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Bunker mentality and the return of the ornery hazard

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

They say there are no atheists in a foxhole.

Likewise there are few aesthetes in fairway bunkers.

Golf purists, often a strange and seemingly masochistic bunch, may derive a sort of obscene pleasure in locating their ball in a menacing, ribald hazard (it's sort of like having a sporting appreciation for an opponent's particularly well placed punch on the chin), but for most others being bunkered induces emotions ranging from irritation to bitter sense of slight.

If there's little widespread respect for good bunkering in modern architecture - or at least indifference to it - it might be because good bunkering isn't all that common to modern architecture.

It's hardly blasphemous - or original - to claim that the bunker building of the past five decades has been patently ho-hum. Just take a look around. Most greenside hazards you'll find are little more than shallow, flat-bottomed geometric scoops of dirt - worthier of the tepid term "sand trap" than of the origin descriptor, which is to say, something deep and protective - and thought-provoking fairway bunkers are virtually AWOL. That bunkers could ever become, ahem, irritating rather than frightening speaks volumes about the lost art of arrangement and design, especially considering that golfers on the whole probably are no better today at playing out of the sand than they were, well, ever.

That's not to say all bunkers should be feared. Some should and some shouldn't; they just shouldn't fail to inspire, or worse, inspire apathy. Bunkering should strive to be great, distinctive, artistic, puzzling, even befuddling. And yes, sometimes scary. It should be everything it hasn't been nearly enough of for three generations.

A brief history of bunkers

Animals, sheep and cattle mostly, created the first bunkers on links courses as they sought refuge from the harsh coastal winds in natural depressions. Over time these shelters became trampled and expanded by the livestock, to be filled with blowing sand and then golf balls. Eventually man took over from the sheep and started building pot bunkers.

For many years, bunkers were little more than cruel and cruelly located torture chambers. Later they became slightly more intellectual, and in the story of golf course architecture they played the roles of villain and enchantress, indelible characters with lives and names of their own: Hell's Half Acre; the Devil's Asshole; the Church Pews; the White Faces of Merion; the Maiden; Sahara; Principal's Nose; Hell Bunker; the Beardies; Hill and Strath.

Golden Age architects weren't opposed to expanding the role of the bunker beyond pure punishment. George Thomas' high-spirited bunker shapes were as expressionistic as they were distracting. Alister MacKenzie wanted his rough, irregular hazards to blend into the surroundings, to in effect camouflage elements of the hole. Donald Ross, less interested in shape than placement, was masterful at using bunkers to disguise distances and angles.

Then again some architects, such as Walter Travis and A.W. Tillinghast, liked to punish, and understood that bunkers were, in fact, hazards, and not desirable places to be. Henry Fownes, owner and architect of Oakmont, went so far as to design a special bunker rake that made deep furrows in the sand, all but making clean recovery impossible. At many courses bunkers simply weren't raked.

That's a far cry from today when cacophonous whining is heard if a bunker is too deep, or if a ball is not lying perfectly atop the sand. Advanced players expect to recover for par at least half the time. O where have you gone Henry Fownes?

Sometime around the middle of last century architects became reluctant to make bunkers too hazardous. They also became less fond of putting them in the line of play, opting instead to use them laterally and for directional purposes (as if the GPS system and yardage book advice didn't make playing the hole obvious enough).

What the hell happened? Where's the gamesmanship? And why don't we name our bunkers anymore?

An Informal Analysis of What Went Wrong

1. The Greatest Generation - The end of World War II produced an influx of new golfers and it was important not to discourage them by making the game harder than it already was. Difficult bunkers were out.

2. Mass Production - Golf course architecture, mirroring the rest of consumer-based industry, entered the realm of mass-production and marketing. Architects began to rely more heavily on earthmoving machinery and detailed blue prints rather than handcrafting courses and daily in the field adjustments. Result: sterilized courses and bunkers.

3. Golf Communities - The demand for housing development courses made locating interesting golf sites a secondary concern, hindering architectural creativity. A side effect of the suburban proletariat movement (see No. 1) is a shift of emphasis from golf as sporting endeavor to social recreation.

4. Augusta National's Laundry - As television broadcasts images of Augusta National into American homes each April it began to be held up as the model golf course. Soon everyone had to have its crisp, dry cleaned (and bastardized) bunkers and bleached white sand.

5. The Cult of Fairness - The rise of popularity of the PGA Tour, also abetted by television, and the professionals' steadfast demands for fairness and impeccable playing conditions soon spilled over onto every club and course. Gnarly, randomly placed bunkers became Public Enemy Number One.

6. Brain Lock - Aside from everything else, it just wasn't a very imaginative several decades for golf course architecture. That Pete Dye could become a household name in the 1980s for designing "difficult" golf courses (a reputation due in part to his reintroduction of pot bunkers, among other things) is proof enough that the art of bunkering, and design itself, had become stale.

Thankfully in the 1990s some people came along and started to fix it.

Coming up next: Why we know Tom Fazio (and others) can do better, pictures of cool "hairy" bunkers, and suggestions for the new millennium (it's not too late, is it?).

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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