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Bunker mentality and part two of the ornery hazard

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

In the last column, Bunker Mentality and the Return of the Ornery Hazard, Part I, we stated that from roughly 1940 to the mid-1990s most of the bunkers built in the United States were boring and relatively un-hazardous compared to those from previous generations. Then we diagnosed why, or as much as is possible in 800 or so words.

Of course it would be naïve to assert that no important bunker work was executed during that time - some was, but it seems to have been the exception rather than the rule.

Robert Trent Jones' patented cloverleaf designs could often be quite stylish and devious, and the same could be said for contemporaries like Dick Wilson and Joe Lee. Pete Dye has been innovative and against-the-grain from the beginning. At his best Tom Fazio's bunkering is effective and artistic, and a host of other mainstream architects have in places come up with serious looking - and difficult - bunkering.

But for the most part over the last 50 years or more the bunkering has tended toward the "traditional," which is all too often interchangeable with blasé; if classical-era bunkers weren't being filled in or removed then their design had become sterile, redundant, and more accommodating than awe-inspiring.

The Aiming and Framing School

Fazio is often given credit for ushering in the era of the "framed" or aesthetic style of design. He probably didn't create the idea of framing holes but his success with the medium helped motivate an era in which bunkers were frequently built for visual and cosmetic purposes rather than for the affect they have on how it plays. It could fairly be said that several of his designs made passive bunkering marketable.

In an age where the reputation of a golf course is too often summarized by a full color glossy photograph in a high-profile magazine - and this is what many owners want - getting the most out of that signature shot can mean the difference between standing out and blending in.

In the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, with numerous big budget courses and big budget designers pushing the trend, bunkers that framed a hole and made it look beautiful - or mounds or trees or waterfalls for that matter - became a viable weapon in virtually every architect's arsenal - it didn't matter whether or not they actually came into play.

Beauty sells. Image is, if you remember, everything. The irony is that more of a wow factor can be achieved with more onerous bunkering, not less.

For their part most architects can do better. One of Fazio's most important designs, Pine Barrens at World Woods in Florida, is riddled with ferocious sand barrens that function on both strategic and visual levels. Many of these hazards were pre-existent but the architect's employment and shaping of them is equally inspiring. Rees Jones has studied and reworked some of the Golden Age's most inspired bunkers but rarely ventures into the daring with his own hazards.

For that matter, just about everyone in the business could get back to making serious bunkers, taking cues from a few new courses that have bucked the trend.

Rough, Raw, and Hairy

In the mid-1990s a handful of architects and owners began to reclaim the lost art of bunker design. The Golf Club at Cuscowilla in Georgia is a showcase for the remarkable craggily-edged bunker shaping of Jeff Bradley, of whom architect Bill Coore (along with partner Ben Crenshaw) says, "[I]f he's not the best bunker guy in America, I don't know who is." The bunkers are not only a visual investment, they're deep and troublesome too.

In Gothenburg, Nebraska, Dave Axland and Dan Proctor, who frequently work with Coore and Crenshaw, have designed one of the fastest, firmest courses in the country at Wild Horse Golf Club. The bunkering seems almost randomly scattered and adaptable to the changing conditions of the wind, complimenting the hard-rolling characteristics.

Ken Kavanaugh's work at Murphy's Creek 30 minutes east of Denver would be remarkable enough for is shaggy, wind-blown look but it's even more notable for its placement. Like Wild Horse, cross-bunkers and in-fairway bunkers impact driving decisions at no less than 10 holes.

Other excellent examples include the Bandon Dunes courses, Whistling Straits, several stops on the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, Inniscrone, Barona Creek, The Kingsley Club, and Twisted Dune, along with most of the work of Coore and Crenshaw, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Mike DeVries, and Steve Smyers, just to name a few.

Bunkering for the New Millennium­In A Perfect Future

There will be more courses with handcrafted, seriously considered bunkering positioned for ultimate playing influence, not because they match the hole the way a certain ottoman might enhance a living room. As a result "traditionally" styled bunkering will not seem so redundant.

There will be more cross-bunkers.

The bunkers will be in "natural," random shapes, which means no frogs, monkeys, or mice.

Players and owners will demand better bunkering, helping to shift the onus away from the architects. Golfers have to relish the strategic and intellectual challenges that assertive bunkering affords, and owners have to resist hiring architects to design pretty rather than dynamic and thought-provoking golf courses.

Bunker building should cease to be taken for granted, viewed as a necessary evil, or worse, as something that might aid the player.

No more "directional" bunkers, things to aim at rather than worry about.

Finally, more bunkers - not all but just more - should inspire awe and occasionally fear, such as the 15-foot deep fronting bunker at the 11th hole at Doonbeg, Ireland. Then, maybe, we can start naming them again.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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