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 debris and divots. They were genuine hazards; if you went in one, you couldn’t be sure what would happen next.

Since then, our expectations about 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,” Austin Daniells, the superintendent at Monterey Pines Golf Course, told me. “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 live up to that 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 said. Indeed, Daniells and his crew deserve all the praise they get for achieving upscale conditions on a downscale budget. Monterey Pines is in great shape.

The bunkering on the short-par-4 4th at Monterey Pines

In general, though, this model of bunker maintenance is difficult to sustain. To avoid player complaints about bunkers, courses have to increase spending. In turn, green fees go up. This is a vicious circle that sometimes leads to closure.

“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 told me. Waters is 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 financial issues, according to Waters, are opportunity costs. The more time greenkeepers devote to bunker maintenance, the less they have for other tasks.

“The list is basically endless,” Waters said. “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 explained. “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 rather than cater to expectations.

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, including 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 rakes the bunkers, but since golfers play them all as waste areas, they don’t look for absolute consistency. That makes a big difference.

“It’s not so much that bunkers aren’t important here,” Collins explained. “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. “Come on,” they say, “how close to me do you really want to play?” But when hazards offer predictable escape routes, they don’t have the same strategic potency. You don’t need to try as hard to avoid a bunker that you know 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 tactics, using 3-wood off several tees to take fairway bunkers out of play. It worked. Pettersson went in 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. “People like what they like,” the saying goes. Hear, hear. But the trouble starts when the preference becomes an expectation, and golfers bring it to every course they play. That ends up costing everyone. It costs greenkeepers time, and it costs the rest of us money.

“Even for people who strongly prefer bunkers to be smoothly raked on a daily basis,” George Waters explained, “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. 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.