with centerline bunkers and has obviously built a fair few himself—his favorites, perhaps, on the 15th at Cabot Cliffs and 6th at Bandon Trails. Schneider had a hand in highly effective fairway bunkers at CommonGround in Denver (3rd hole) and Streamsong Blue (8th hole). And Hochstein identifies a great example on the 2nd hole of the Donald Ross-designed Franklin Hills in suburban Detroit where a “medium-small central bunker” divides the fairway.
Next time you find a centerline bunker by all means cuss, but quickly remember golf would be much less interesting without them.