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Sand Bunkers…

The British poet, Robert W. Service, wrote, “It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.”

There is no record indicating that Service, a 19th century scholar, was also a golfer, but knowing he was raised in Scotland and a graduate of the University of Glasgow, you can’t help but wonder if the persistent grain of sand in his shoe could have originated in one of Scotland’s famed and treacherous pot bunkers.

According to ESPN Magazine, Gordon Moir, Director of Greenkeeping, On Course Management and Tournaments at St. Andrews, surmises that sand bunkers, as part of the golf course landscape, developed not by plan, but by the burrowing of sheep hiding behind the dunes, seeking shelter from relentless winds off the North Sea.

Although we no longer refer to bunkers as “sand traps,” whether they are the mountain ahead or the grain of sand in your shoe, sand bunkers still ensnare both the patience of golfers and the time and energy of golf course maintenance crews.

Bunker Deterioration

Over time, erosion and maintenance practices change a sand bunker, causing the sand to breakdown and the bunker potentially to lose its intended shape. Sand can become contaminated, and drainage issues can develop leaving your course with bunkers that are as frustrating to you and your staff as they are to the golfers who battle them.

Because players hitting out of a bunker are typically hitting toward the fairway (or in the case of greenside bunkers, toward the green), sand from the bunker tends to be “blasted” directionally toward the hole. The quantity of this sand can be appreciable.

If the particles of sand leaving the bunker are substantially larger than the rootzone mixture of the adjacent soil, they can alter the elevation of the green or fairway. As they accumulate on the turf, large particles of displaced sand conceivably contribute to the erosion of the bunker’s edge by routing rain and irrigation water into the bunker. When the bunker sand is markedly finer in particle size than the rootzone mixture, drainage and thatch problems can arise, particularly in greens.

If you can arrange it, talking with the original golf course architect about his or her intended design for each sand bunker on your course can be a good plan. Most hazards, whether they exist by design or default, are purposefully utilized to be part of the playing experience.
At some point in the course design, the course architect considered both how golfers play to avoid bunkers and how they play to get out of them. Golf course architect George Waters explains the process well, saying, “Too many golf courses focus on separating a good shot from a bad one. The real goal should be to separate a good shot from a great one, while allowing the bad shots to eventually find their way home.”

A second way to verify the original contour of a bunker is simply to dig in and around it until you find the old sand that distinguishes the bunkers’ intended form. Most bunker renovations involve digging out the area and then returning it to its planned shape while addressing issues, such as water runoff (into the bunker), drainage (out of the bunker) and your plan to stabilize and support the bunker’s edges and banks during any necessary grow-in period.
As important as each of these issues is when building or renovating your bunker, no consideration is more significant–or elicits more opinions–than does the sand itself.

Selecting Your Sand

According to a comprehensive article in the USGA Greens Section Record, January/February 1998 issue2, golf course superintendents should consider seven factors when choosing sand to build or repair a sand bunker. The seven factors are

Particle size (primarily composed of particles in the 0.25 to 1.00mm range)

Particle shape and penetrometer value (resistance to compression)

Crusting potential (higher crusting rates can mean the need for more frequent raking)

Chemical reaction (pH) and hardness (sand that is too soft may play well at first but tends to degrade over time)

Infiltration rate (sand’s capacity to drain typically declines over time with contamination from surrounding soils increasing its clay content)

Color (When changing your sand color, it can take a surprisingly long time for the two colors to blend.)

Overall playing quality

These seven items were an ideal list for 1998, when Bill Clinton was early in his second term of office as United States President and Tiger Woods, not yet 22 years old, had a year earlier become the youngest winner of the Masters. But as we all recognize, the world was a different place then, and golf was a very different business.

Today, you cannot write the list of considerations for choosing sand for your bunkers without adding one additional item that is so important it probably goes at the head of your list–cost. The price of buying sand today may not stop you in your tracks, but the cost of shipping and delivering it to your golf course might. With mandates to control spending, few golf course superintendents have the luxury to import sand across the country when today’s shipping costs match or exceed the purchase price of the sand.

Mr. Sandman… Please, Please Bring Me a Dream

What do the golfers at your course really want? Chances are they want their sand bunkers to treat them kindly. While generally acknowledging that sand bunkers really are intended to be a hazard area on the course, most golfers do not want bunkers to be overly hazardous. No fried egg lies. No blowing sandstorms. Too often, you will hear golfers long for the bunker sand they encountered on a course they loved playing during their most recent vacation, with little consideration that different conditions and different courses naturally call for different types of sand.

Every golfer has an opinion on which sand is the “right” sand, and some golf course superintendents help manage the expectations of club members during a renovation by building a test bunker, typically in a practice area. This test bunker can feature partitioned areas with various sands so that golfers can compare and contrast hitting off each surface. Leaving the test bunker in place over several months allows golfers to experience firsthand how time, use and weather inevitably change the bunker’s attributes.
In the end, there is no one right answer when it comes to choosing sand for your golf course’s bunkers. As with most things, change is the only constant. Course design changes, bunker styles change, playing equipment changes and, as we have all come to realize, even climates and economies change dramatically.

Choose sand that pleases many of the players at your course and sand that helps you corral the demands and cost of maintenance. For you, the sand in your bunkers should be neither the mountain that looms ahead nor a persistent irritant in your shoe.

1 Sand and Golf, How Terrain Shapes the Game, Waters, George. ©2013 GOFF Books, an imprint of ORO Editions
2“How to Select the best Sand for Your Bunkers,” Moore, James Francis. USGA Green Section Record, January/February 1998.

Linda Parker has been writing professionally since the 1980s. With clients in finance, sports, technology, change enablement, resorts, and nonprofit global initiatives, Linda helps organizations communicate their stories in meaningful ways to the people they most want to reach. She has authored, ghostwritten or contributed to more than a dozen nonfiction books. You can reach her at: linda@glindacreative.com.

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