Banking on Bunkers

If only you could mark those erosion-prone bunkers as ground under repair — maybe that would pacify the golfers.

Dealing with troublesome bunkers is much the same for a superintendent as it is for a golfer. The smart play is to avoid the trouble altogether. There are many approaches that industry veterans use to make an easier task of keeping bunkers playable. Using the right equipment is obviously important, but more subtle factors also come into play, and keeping maintenance costs in line starts on day one.


Golf course architect Ron Cutlip tries to balance the needs of long-term maintenance with the initial costs of designing and building a course. He says the ability to balance the two divergent goals is learned over time. Initially, long-term expenses are not a concern for architectural firms.

“When you're learning to do this from a technical standpoint, you don't think of it,” he says. But that changes as a designer grows and gains experience. An architect should calculate maintenance costs into his design plans, at least if he wants to stay in business, Cutlip says, because word gets around.

Forrest Arthur, construction project leader for The Preserve Club in Carmel, Calif., says architect Tom Fazio worked closely with course personnel. The course, which opened in 2000, was built with ease of maintenance as a priority — one Fazio established.

“That was unique,” Arthur says. “Most architects could care less what you have to do afterward.”

Cutlip takes maintenance issues into account for new designs and redesigns, such as his recent one at High Mountain Golf Club in New York. The improved look and playability of the bunkers boosted revenue from daily fees at the semi-private course. Even when maintenance is factored into a design, the yearly cost is significant. Most courses allocate 10 to 20 percent for bunkers. According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America Web site, maintenance budgets across the United States averaged $584,500 in 2003. With payroll and capital equipment carved out, the average course now spends $261,500 on course maintenance, about $3,000 more than in 2000. These enormous figures leave you looking for ways to keep them in line.


Jim Hubbs, vice president of Stabilizer Solutions in Phoenix, Ariz., has researched and developed products that reduce manpower needs and cost. Courses such as Cypress Point Club and The Preserve Club in California are two of the 70-plus layouts that have used the company's bunker solutions to reduce maintenance time and improve playability. With Hubbs' lining in place, water drains better into any traditional pipe system and the material also keeps the subsoil from percolating up into the sand.

The cost runs about 85 cents to $1 per square foot for the material plus another $1.50 to $1.75 for installation. You put the material into the bunker, literally trowel it off to the contour of the bunker and let it set for a few hours. Then, you compact it down to a layer two inches thick and it's set for 24 hours of curing. Finally, the sand goes in.

The latest product in the line is quicker to install, Hubbs says.

“It's a little more expensive for the material up front but anybody's staff could put it in,” he says. “Say they only have three or four hours to work on a bunker. They can get material in and refill with sand in that time.”

“That is cool stuff,” says Kevin Siring, The Preserve superintendent. “You shovel it down to the bottom and tamp it down and you're done.”

“We spent the last four years perfecting it,” says Hubbs, whose brother Jon is part owner with him. The company invested nearly seven figures on research and development of the newer material, which is polymer-based. It costs $1.50 per square foot for the material and 75 cents to $1 per square foot to install.


With bunker maintenance a significant part of the overall budget for most courses, a slight reduction in expense can help the net score as much as making every 6-footer you face. Jeff Markow, superintendent at Cypress Point Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., calculates that 10 to 20 percent of his maintenance budget goes to bunkers.

The private club designed by Alister Mackenzie is considered one of the top five courses on virtually every list of high-caliber golf in the United States. Markow has a staff of 19 that works on the course and the 104 bunkers are hand-raked daily. He strives to keep the sand clean and removes dirt, debris and pollen periodically.

For playability and ease of maintenance, he uses whatever treatment works best in a bunker, given its slope and depth. Steep faces generally get a fabric liner treatment while flatter areas use the original Stabilizer product.

While most products do what they are designed for, nothing is flawless after eight to 10 years pass. Markow notes that eventually rock from the drainage system tends to wear on liners.

“I never met a liner that hasn't failed,” Markow adds. “Just from mechanical rakes, varmints, whatever.”


While gophers and other vermin may torment superintendents occasionally, they are weak contenders. Weather is the undisputed champion that can knock out a course with its one-two punch of rain and wind.

“We get some incredible amounts of rainfall,” says Arthur about The Preserve Club in Carmel. “It's not uncommon for us to get 3 to 4 inches in a 24-hour period.” At an elevation of 2,000 feet, the course is right in the wheelhouse for big storms that rumble over the California peaks that surround it.

“The raindrops are so big, they hurt,” Arthur quips. The area gets about 27 inches of rainfall a year, he adds, so handling large volumes of water was a key part of the design by Fazio. After a big storm at many courses, Arthur notes, it takes an entire crew to rake bunkers and get them back into playable condition. But in this case, just a couple guys are needed to rake the 49 bunkers covering 80,000 square feet.

Jeff Barnhart, the director of golf for the last nine years at Palmer Golf Course in Palmer, Alaska, says wind is his worst enemy. He maintains a links-style layout with severely sloping greens that see about 28,000 rounds a year. Despite the rugged location of the course, patrons still have high expectations, he notes.

“They want those bunkers manicured just as well as any other part of the course,” Barnhart says. Efforts to keep golfers happy must overcome lots of wind that tends to pick up the fine sand. There are few trees to slow the gales on the course 30 miles from Anchorage.

If the wind isn't blowing the sand out, Barnhart says, moisture keeps it very compacted which adds another dimension to the fight to maintain playability. After battling with sand traps around several pitched greens, he decided to create grass bunkers instead. That wasn't intended as a break for the golfers, though.

“I think they're harder to play out of,” he contends. Removing some bunkers lowered the long-term cost. Barnhart says he now budgets about $3,000 in materials for bunkers a year and $10,000 in labor.

Big rains often cause wash-outs in steep bunkers without liners, says Clive Mills, the Turf Products Marketing Manager for Western Nonwovens, Inc. (WNI). He says the liners his company produces for courses can help save money and manpower that can be critical to the bottom line.

“A lot of golf courses are competing with their neighbors down the road for revenue,” Mills adds. Consistent playability is crucial to retaining customers.

The heaviest liner supplied by WNI is an inch thick and runs about 50 cents per square foot. The ½-inch-thick mat runs 28 to 35 cents. Both cost about 30 cents per square foot to install. Mills says he examines several areas surrounding sand selection and bunker construction when working with a new course. The liner has to be selected based on the subsoil and drainage. He works with the architect to weigh all factors together for the best solution possible.

If erosion is a problem at your course, it could be turned into a blessing.

“Bunker renovations can be a bonus for a super because then you get your wish list for equipment,” Cutlip offers.


While long-term savings are possible with the specialized products some courses use, significant costs for a renovation are still a concern for many. Cutlip offers an alternative.

“Everybody can get affordable sod, grow it in the bunker, kill it … then put sand in,” says Cutlip. As a strong defense against erosion, he often puts 1- × 3-foot chambers wrapped in fabric around the drainage system to contain excess water when the water table is high. The water doesn't stand in the bunker but is held underneath until it can drain away naturally.

While the hard work that goes into keeping the sand in your traps smooth and flawless is admirable, Cutlip says there is one fact to keep in mind.

“Bunkers were never intended to be 100 percent perfect all of the time,” he cautions. So consider it natural to have a little character in them. Bunkers reflect whatever's been going on, whether it's heavy downpours or windswept days. “It's a hazard.”

Michael Coleman is a freelance writer who resides in Olathe, Kan.

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