Bunker maintenance can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive task for golf course maintenance staffs—but new innovations in bunker construction are helping grounds crews save time and cut costs.
Golfers typically react to bunkers in one of two ways. Some grudgingly accept the fact that they have hit their ball into a hazard and need to take their punishment. Others, however, silently (or not) curse the architect who placed the bunker in such a location, and grumble that it’s unfair. It falls to the golf course superintendent to satisfy both constituencies, which can be a tricky proposition.
|SUMMING IT UP
“The perception of bunkers has evolved over the past several years,” notes Jeff Holliday, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Salisbury Country Club in Midlothian, Va., and President of the Virginia Golf Course Superintendents Association.
While some golfers prefer firm bunkers and others like fluffy sand, he says the main thing people expect from the hazards is consistency. “And they don’t want a fried-egg lie,” he adds.
Patrick Knelly, Golf Course Superintendent of Sugarloaf (Pa.) Golf Club, thinks bunkers are integral components of a well-designed golf hole—but as hazards, they are designed to penalize errant shots. While bunkers should be fair, he believes, part of the penalty for golfers is not knowing how their balls will react when they hit from their lie.
“It’s our job to maintain them so there is a fair chance of recovery, but no guarantee of a quality lie,” reports Knelly. “We’ve had discussions with players about it, and we try to find a happy medium.”
To reach that acceptable middle ground, golf course maintenance staffs are devoting more time, money and energy to the upkeep of their bunkers, trying to balance fair playing conditions for golfers with the available labor and equipment of the maintenance staff.
Bob Rogers, CGCS, Golf Course Superintendent at Big Spring Country Club in Louisville, Ky., says bunker maintenance has done a “complete flip-flop” in his 36-year career. Televised golf tournaments at upscale venues have changed golfers’ expectations, so raking bunkers has changed from an optional daily task to a job that must be performed every day. “Bunker maintenance is now probably one of the most tedious jobs we do,” Rogers says. “We spend more time in the traps than we do on the greens.”
Big Spring has 57 bunkers on 18 holes, and Rogers says his grounds crew spends an average of 96 man-hours a week maintaining them.
At Sugarloaf, Knelly says he spends $20,000 to $25,000, or 10 to 15 percent of his budget, on annual bunker maintenance. Most of the bunkers at his course, a number of which have been renovated over the last seven years, are small, and the staff spends 10 to 12 total man-hours a week maintaining them. The grounds crew tends to the renovated bunkers about four hours a week, and the staff spends six or seven hours per week on the original bunkers.
At Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., the course maintenance staff spends about 100 labor hours a week on bunker maintenance, where crew members maintain 4.2 acres of sand in 102 bunkers on 18 holes.
“Our bunkers are enormous,” notes Golf Course Superintendent Jeffrey Scott. “The average in the Tri-State [New York/New Jersey/Connecticut] area is half of what we have.”
In fact, one of the bunkers on No. 17 has been dubbed “Big Bertha” because of its depth: 35 feet from the level of the putting surface. “It’s all about size at Tamarack,” Scott says.
Under its master plan that was completed five years ago, Tamarack added 20 new fairways bunkers to the course to keep up with modern play (the club’s greenside bunkers were updated about 15 years ago).
“[Golf equipment] technology demanded that we make the course play a little differently,” says Scott. “It makes the player think differently off the tee.”
New and Improved
Time, contamination from rocks and silt, and the natural aging process can cause bunkers to deteriorate. But superintendents can fight back with new, updated bunker construction innovations.
Big Spring CC is in the third year of a four-year, in-house bunker renovation project. The crew, which is rebuilding the bunkers with new technology during the off-season, completes about 12 or 13 bunkers a year. The property features large bunkers that average 2,500 sq. ft. in size, and the new bunkers have 4 inches of compacted sand throughout the hazards. Rogers says the renovation project will total about $500,000 upon completion.
“The sand traps were such a high-maintenance situation, and we have very large bunkers,” says Rogers of the decision to renovate the bunkers. “The drainage was failing because of silt contamination.”
The new bunkers include a polymer-treated gravel layer underneath the sand to maximize drainage, and Rogers says the new bunkers do not wash out after heavy rains. “It has saved us countless hours of labor, and the bunkers are as good as the day we finished them,” he notes. “Before the renovation, I would have to send the entire crew of 20 out after a large rain event, and it would take approximately eight hours to make [the bunkers] playable again. Now, it only requires two people.”
Salisbury CC completed a three-month, $400,000 bunker renovation project on its 27-hole golf course in December. The property renovated the bunkers to improve their condition, consistency and overall appearance. And the new bunkers, which also feature polymer-treated gravel layers, have greatly reduced the amount of time that the Salisbury staff spends on bunker maintenance.
“Before the renovation, we spent about 20 percent of our time on bunker maintenance,” reports Holliday. “Now they take about 5 percent of our time.”
Salisbury has 97 bunkers, and the property made several modifications to its bunkers during the renovation project as well. The size of some of the bunkers was reduced, and at least three bunkers that were not in play were eliminated. “We took out about 15,000 sq. ft. of bunkers,” Holliday reports.
In response to members’ concerns, Salisbury CC also raised the floors of its bunkers by 4 inches.
Sugarloaf has renovated 31 of the 54 bunkers on its 18-hole property with an in-house project, at a cost of about $2,800 per bunker. In 2007, the staff started a total rebuild of the back-nine bunkers, to restore them to their original 1967 design. The crew excavated all of the bunkers and reshaped the lips by hand. When the Sugarloaf staff members reshaped the bunkers, they divided some of the larger bunkers into smaller hazards, so they would drain properly.
