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Sandy Lye asks, 'What is the best number of sand bunkers to use?'

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


A golfer in a bunker thinks I used "one too many."

While it seems like deciding how many, where and what kind of bunkers to use is an intuitive process, there really is a logical thought process similar to buying a house.

First, I decide the big-picture issues such as what town to live in, and then consider neighborhoods, house type and price. Then, I choose among floor plans, and details that can be changed, like paint colors. For bunkers, the big picture is the course type, or construction and maintenance budgets, which often set an informal "target" number of bunkers.

For golf factories (learning, beginners or high-volume courses), that target might be zero (or one, if it's located in the practice area) up to about 27 bunkers, or about 1 to 1.5 bunkers per hole, which can easily be machine-raked in a half a day, without being a strain on limited resources.

For better public courses, 27 to 45 bunkers is usually enough to suggest quality (as only traditional bunkers can) and provide a good test of golf while not overly taxing maintenance crews or slowing play.

High-end public courses and clubs can usually have 54 to 72 bunkers, and sometimes more, and fit within their maintenance and golf quality goals.

Some courses have been littered with more than 100 bunkers, but I don't think many of those are great. They are long slogs for most golfers, and nearly every hole must be a sea of sand, with no sparely bunkered holes for play relief or visual variety. Overly bunkered holes often hide the targets, leaving golfers focusing on hazards, which is both scary and a bad visual composition.

"Too much of a good thing" applies to bunkering, given their current maintenance levels. So, within those generalized total bunker parameters, I minimize bunkers in deference to the superintendent's future budget. It's typical that a few holes have natural features and need no bunkers, and a few others have little natural interest, and absolutely require several bunkers. After these holes are identified and designed, I design all the "in-between" holes accordingly.

Golf courses rarely suffer from having too few bunkers if designed within the parameters above. In fact, mixing sand bunkers with various forms of water, trees, and grass hazards, like chocolate-drop mounds, flanking mounds, grass hollows and swales, grass bunkers, steep grass banks and even fairways with cross or rolling slopes, or greens with fairway chipping areas create more interest.

While water and O.B. are certainly harder than sand on everyone, grass hazards are generally harder for better players, and easier on average ones, suggesting we should often use them in place of sand in the average golfer's high-play zones - i.e., short right of greens, and fairway landing areas. Moreover, grass hazards can change like chameleons - mowed to reasonable heights for daily play, and with raised cutting heights achieved in just a few weeks for tournament days, whereas sand is always sand!

Since golfers instinctively play away from sand, using different hazards creates a "Catch 22." Sand bunkers are true stop signs, clearly delineating where not to play. Less visually dominant grass hazards may increase temptation, inadvertently challenging golfers to take routes not within their capabilities rather than shy away from them.

I rarely include bunkers that can't be readily seen (once sand is paid for, golfers ought to see it!) or don't serve multiple functions, like adding safety or separation, directional help, or keeping shots from reaching worse hazards or out-of-bounds beyond the hazard. As golf moves away from the seaside roots, it's easy to see why the number and style of bunkers have changed to make golf courses better in other locations.

Jeffrey D. Brauer and his firm, GolfScapes, have designed 45 golf courses and remodeled 90. Among his works are back to back Golf Digest "Best New" Winners - the Quarry at Giant's Ridge (2004) and Wilderness at Fortune Bay (2005). He has placed other designs on the Best New lists, including the Legend at Giants Ridge, Canterberry Golf Course in Parker, Colo., The Legacy, in Norwalk, Iowa, Avocet Course at Wild Wing Plantation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Indian Creek (Creek) in Carrollton, Texas. Zagat's has recognized Cowboys Golf Club in Grapevine, Texas, as the best new course of 2001, while Golf week recognized Colbert Hills Golf Club at Kansas and the Wilderness at Fortune Bay as the best public courses in their states. Golf Magazine recently named Sand Creek Station, in Newton, Kans., as one of the best new public courses for 2006. Jeff served as president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects during its 50th anniversary year in 1995-96.