Just the Yolk: Should Bunkers Be Intensively Maintained?

The consequences of our expectations for bunker conditions


Today’s question is from Joe Shasky:

I’m with you, Joe. But let’s widen the frame of your question a bit: why do bunkers have to be intensively maintained at all? The earliest bunkers were natural, full of footprints and divots and debris. They were genuine hazards; if you went in one, you couldn’t be sure what would happen next.

Since then, our expectations for bunker playability have changed. Today, most golfers prize sharp edges and smooth sand, and some complain when the conditions in one bunker are different from those in another. Bunker to bunker, it seems, golfers want a predictable experience.

“We have been spoiled for way too long with manicured bunkers to go back to a ‘natural’ state,” says Austin Daniells, the superintendent at Monterey Pines Golf Course in Monterey, California. “As we all know, what golfers see on TV they expect to see at their local courses, be it Monterey Pines or Pebble Beach.”

Especially at a place like Monterey Pines, where the budget is tight, it’s neither cheap nor easy to achieve a broadcast-ready standard. Daniells’s staff rakes bunkers four times a week, taking about four to four-and-a-half hours each go-around. Factor in the edging they do during growing season and the man hours add up. The course has also put close to $40,000 into new sand over the past three years.

For Daniells, the effort and expense have been worth it. “We have been completely surprised at how many positive comments we continue to get about the condition of our bunkers,” he says.

I can confirm that Daniells and his crew do an excellent job. Monterey Pines offers upscale conditions at a downscale rate.

The well-maintained bunkers on the short-par-4 4th at Monterey Pines

From an industry-wide perspective, however, this model of bunker maintenance is problematic. At most courses, especially ones not as well managed as Monterey Pines, the costs of immaculate bunkers tend to spiral and get passed on to the consumer. This vicious circle of rising expectations, rising budgets, and rising green fees is a threat to the future of affordable golf.

“What I think would surprise many golfers is that there are definitely courses that spend as much—or even more—per square foot on bunkers as they do on greens,” George Waters tells me. Waters is the Manager of Green Section Education for the USGA and wrote Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game. “And it’s golfer expectations that drive that spending.”

Just as pressing as the financial issues, according to Waters, are the opportunity costs. The more time greenkeepers devote to bunker maintenance, the less they have for other tasks.

“The list is basically endless,” Waters says. “For lower- and mid-budget courses, the extra time can make a big difference in improving conditions on greens, approaches, and fairways. That could be more time spent hand watering, more time making irrigation repairs, more time nursing weak areas back to health.”

Higher-end courses, too—the ones with the basics already dialed in—could benefit from simplifying bunker maintenance. “There’s still no end to the detail and project work that can be done,” Waters explains. “Managing weeds in native areas, improving drainage, and pruning trees are just a few examples. The list goes on and on.”

But these opportunities will remain hypothetical unless golfers’ attitudes shift. Fortunately, some courses are in a better position than others to challenge expectations rather than cater to them.

Pine Valley and Friar’s Head don’t keep rakes in their bunkers. Yes, this policy is more workable at private clubs that get limited play, but it sets a healthy example. If inconsistent sand is good enough for two of the greatest courses in the world, why shouldn’t it be good enough anywhere?

Perhaps more influential, however, will be public courses experimenting with bunkering alternatives. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s much-anticipated Sheep Ranch, set for a June 2020 opening, has grass bunkers—or what I suspect will evolve into thatchy, sandy scrapes. They will require minimal upkeep.

A grass bunker on the 10th hole at Sheep Ranch

Other courses, such as Poppy Hills and the Aiken Golf Club, have rake-less waste areas alongside conventional, raked bunkers. At Sweetens Cove, architects Tad King and Rob Collins went a step further: they designated all bunkers as waste areas.

According to Collins, it wasn’t a hard call. The course has a lot of bunkers, and maintaining all of them flawlessly every day wouldn’t have been feasible. Besides, King-Collins’s design called for an overall ruggedness. The bunkers have gnarly, weathered edges, and the disturbed sand fits the aesthetic.

The eight-person maintenance staff at Sweetens Cove, led by superintendent Brent Roberson, still considers raking an important part of its routine, but since all of the bunkers play as waste areas, golfers don’t look for absolute consistency in the sand. And that makes a big difference.

“It’s not so much that bunkers aren’t important here,” Collins explains. “It’s more that they don’t have a razor edge or need to be 100% perfect every time. I think this allows the crew to focus more on greens-and-surrounds conditioning, which has a far greater impact on course playability.”

In addition to practical advantages, bunkers like those at Sweetens Cove can, in my opinion, make golf more interesting. Hazards exist not just to punish, but to provoke thought—to define potential risks and angles, to tempt and intimidate, and to ask questions: How close to me do you really want to play to get that nice angle? But when hazards offer predictable escapes, they don’t have the same strategic potency. You don’t need to try as hard to avoid a bunker when you know it won’t punch you in the mouth.

Consider the 2006 Memorial Tournament, which the Shotgun Start reviewed in a Flashback Friday a while back. That year, Jack Nicklaus stocked the bunkers with wooden rakes that created furrows. Suddenly, recoveries from the sand became unpredictable. A lot of players grumbled, but at least one took it in stride: Carl Pettersson adjusted his tactics, hitting 3-wood off several tees to take fairway bunkers out of play. It worked. Pettersson found just one fairway bunker all week, and he won by two.

The lesson here is that when bunkers function as true hazards, even the world’s best need to play more thoughtfully. “I do feel [the PGA Tour] should try to make a bunker a penalty, or deterrent, not a place to aim for,” Nicklaus said afterwards. “The sand today is so good, if you rake it properly, the ball just—it’s perfect to play every shot. We didn’t have good sand before.” (At the next year’s Memorial, the normal rakes were back.)

Of course, most golfers will continue to prefer their bunkers manicured, user-friendly, and consistent. There’s nothing wrong with that preference, in and of itself. The trouble is that the preference has now become an expectation, and golfers have started bringing it to every course they play. The resulting pressure on maintenance staffs has cost everyone. It has cost greenkeepers time, and it has cost the rest of us money.

“Even for people who strongly prefer bunkers to be smoothly raked on a daily basis,” George Waters explains, “if the choice is between that and reduced quality on the greens and fairways, or not having a golf course to play at all, I would hope the decision to scale back bunker maintenance is something most people could live with.”

To return to the original question, bunkers “HAVE to be perfectly raked” because, right now, the majority of golfers expect them to be. And the more we chip away at that expectation, the more sustainable the game will be.

In his work for the USGA Green Section, George Waters has developed some fine resources on bunkers and their upkeep. Check out this introductory video and this article about different options for bunker maintenance.

Just the Yolk is an occasional column in which we tackle golf issues of the moment, sometimes by responding to reader questions. If you have a question, let us know on Twitter.