How to: Renovate a sand bunker

Sooner or later, every golf course and its superintendent faces rebuilding or renovating its sand bunkers. When this time comes, course management should consider whether its existing bunkers are still doing the job the architect intended. With new technology in club and ball design, some fairway bunkers do not really come into play any longer. Therefore, these elements are not a challenge to lower-handicapped players, and they penalize higher-handicapped players.

Let's look at each step involved in renovating a bunker.

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Step 1: Determine the reason for renovation.

On any course, you'll eventually need to renovate all your sand bunkers, although the reasons for renovation may vary from one hole to another. For example:

  • Sand may be contaminated
  • Edges may be deteriorated
  • Construction may be poor
  • Drainage may be lacking.

In many cases, one or two of these problems may be incorporated with one or two of the others. So you typically don't have just one problem with which to deal.

Old-style sand-bunker designs incorporate a relatively flat base with sloping grass banks extending down to the sand. These bunkers are easy to maintain and typically have few problems if you've installed adequate drainage.

In newer bunkers, however, the traps are shallow and elevated for easier visibility. Sand is flashed up the bank, which can create erosion problems. Erosion, in turn, leads to sand contamination and washouts that require hand labor to shovel sand back on the bunker's face after heavy or prolonged rainfall. In some parts of the country, such repairs can become a large expense and reduce the life span of bunker sand. This is especially true of poorly constructed bunkers.

Step 2: Contact the original architect.

Before you consider any major bunker relocations or renovations, make sure you involve the original architect, if possible. Bunkers influence playability, as well as overall interest in and the mood of a golf hole. Few superintendents possess the same artistic ability as the architect who designed the original bunker.

A good architect provides a great amount of consideration in determining the proper location of bunkers to equally challenge all players. Bunker placement can set up a hole to provide penal, strategic or heroic measures. Make sure your course has not become outdated in bunker placement before renovations occur.

Step 3: Remove the sand.

Remove and discard all old sand or use it on other areas of the course. Sand that is contaminated with organic matter, soil or other large particles has no place in sand bunkers.

Step 4: Identify the original bunker edge.

This can be a challenge on some older courses. The original shape of the bunker can be several feet away from the existing edge. You can identify the old, original sand--which will follow the original contour of the bunker--by probing or digging. One superintendent told me he found some of his green-side bunkers were 10 to 12 feet off of the original bunker design. Of course, such differences have a great influence on the way golfers play the hole.

Step 5: Dig out the original shape.

Once you've established the original shape of the bunker, use a mechanical loader, such as a skid-steer loader, to dig the bunker back to the original shape.

If the bunker is a green-side bunker and you don't have to remove much edge, it's likely that sand has accumulated on the green from sand shots blasted toward the cup. Several feet of sand can accumulate in this area given enough time. If this is the case on one of your bunkers, you'll have to take that section of the green down to its original level. In doing so, you'll solve several other problems on the green that you may not have attributed to your bunker's deterioration. For example, this buildup of sand typically causes the bunker's lip to gradually deteriorate. Plus, it causes turf to thin out in this area due to the droughty conditions the sand creates. Thus, to solve the problems, you must take the accumulated sand down to the original soil level. You'll need to first remove the sod, then remove the sand and then replace the sod.

Admittedly, removing a significant layer of the sand may give a very different look to the hole--one to which some golfers may object. So you should give some careful thought to this area's renovation. You may even need to add soil before you relay the sod. (You can avoid future sand buildup around green-side bunkers by resodding every 3 to 5 years. Simply remove the old sod with the sand accumulation and replace it with new sod.)

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