New sand, sod, and complete internal drainage were added to Sugarloaf’s bunkers on holes 10, 11, 15, 17, and 18, and the greenside bunkers on No. 16 were completely reconstructed. While the architecture of these bunkers was altered, the original intent of the hazards was maintained. The rocky, dirty sand was removed, the turf was stripped away, and new drainage was put in place.
The original shaping and edging of the previously renovated bunkers remained in place, but the bunkering on No. 16 still required changes. The severe slope on the front bunker caused massive amounts of sand movement during rain events, which led to constant hand repairs and poor conditions.
The sand in the right bunker had migrated out of the bunker and toward the green because of poor base grading. No major grade changes were made during the reconstruction, however, so the hole maintained its original intention strategically.
“The biggest issue for us was drainage,” says Knelly. “The original architecture had degraded.”
Staffing and budgetary constraints have prevented the family-owned property from completely rebuilding the bunkers on the front nine, but the crew added about 150 tons of sand to the bunkers on holes two through 9 in July of 2011. The bunkers, some of which had only an inch of sand in them, were refilled to depths of four or five inches. Staff members removed the original sand, along with the small rocks that had contaminated the bunkers, and added drainage lines as well as some sump-style drainage basins. The new sand was compacted and raked to make it firm and playable, and the added sand also allowed the bunkers to drain much more quickly, particularly following afternoon thunderstorms.
Raking In Benefits
To maintain top playing conditions in bunkers, maintenance staffs must rake, edge, control weeds, and see that all bunkers drain properly. Heavy rains also can cause washouts that require labor-intensive efforts to restore bunkers to proper playing conditions.
At Big Spring, the grounds crew machine-rakes the bottom of the bunkers and hand-rakes the edges each day. The staff also edges the bunkers weekly.
“We have steep, zoysia-faced bunkers, so we have to fly-mow those faces weekly,” reports Rogers.
Coming out of the winter season, the staff at Tamarack CC edges the bunkers, checks the drainage, and adds or moves sand to redistribute it equally.
Uniform sand depth is vital to the consistent conditions that golfers expect, notes Scott. “Our biggest challenge is keeping the greens-surround grass cut in relation to the deepness of the bunkers,” he reports. “It’s more about how to keep the grass around it cut because of the steep banks.”
The Tamarack crew members also remove grass, weeds, rocks, and other debris from the bunkers, and use mechanical rakes on the bunkers five times a week.
“We don’t hand-rake because we need to keep the sand somewhat fluffy,” Scott explains. “If it’s not fluffed with mechanical rakes, the sand will get too firm and then the ball will just sit there.”
At Salisbury CC, the staff packs the bunkers to make them firm once every two weeks, and the crew hand-rakes the bunkers and checks the sand depth twice a week. The staff keeps four inches of sand on the bottoms of the bunkers and two inches on the faces.
“Bunker maintenance has been a nonfactor since the renovation,” Holliday reports. However, he adds, “We can’t rake them with a mechanical rake, because we don’t want to disturb the gravel layer under the sand.”
Before the renovation, he reveals, the Salisbury grounds crew would spend two days repairing bunkers after a rainstorm.
“Now we can use those hours a little bit better,” notes Holliday. “We can send the staff home and save labor hours until the golf course dries out. It has made our maintenance staff more productive.”
At Sugarloaf, the staff hand- and machine-rakes bunkers three or four days a week, but the crew might skip raking the bunkers some days if staffing or weather don’t allow for it.
“Sand washing is labor-intensive repair,” Knelly says. “If we have a downpour, we’ll be in the bunkers the whole next day.”
However, he adds, the new bunkers do not wash out or fill with water, and one or two employees can maintain them after a rainstorm.
“Customer expectations are the biggest challenge,” says Knelly. “I’m a golfer myself. I try to keep an eye on conditions. It’s part of our day-to-day plan.”
Color and Consistency
Superintendents must also select sand for their bunkers with care. They can extend the life of their sand—and reduce maintenance costs—by reducing contamination from rock and silt.
Angular sands have flat sides, which interlock with those of other particles to establish stability and provide firm footing for a good golf swing. They are also more resistant to excessive washing from bunker slopes resulting from irrigation or rain, and they minimize fried-egg lies.
The white sand in Big Spring’s bunkers is a mixture of angular and calcareous, and Rogers says sand selection was based on color and the ability to prevent buried lies. “They’re consistent from one trap to the next,” he notes. “When golfers get in them, they know what they have.”
Sugarloaf also has angular sand, which was purchased locally, in its bunkers. The property conducted physical testing on it beforehand, Knelly reveals, and it has performed well.
Salisbury used a local, white sand to fill its renovated bunkers. The color of the sand was selected for aesthetic purposes. In addition, Holliday says, “The particle size was important so it would match what we had on the greens. If someone splashes sand on the greens, it’s like we’re top-dressing them.”
Despite a superintendent’s best efforts, golfers still can take issue with bunker lies. “The solution to the ‘problem’ is to not put [a ball] there in the first place,” Knelly jokes. But he adds that the bunker renovation project has been a good public relations effort for Sugarloaf, and he believes that maintenance efforts put into bunkers have value, because of how they bring architectural interest and challenge to the game.
The bunker renovation at Salisbury CC has been a winning proposition for everyone involved, Holliday reports. “It’s made our life easier and made our members happy,” he says.
Nevertheless, golf courses have their limits when it comes to minimizing the pain of hitting into a bunker.
“We’ve tried to do everything as golfer-friendly as we could,” notes Rogers. “[But] they haven’t designed a bunker to compensate for skill level yet.”