Saturday, April 14, 2012

'Waste bunkers' no more.

This massive 'waste bunker', running the length of the 16th fairway
at Harbour Town, wasn't always this well-manicured.
The term 'waste bunker' came about in the late 1960s during construction of Harbour Town Golf Links, where the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage tournament is being contested this week. "I'm not certain whether I or a member of the construction crew coined the phrase," course architect Pete Dye writes in his book Bury Me in a Pot Bunker.

"During construction, I was checking the course one day and spotted the local sewer patrol fighting a losing battle with a broken pipe near Harbour Town's border," Dye continues. "With raw sewage about to pour over the area, I suggested the workers pump it into a long, narrow depression that was to be used for a bunker. As the waste water filled the bunker, somehow the term waste bunker was born, and it has been used to designate such areas ever since."

This is an interesting piece of golf history. But, like other Pete Dye stories, I wonder if it's altogether true. Dye originally designed his 'waste bunkers' - at Harbour Town first then later TPC Sawgrass, and elsewhere - to be rough, rugged, unkempt, sandy areas that weren't raked, sometimes filled with gnarly clumps of grasses, and played through the green. When Harbour Town and Sawgrass originally opened for play (in 1969 and '83-ish, respectively), you could ground your club in Dye's 'waste bunkers'. So, the raw sewage story aside, 'waste bunker' still seems very appropriate to describe these sandy, unkempt areas that were literally designed be wastelands of sorts.

Regardless, Dye's original vision for those so-called 'waste bunkers' has disappeared at Harbour Town and Sawgrass - where The Players will tee off in a few weeks. Basically, the PGA Tour decided it would be more appropriate for tournament play to clean-up those 'waste bunkers', rake 'em and simply play 'em as bunkers according to the Rules of Golf.

You'd be amazed to see photos of Harbour Town and Sawgrass in their early days. Both courses were much more rough-hewn before the Tour mandated comparatively meticulous maintenance. I was fortunate to get a look at some very early photos of Sawgrass during a visit to  Bobby Weed's office a few years ago. Based in Ponte Vedra, Florida (where Sawgrass is located), Weed's now a successful golf course architect in his own right. Back in the early 1980s he was working for Dye. Weed worked on the construction of Sawgrass and, for a stint, was the course's superintendent. In these old photos, Sawgrass is almost unrecognizable. The course's aesthetic transformation is basically the equivilant of turning Pine Valley into Augusta National; ironically, Dye originally designed Sawgrass to the the anti-thesis of Augusta.

Harbour Town's look has changed over the years as well, but thankfully these aesthetic transformations have not altered the fundamental brilliance of two of the game's most revolutionary golf course designs.


  1. Good stuff Jeff. As a superintendent who embraces the idea of rough around the edges I think the way these two courses have changed is one of the many reasons golf is where it is today. For many years maintenance perfection as the norm was just fine, but this is no longer the case and now course who maintained to perfection are unwilling to go back to rough around the edges for fear they will lose their patrons. It is a very unfortunate situation we are in as an industry.

  2. Very well said, Chris.

    I should have mentioned, too, that (I'm pretty sure) one of the reasons Pete Dye originally left the outside edges at Sawgrass scruffy was to reduce required maintenance, along with associated cost and output - that was over 30 years ago!

    Golf course maintenance does indeed need to be reduced. Golf has been enjoyed for hundreds and hundreds of years with golf course conditioning nowhere near where too many courses are today. If we cut back on fertilzing and watering rough areas and rake bunkers less frequently (etc), golfers are still going to show up.

    It's all about more and more education, right. Golfers simply need to better understand why this needs to happen. And that it's not a big deal.

    1. So here is what I don't understand about the management of roughs. What golfer enjoys thick rough? I can answer that; none of them do. It makes for an awful experience. We have no irrigation in our roughs and we make no attempt to water them. We fertilized the roughs my second year here but have not done so since and have no plans to do so in the future. The rough is a bit rough. There are fine fescues, colonial bents, creeping bents, moss, wild strawberries and many more cool plants in our rough. Usually you get a good lie, sometimes you don't and we spend the minimum maintain it so that our concentration can be on the fine playing surfaces.

      One comment we often here from golfers is "we love the rough because it isn't hard to find a ball or play from." Trust me the demand for highly manicured rough is not coming from the golfers.

  3. Your rough management (or non-management?) sounds ideal, Chris. Great stuff.

    In my experience, I find more golfers complain about the condition of the rough areas when the fairway mow patterns are out of whack. I think establishing the correct fairway patterns (which is different in every situation) and adequate/appropriate width - which many courses lack - provides a lot of latitude to let the roughs go, the way you do at Northland.

    In some cases, too, certain golfers like thick rough (and an over-abundance of bunkers) where the course's greens feature little, to no architectural character. I'm dealing with a club where this is the case right now. We're doing a major bunker renovation project, which involves removal of nearly half of the bunkers on the course - partly to reduce maintenance cost and output. I don't think this is having any affect on the challenges out there.

    However, I've been accused of 'making the course too easy'. My response is that we should be redoing the greens instead of the bunkers. If they allowed us to make the green's a little more interesting we could then remove all of the bunkers, mow the entire course at the same length and, at the same time, make it more challenging! That usually draws the 'deer in headlights' stare.

    1. In November I had the pleasure of going to Bandon for the second time. We played 6 rounds in 4 days with 3 rounds being Old Mac. To me the fairway lines combined with the rough maintenance there is perfect. My brother and I each lost one ball out there; (both hooked it into the same patch of gorse on 11 in different rounds) its the ultimate hit it and go find it experience.

      Our fairways could be wider and we are working to achieve that in places. The difficultly here lies in the greens. Being in the rough means you are in a poor position to attack the greens at the correct angle. Plus, while not thick the rough does remove just enough spin to make you have to think about where to land your ball. To me this is the ultimate way to make a player think their way around the course.

  4. Great example to emphasize my point, Chris.

    The greens at Old Macdonald are so interesting that you really don't need rough and bunkers to make golf adequately/appropriately challenging (and fun). Again, it's at courses where the greens feature uninteresting putting surfaces and surrounds that some golfers are consumed with the requirements of (too many) bunkers, narrow fairways and thick rough. This perception is totally misguided.

    Along with a course like Old Macdonald, St. Andrews-Old and Augusta National present the best example of the ideal in golf course architecture. When holes are laid-out to make the most of the best natural features of a property then eighteen varied and interesting greens are created, rough and bunkers don't even need to be part of the equation - which would help with reducing maintenance requirements, I think.

    The issue with this is, how would golfers perceive a course designed along these lines - where it's all about slope and contour, a minimal number of bunkers, real 'rough' (as you describe at Northland) and, of course, minimizing water, fertilzer and chemical applications as a means to keep the ground firm even if the course is every colour but green?