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In Defense of Sand Traps

It's my fate as a golf course architect, whenever I first encounter a course and come away excited, to kick into high analytic mode. What separated this layout from the ordinary?What were the design elements that made it such a thrill to play and the total experience so appealing?More often than not, my answer is: the bunkers.

This may come as a surprise to some people who think of bunkers primarily as hateful things, places to avoid. But it shouldn't. On all but the most watery courses, bunkers do more than any other single feature to affect the overall look of a course and are also primarily responsible for creating the strategic challenges of each hole and defining a course's character.

My point of view regarding bunkers began to take shape during my master's-degree program in landscape architecture at Cornell, when I received a one-year fellowship to tour the British Isles and study the great golf courses there. Among the first courses I visited, naturally, was the Old Course at St. Andrews, and my eureka moment happened on the sixteenth hole, when I hit a perfect drive right down the center of the fairway but found my ball in one of three pot bunkers known collectively as the Principal's Nose. With a combined feeling of frustration and intrigue, I surveyed the position in which I had put myself. While it had occurred to me before that in some cases a straight, center-line drive could be a bad drive, it had never really struck me how much more fun it is to occasionally play holes like this—with quirky, extremely penal obstacles—than to play one safe, straightforward hole after another. In the case of the Old Course's sixteenth, a drive hit right of the Principal's Nose has to contend with a perilously close out-of-bounds line, but if it stays in, the player is rewarded with the easiest approach angle into the green. Drives to the left are safe, but the approach is far more difficult. It's a simple concept, really, but somehow on that day, experiencing firsthand the proportions, sight lines and angles of this great, time-tested hole, I felt as if I suddenly understood a great deal.

The scots understand bunkers better than anyone else. They know what types of bunkers most satisfyingly enhance the pleasure of the game, because they have literally centuries of experience with them. The first bunkers were created at St. Andrews and the other early seaside links courses more or less by accident, most likely by sheep and other livestock burrowing into the sides of the grassy dunes for shelter. Wind and water further eroded these depressions into distinct sandy pits, and golfers no doubt learned quickly to avoid these troublesome spots. At some point, however, people began to realize, "Hey, these bunkers make the game more fun! Let's keep these and build some more!" The early practitioners of golf architecture all modeled their courses on Scottish links. Even when the game moved inland, they meticulously re-created penal links-style bunkers.

By the second half of the twentieth century, however, with the advent of celebrity architects and mass-produced courses, bunkers started to lose this connection. A perception began to emerge that golf courses should be immaculately maintained from wall to wall. All too often, landing in a bunker these days isn't a penalty at all. High handicappers may scoff at this notion, but for Tour pros and most better club players, landing in a flat fairway bunker with smooth, uniform white sand (often mixed with wetting agents to help the ball sit up pretty) and little or no lip is preferable to landing in the rough and poses no more difficulty than a fairway lie at a comparable distance from the green. Such bunkers, found on many courses built over the past fifty years, flout the tradition of golf. If hazards are supposed to dictate the strategy of the game but don't exact a penalty, what precisely is their point?

A big part of the thrill of playing a well-designed course is not knowing, when you hit a shot toward a bunker, what kind of situation you'll find yourself in when you get there. If every bunker were a severe, automatic penalty, basically you'd have water—the ultimate hazard, which gained prominence only in the last century and which is far less fun to encounter. In bunkers, however, outcomes can vary widely. You might have a perfectly playable lie in the center of a sandy expanse. Or you might have a challenging lie with a high lip looming, requiring a sideways exit. Or you might find yourself in real trouble, such as with the ball buried in sand on a steep slope. The anticipation as you walk to the bunker, and the ensuing elation or despair depending on the lie, is an integral part of the classic golf experience, but one that the modern, primarily American insistence on pristine courses undervalues.

Many of the most esteemed courses in this country have bunkers of the old, rugged penal style. Pine Valley Golf Club, with its vast, unkempt waste areas, and Cypress Point Club, with its exquisite, natural-seeming bunkers that blend into the surrounding landscape, are two venerable examples. But a handful of modern architects have revived the classic bunker style, including Tom Doak at Oregon's Pacific Dunes and Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore at Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska. Designing bunkers this way is not easy, which is one reason that modern architects favor less-imaginative bunkers (they can simply dispatch minimally trained bulldozer operators to excavate pits along fairways and greens and be done with it).

At Rustic Canyon, a course I designed in Simi Valley, California, with my partner Jim Wagner, we spent several months surveying the landscape to figure out how the fairways, greens and bunkers might best fit into the existing features with minimal earthmoving—attempting as best we could to mimic the way the great old links courses naturally settled themselves into the existing dunes landscapes over centuries of play. Then we personally spent weeks in the seat of a bulldozer carving out the bunkers, using all of our experience and exposure to classic courses to create natural-looking, strategically interesting and varied bunker challenges on each hole. The final piece was spending countless hours with codesigner Geoff Shackelford, working the bunker edges by hand and transplanting native vegetation.

One technique I frequently use is to clearly define the front edges of bunkers (those nearest the fairways and greens), which allows balls to enter the hazards, while leaving (or artificially making) the back sides in an unkempt and irregular state. Ideally I want the bunkers to seem to have eroded naturally amidst the surrounding plant life. Not only does this help create fun, serendipitous lies and situations, but it dramatically enhances the course's aesthetic appeal. When the transitions between the maintained parts of a course and its natural surrounds are seamless (even if significant artifice was required to achieve that effect), the course as a whole can be an inspiration.

The more that a course seems to be an integrated part of nature rather than an artificial construct, the more likely players are to come away from a round feeling exalted. Good bunkering not only establishes a clear link to the surrounding landscape, it also requires a golfer to think. The combination of food for the eye and food for the brain is a constant on any great golf course, and a concept that I believe needs to be re-emphasized. *

GIL HANSE AGE: 40
COMPANY: Hanse Golf Course Design, Inc., Malvern, Pennsylvania
NOTABLE DESIGNS: Wilderness Valley GC; Gaylord, MI (1991); Stonewall GC; Elverson, PA (1993); Craighead Links; Crail, Scotland (1998); Inniscrone GC; Avondale, PA (1998); The Capstone Club; Brookwood, AL (2000); South Fork CC; Amagansett, NY (2000; added nine holes to the existing nine); Tallgrass at Shoreham; Shoreham, NY (2000); Applebrook GC; Malvern, PA (2001); Rustic Canyon GC; Moorpark, CA (2001)

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