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Golf Course Architects, Builders, and Superintendents are “Triad” for Successful Bunkers

Maintenance friendly edges are key to the design of Better Billy Bunkers
Maintenance-friendly edges are key to the design of Better Billy Bunkers.

Golf course bunker repairs and renovations can be costly and time-consuming. Just ask golf course architect Mark Mungeam.

“Increases in material, labor, and turf equipment are just part of the reason for higher costs to renovate bunkers. There is also the demand for better-conditioned and more elaborate features. Bunker sands are being imported from hundreds of miles away. Most bunker renovations now include the installation of bunker liners. The amount of available projects has also increased over the past few years, which allows contractors to charge a little more. All these factors have added cost to the work.”

In 2015, RiverTowne Country Club in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina began a project of re-doing greenside bunkers at the course. Soil intrusion had clogged drains and degraded the consistency of the sand in the bunkers. Over 30 bunkers were eventually renovated with Better Billy Bunkers or eliminated completely.

The renovation took about five months and the golf country club used its own grounds staff to prepare the bunkers up to the point where four inches of gravel was laid out on top of the bunker’s floor and drainage lines, explained Peter Dunham, Director of Golf. “At that point, a Better Billy Bunker specialist came in to spray the porous polymer which holds the gravel in place and allows water to drain quickly and properly through the sand, keeping the sand on the faces of the bunkers from ‘washing out’. Our crew then added new sand into the bunkers.”

Fairway bunkers, before renovation, as seen from the tee box on the fifth hole at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Arizona.
Fairway bunkers, before the renovation, as seen from the tee box on the fifth hole at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Arizona.

Golf course management at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Arizona undertook a massive bunker renovation/redesign in 2014. The quality of the bunkers from the original golf course construction in 2000 had deteriorated, partially because of a decision to use old drainage technology and no liners, and “playability” from them had fallen off significantly by 2013, said Brady Wilson, General Manager. “We renovated 112 bunkers at the course and the work took most of the summer (our off-season) from May to September. We did restrict work to one nine-hole side at a time, so we always had nine holes open for our golfers.”

Ak-Chin South Dunes used its own maintenance team to clear all drainage on the course and perform other projects related to improving irrigation, drainage, and turf conditions said, Wilson. “We contracted with a golf course construction company to outsource the work related to the bunker renovation and redesign.”

Renovated fairway bunkers as seen from the tee box on the fifth hole at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Arizona.
Renovated fairway bunkers as seen from the tee box on the fifth hole at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Arizona.

Wilson said the project paid immense dividends, “Course playability became much better and more enjoyable for our guests, even if they did hit it in one of our 112 bunkers.”

According to Mungeam, bunker renovations should take place when they no longer drain well, when the sand becomes contaminated, when the grass around the bunker is weak and patchy or when they have lost their original shape. “The golf course superintendent should periodically review the features and alert golf course management to these issues.”

It’s a mixed bag as to when to use in-house staff for the work or bring an outside company. “Many courses renovate bunkers in-house. Some do a great job, some not so much. I’m an adviser to several golf country clubs that do this work in-house. Tim Hood at Needham Golf Club and Kevin Richardson at Bear Hill Golf Club (both in Massachusetts) do a great job with their in-house bunker renovations. The key piece of turf equipment is a mini-excavator. No club should attempt an in-house bunker renovation without one.”

Capillary Bunkers has worked on over 800 courses worldwide. The company provides a liner to control moisture and preventing bunker sand washout and contamination from edges and subsoils.

Max Odqvist, vice president of Capillary Bunkers, said the firm’s “overall scope” is new golf course construction and existing golf course renovation projects that include shaping, drainage, bunker liner installation/replacement, sodding and finishing work. “Capillary Bunkers provides a patented liner to control moisture preventing bunker sand washout and contamination from edges and subsoils. We provide the homogeneously blended liners with the actual golf construction work performed in-house by the golf course maintenance staff or a qualified golf construction company.”

