SUMMING IT UP
• Bunker liners have increased in popularity because of their ability to hold sand in place, while allowing sufficient drainage. On the flip side, this method can become costly.
• Choosing the type of sand to use can make or break a bunker project. For every consideration from color to the size and shape of granules, consulting with area superintendents can go a long way towards finding the best sand for filling bunkers.
• Deep vs. shallow or large vs. small, bunkers come in all shapes and sizes. But in every case, two questions must be answered: Is the maintenance staff equipped to keep the bunkers in prime condition? And will their difficulty negatively affect speed of play?
Life is a beach, but mixing a day on the golf course with one in the sand can test anyone’s game and patience. While golfers rarely enjoy playing out of a hazard, bunkers are an integral part of a course’s design. They define the landing areas, make for a visually exciting layout, and in many cases are what supply the strategic challenge of the game.
Sooner or later, though, every golf course superintendent faces another serious challenge: How to cost-effectively rebuild or renovate sand bunkers. When this time comes, there are a number of important factors to consider—and no single “right” or “wrong” answers.
For insight into all of the variables that must be considered and weighed in a major bunker project, let’s take a closer look of how two courses, at opposite corners of the country, each worked through their choices when faced with the need to deal with long-developing bunker distress.
Determine the Need
The 18-hole “Riviera” course at the Riviera Country Club in Coral Gables, Fla. (just outside of Miami) measures 6,511 yards from the longest tees for a par of 71. Designed by Donald Ross, the Riviera course opened in 1946.
Since then, it has undergone a series of renovations and improvements. In 1993 a driving range, short-game practice area and pond were added, and 10 years later some greens and bunkers were restored.
Through it all, however, a bunker renovation storm cloud was brewing.
Coral rock—not sand, as in other areas of Florida—is the main soil makeup underneath Riviera’s course. Additionally, Coral Gables receives more than 65 inches of rain each year.
Those two challenges, plus regular wear and tear, had wreaked havoc on the course’s traps.
“That coral rock worked its way to the surface and contaminated the sand,” explains Director of Agronomy Eric von Hofen, who reached out to a New Hampshire-based golf course architect to help him renovate the sand traps. “The architect was brought in during the fall of 2009 to review the bunkers and work with me to come up with a design. We ran a GPS on each bunker and produced a working plan, to show the committees and Board what new bunkers would look like. I then placed the project out to bid.”
Similarly, the bunkers at West Seattle (Wash.) Golf Course—a 1935 Henry Chandler Egan design that is maintained by the city of Seattle—were also showing their age. So the city approved a capital project to renovate five existing bunkers and construct 18 new ones.
Fifteen of these “new” bunkers, though, would actually be created by unearthing hazards that had been filled in many years earlier, to reduce daily maintenance demands. Actually, more than 15 bunkers had been filled in over the course’s history; so in choosing which ones to recreate, West Seattle’s Superintendent, John Price, selected those that he felt would not impact less-experienced players, while still visually framing, defining and enhancing the beauty of each hole.
The remaining eight bunkers would be new locations, four as fairway bunkers in the landing areas for longer hitters (250 to 280 yards from the tee). “We wanted to get the most visually out of each and every bunker,” says Colin Gants, the club’s PGA Head Professional.
Liners in the Sand
There are many ways to build bunkers—but the one thing they all must have to function properly is drainage.
Generally, bunker sand gets contaminated with silt. In time, the silt then tends to plug up the pores in the sand, causing an inability to drain quickly. When bunkers don’t drain, pools of water allow the sediment from outside the bunker, or even beneath it, to contaminate the sand.
To minimize this, erosion-control products—such as bunker liners—are very effective at preventing washouts, especially on steep-faced traps.
Although liner suppliers will often recommend covering the whole bunker, many superintendents have found that installing this material in only the steep areas will prevent the washout on the face. This fabric is not cheap, but it does not take long to recoup the costs of the material through the labor costs that are saved when not having to repair washouts after a rain event.
To address their drainage needs, Riviera and West Seattle took two different approaches—both of which are finding success. Following extensive research and consultation, Riviera chose to go with a thin liner, which saved money—but the coral rock forced some imaginative installation.
West Seattle, though, went with no liner at all, instead choosing to go with sod and fill with sand.
“It’s a safety issue,” Price says. “I almost broke my wrist [swinging a club into] a bunker liner, so it didn’t take long to convince me.”
Finding the Right
To some degree, the sand selected for a bunker renovation project is a function of budget, as well as the nature of the course itself.
When deciding which sand was best for Riviera, von Hofen built test bunkers with four types of sand and offered his members an opportunity to provide feedback.
“We are very lucky with our location in Florida and the different types of sand we have at our fingertips,” he notes. “I wanted to test one that was fine, one that was angular, and one that was a mix of the two, as well as the existing sand.”
Each one of these sands drained differently, had a different shade of white, and a different pentrometer reading, which measures the resistance to producing a buried, “fried egg” lie. The higher the number on the pentrometer, the less chance a golf ball will plug into the sand and become unplayable.
Next, von Hofen looked at the shipping costs for the various varieties from three different areas of Florida. Each sand came from a different mine and was processed differently. The angular was the most expensive, because of how it was processed. “Price-per-ton was shocking,” says von Hofen. “We eventually selected a sand in the mid-range, and the members are thrilled.”
Riviera also saved $30,000 by stockpiling the original sand removed from the bunkers, ultimately using it to topdress the fairways.
West Seattle’s Price, who says his course pushes through approximately 65,000 rounds each year, chose a grainy sand—a mixture of three different-sized particles. “The players love the sand and addition of the bunkers,” he says. “We have selected beautiful white sand that is an industry premium in terms of playability, consistency and quality.”
If You Build It…
According to von Hofen, the $325,000 bunker project was the best and most effective way to change the look and playability of Riviera. “The views from every tee box have changed so much that each time you are teeing off, you stop and your eye is drawn to the sand and shapes in front of you,” he says.
Riviera remained open for play during the 52-day project, with play only restricted on the hole that was being worked on at that time. “That was a small price to pay for such a great finished product that members and guests love,” von Hofen notes.
West Seattle took eight months to complete its bunker renovation, but the feedback has been extremely positive.
“These are tough times,” Price notes. “We have to deliver a great product to each customer. There are no ‘gimmes’ in this industry any more.”