The State of Bunker Aesthetics: Is "Fancy" Becoming Boring? / by Brett Hochstein

Whether or not you classify this as “fancy,” it’s only fair here to use a bunker I’ve built after that title question. This is the 13th hole at The Saticoy Club, whose bunkers we re-designed last year with Thad Layton of Arnold Palmer Design Co.

Whether or not you classify this as “fancy,” it’s only fair here to use a bunker I’ve built after that title question. This is the 13th hole at The Saticoy Club, whose bunkers we re-designed last year with Thad Layton of Arnold Palmer Design Co.

As State of the Union, State of the State, and State of the (insert institution) season has wrapped up and we turn our attention to Spring (and golf season), I thought maybe it would be fun to expound on something marginally less contentious—bunker styles in golf course design.

Bunkers are always a hot topic when it comes to golf holes, and really, this makes a good deal of sense. Bunkers, when ferocious enough, can be critical in dictating strategy. This in itself leads to all sorts of chatter, whether it is about how someone made a heroic carry over the deep pit on the corner of the dogleg (or didn’t) or if it is a hearty debate on whether a bunker should be shifted around (or if it should even be there at all).

Bunker conditioning is another matter. As golf course maintenance technology continues to advance and the professional game continues to get airtime in crystal clear high definition, many players have come to expect perfect or consistent conditions from bunker to bunker, completely ignoring that this is neither realistic nor in the true spirit of a bunker, which is a hazard (2019 rulebook verbiage be damned).

Another key talking point is visual. In a landscape dominated by (often green) turf grass, sand sticks out, further making bunkers a dominant feature of a course. As genetically diverse human beings, we are predisposed to our own tastes for how things should look, and this in turn leads to more debates about the visual stylings of different bunkers. This is what I am mainly here today to discuss.

Particularly, I have started to see some push-back in recent years about the preponderance of flashy, wavy, “frilly-edged” bunkers. There are probably a few reasons for these complaints, many of which I can understand. Some are about maintenance (too much sand to rake, edges too difficult to maintain), and some are criticisms of poorly executed aesthetic attempts at the look (excessively wiggly edges on a plain landform). Most of all though, the push back seems to be driven by the constant and natural human craving for something different.

Simpson-like bunkering at Cuscowilla. Image from golfclubatlas.com

It is true that a lot of projects in recent years have sought to mimic a certain aesthetic of flashed sand, “naturally” broken lines, and a rough edge. There is no doubt I have often been in that camp myself with recent work.* How did we get here though? It could be said that it started with Sand Hills, whose massive, rugged bunkers played off the natural blowouts on the property and were possibly the first to be built using excavators. It could be traced to Tom Doak and Gil Hanse making a trip to California to study the stylings of Alister MacKenzie and George Thomas before applying it to their work at Black Forest and later Stonewall. Or it could be when Coore & Crenshaw’s Jeff Bradley started doing his best Tom Simpson impersonation at Cuscowilla. Notice something in those last two postulations though: they both mention architects of the past. The true origin of this bunker style, like many great components of design today, comes from the Golden Age, which, going even further back, was inspired by nature itself. With a couple of architects looking back to the past, these flashier and more intricate styles were reintroduced to the present. In the following 20 or so years since, talented and competitive shapers, adaptive excavator buckets, and some great sandy sites have all elevated and diversified the genre, making it a popular choice among designers and developers today.

And I have to say, often times it is hard to argue with the style. The visual of the sand provides a nice contrast to the landscape, the rugged texture can enhance the feeling of being in nature, and the lines, when done right, can be beautifully artistic. These are beautiful bunkers often located in beautiful settings.

The brilliant bunkering and the way it seamlessly flows from formal edges to scrubby, sandy ground at Gil Hanse’s Ohoopee Match Club is some of the best bunker work I’ve ever seen. Image courtesy of Andy Johnson of    thefriedegg.com   .

The brilliant bunkering and the way it seamlessly flows from formal edges to scrubby, sandy ground at Gil Hanse’s Ohoopee Match Club is some of the best bunker work I’ve ever seen. Image courtesy of Andy Johnson of thefriedegg.com.

But are we overdoing it? If you look at it only within the pool of golf course projects of the last 15 or so years, which have been very lean in numbers compared to those of the past, you could make the argument towards “yes.” If you look at it within the overall pool of all golf courses though, which is vast (and mostly uninspiring), this style does still stand out as interesting and unusual. Because the newest projects get the most attention though (especially in the age of social media), and because there are so few of them, the perception seems to have become that this is the only style of bunkering in golf anymore, which is patently false. It just happens to be the style getting the most attention, rightly or wrongly.

With all of that understood, I get the cries for going a different direction and pushing for variety. After all, Donald Ross said, “Variety is the spice of golf, just as it is of life.” Sameness, even excellent sameness, can get kind of boring. That is possibly one reason why the broad, machine-built bunkers came into popularity after the War and preceding Golden Age. That is possibly why Pete Dye’s work later felt like a breath of fresh air in response to that trend with his sharp, funky shapes and railroad ties. And that is likely why Doak and Hanse headed West in the early 90s to build something different and more intricate, inspired by the flashiest work of the 1920s and 30s.