A poorly-draining golf course bunker before renovation
A poorly-draining golf course bunker before renovation

Odqvist explained that Capillary Bunkers are mixed by a qualified concrete company to the company’s specifications and delivered on-site in a mixing truck. This material is transported to the bunker site utilizing a smaller vehicle so as to not damage the infrastructure of the course. The installation team spreads the concrete using hand tools or a smaller excavator.

“All projects are site-specific and pose their own variables,” said Odqvist. “The Capillary Bunker material costs an average of $1.75 a square foot. Prep and finishing work costs are variable based upon the scope and condition of the bunkers.”

As did golf course management at RiverTowne Country Club, a number of clubs have turned to Better Billy Bunker when renovating their bunkers. In fact, according to the company, more than 1,000 golf courses across North America have used the method to construct bunkers.

The primary features of a Better Billy Bunker specification are a two-inch gravel layer applied over the bunker floor, and a herringbone tile system capped with a geotextile liner. The gravel serves as a conduit for water to transfer down the bunker floor slopes into the tile pipe system, thus greatly reducing and/or eliminating sand movement, the company says. The liner secures the gravel blanket and prevents native soils underneath from contaminating the preferred bunker sand that was installed over the liner. The firm claims its method has reduced manpower requirements for work in bunkers following rainstorms by 80 percent or more.

Reducing bunker size can be a smart move for a golf club.
Reducing bunker size can be a smart move for a golf club.

Better Billy Bunker president Jerry Lemons, who is also a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said there are “various reasons” golf course clubs renovate their bunkers, including getting rid of bunkers that are no longer in play due to the players hitting the ball farther off the tee. “Often, fairway bunkers need to be moved forward 50 to 60 yards to be relevant, but it is a difficult task to place fairway bunkers exactly in the spot to impact all golfers. I tend to target the better players and make sure the higher handicappers are impacted the least. And, many courses redo bunkers to get a new face for their course. New bunkers can make an old tired course look impressive.”

First and foremost, said Lemons, clubs should hire an “experienced, competent” golf course architect when considering a bunker project. “A plan is key to doing things right and not messing up the course’s good features or architecture. Use good sand. Yes, locally sourced sand might be cheaper but spending good money and not having complaints about the sand’s playability is better than being cheap.”

“Drainage, drainage, drainage”, said Lemons when what considerations top the list when renovating/repairing bunkers. “Divert all water away from the bunkers, drain the floor of the bunkers fast, and have an exit point for the water to get out quickly. And, there are limits in how steep you can build a bunker and have success. Your architect will help with this latter factor.”

“In-house projects” look good on paper and sound good in the board room, Lemons opined, but they often steal staff away from maintaining the course on a daily basis. “Doing it in-house might save three percent on the total project cost but is it worth it to let other routine maintenance suffer? A competent golf course builder will do it faster with the right equipment. Yes, you may pay a little more, but then again, it will be closer to a wash when it is all said and done.”

Repairing a single bunker can be done with works with shovels in their hands, but having a mini-excavator with a rotating bucket, and dump trailers would be “a minimum” for work to be done properly on a larger scale. Said Lemons, “Equipment does the job much faster. If the crew is not experienced in operations of this equipment, the learning curve can be steep.”

Work crews install the liner for a Better Billy Bunker.
Work crews install the liner for a Better Billy Bunker.

Lemons advises golf course management to hire an architect for significant bunker renovations or repairs. “You wouldn’t go to a doctor who had never been trained to do surgery, would you? Let the experts do what they are good at, an architect will save you money in the long run by doing what is right for the course. Many architects are removing more sand today than adding, and that does save you in the renovation process.”

He concluded, “The right architect, the right builder, and a great golf course superintendent is the triad of a successful bunker renovation project.”

John Torsiello, an award-winning journalist, writes for a number of national, regional, and local publications including the Golf Course Trades. He resides in Connecticut and part-time in South Carolina.

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