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Ulysses Hazard asks, 'Why are there fewer bunkers now than I see in old photos of golf courses?'
Generally, bunkering has been greatly reduced over the years to cut cost. Most highly bunkered courses started removing them in the depths of the Depression. For those that didn't, the gas rationing of World War II started the process. Beyond that, every economic recession, along with the general need to accelerate play, has made the latter half of the 20th century the "bunker-removal" era.
However, Augusta National - opened during the Depression, but probably for philosophical reasons - started a trend towards using as few bunkers as possible. Prior to that, Oakmont and Pine Valley were probably the most influential championship courses in American golf, and each was heavily bunkered. Augusta National showed that a course with fewer bunkers could also be challenging by using demanding green contours (and, during tournament week, higher green speeds) and by placing bunkers only where the best players would find them in play.
The general theory is that if a player has hit a short tee shot - whether by general talent or by miss - getting to the green in three rather than two is penalty enough, so why add to the punishment? Conversely, good players rarely miss shots badly, and never find bunkers located well off the expected landing areas.
Placing bunkers "strategically" only where they affect the best players provides side benefits of an easier "day-to-day" course, better speed of membership play and less maintenance, especially now that bunker maintenance is such a large part of a superintendent's budget. Since opening, Augusta National has set the basic thinking on the total number of bunkers and general placements for courses to this day.
In the 1990s, golf course architects again began using more bunkers, finding that our "TV generation" needed more visual stimulation, either as golfers, adjacent home buyers, or even magazine readers. And a course that photographs well became almost a necessity.
A few golf course architects questioned the basic philosophy of challenging only the better players, perhaps reasoning that all players pay the same amount to play, so all should have the "joy" of finding bunkers more equally!
Then, the downturn year of 2000 (in both money and numbers of golfers) started a new cycle of bunker reductions, after a decade of building high-cost and high-maintenance courses during the boom.
I have helped a few of my newer courses remove bunkers in the name of cost reductions. Of course, the trend to (in my eyes) excessive bunker maintenance accelerates the need for this, as bunkers take far more of superintendents' resources than their percentage of golf course acreage would suggest.
Nonetheless, being familiar with the history of bunker reductions gives me pause about casually placing them, since I would like them to last! As attractive as bunkers are, I build fewer now than a decade ago. Few courses can afford numerous and/or random bunkers built purely for aesthetics. Thus, I build bunkers that serve multiple purposes, like strategy, artistry, safety, "save" bunkers, directional, and even drainage, or environmental protection.
Jeffrey D. Brauer and his firm, Golf Scapes, have designed 40 golf courses and remodeled 80. Canterberry Golf Course in Parker, Colo., and Giants Ridge are rated among the best affordable public courses in the U.S., while his Avocet Course at Wild Wing Plantation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was a Golf Digest best new course winner, Champions Country Club is rated 5th in Nebraska and TangleRidge Golf Club is 12th in Texas. President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects during its 50th anniversary year in 1995-96, Brauer also designed Colbert Hills Golf Club at Kansas State, which opened in June 2000 as the cornerstone golf course for The First Tee program as well as the first collaboration between the PGA of America and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
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