So here we are in 2019, and the question becomes, “are we coming full circle once again?” Whether we actually are or aren’t, it is sort of starting to feel that way. One reason for that feeling could be the number of restoration projects popping up around the Midwest and Northeast, most of which involve revitalizing or returning to a bunkering style that is more grass faced and flat bottomed in nature. There are also a couple of the new projects as well that have scrapped the flashy trend and gone a different direction. Two happen to be in Northern Michigan (an area which ironically is full of naturally sandy soil): Tom Doak’s “The Loop” at Forest Dunes, and Dana Fry and Jason Straka’s South Course at Arcadia Bluffs. Doak, who actively tries to diversify his aesthetics from course-to-course to avoid a typecast effect, went much simpler and a little less “flashed” at The Loop than most of his other work. The biggest reason for this was to keep the focus on the routing and the contours, which are the bread and butter of the course, but there was probably some simple intent just to change it up as well.

The geometrical shaping of Arcadia Bluffs South Course, taken before sand installed. Image courtesy of Dana Fry through GolfAdvisor.com

The bunker scheme at Doak’s “The Loop” is much simpler than a majority of his works, allowing the routing and the contouring to shine.

At Arcadia Bluffs, they sought to provide something different, especially for the public-access resort scene. Drawing inspiration from Chicago Golf Club located kitty-corner far across Lake Michigan, they went with a highly angular style in the mold of Seth Raynor and Charles Blair MacDonald. The wide open, geometric course has a number of greens with squared-off corners, and the bunkers are the deep and simply engineered trenches that you would see on many Raynor designs. While I can’t fully judge the work until seeing it in person, it appears they have done a good job in mimicking the style, and, at the very least, they have provided something different and new for most of their clientele.

That is a small sample size (aren’t they all when only a handful of new builds are opened a year?), but it does indicate that a different look and approach is being considered. I can be on board with this, but I would like to see that style get pushed further artistically, with more of a natural-feeling irregularity to the faces and the top lines. I’d also like to see a real emphasis on letting the grass faces go thin and rugged, which would not only create a beautiful, contrasting look, it would also allow more balls landing on the face to release down to the sand. This is much easier said than done and would be nearly impossible to consistently achieve across a given property, but having that virtuous goal for thin and wispy is a great start.

Above: a mix of old and modern bunkers where the grass face is left thinner.

It should be interesting to see how some of the new high-profile developments turn out in the next few years. What will Coore and Crenshaw do if their opportunity on a true Scottish linksland is given the green light? Will Tom Doak do something much different from the open sandy waste areas commonly found on the other two courses at Sand Valley? Will the Hanse team continue to evolve their recent quasi-Australian style of hard bunker edges bleeding out into scruffy, sandy areas?

That will all be fun to keep an eye on, but the biggest question remains—what type of bunkers or hazards have we not yet thought of? What could be the next big development? I’ve got an idea for something that I think would work well in the California and Western U.S. landscape, looking very cool and natural while having serious impacts on strategy. It needs to be the right type of site though, and opportunities for new builds in the West (and everywhere) are scarce. I could also maybe see a return to a version of the very odd, sculpture-like features found in some bunkers from the Victorian era (see images below), but these come with their own maintenance challenges and will be sure to rankle a card-and-pencil player who finds an impossible lie (which in matchplay might just simply be one lost hole, but I digress). Also, once again, it’s not really a “new” idea.

Above: wild landforms in the sand at Hangar Hill and the original Shinnecock Hills (middle image). Images courtesy @Hainesy76 and @SHistorians via Twitter

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe there isn’t really a new and undiscovered idea out there, and our goal should be to continue to do what works best for each specific site. Perhaps we keep pushing what we are already doing, injecting more subtle creativity in each new attempt without losing sight of functionality and strategy. Let us also seek to utilize the odd features found on any given property. Instead of wiping a site clean before starting a project, we should ask if that wall, barn, road, berm, washout, water tower, or any other item of funk could be utilized in the design. It could add value strategy of the course while also providing a sense of place unique to that design. And, in the end, isn’t that what any good bunker or set of bunkers ought to do?

Not a bunker, but this old wall and stone shed at Anstruther make for a perfect hazard to defend the green from those who play safely away from the cliffs

Not a bunker, but this old wall and stone shed at Anstruther make for a perfect hazard to defend the green from those who play safely away from the cliffs

*To be fair though, I’ve worked on a lot of sites that warranted it, whether it is in sandy Holland or France or in the rolling hills of California, where elements of Thomas and MacKenzie styles make perfect sense both in the immediate landscape and in context with the famous courses of the region. It’s also something that every client and architect I’ve worked with has wanted as well.