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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

When A Sand Bunker Isn’t…

Too many bunkers at Whistling Straits. That is the outcry since Dustin Johnson’s unfortunate incident on at the 72nd hole of the ninety-second PGA Championship yesterday. In addition to the PGA of America being overly criticized, golf architect Pete Dye is also the target of undue criticism. All week long, Whistling Straits has been praised as a great modern major tournament venue but suddenly a few people are remarking how the bunkers have taken over the golf course and to the detriment of all. I must disagree. The golf course is the last problem with this situation. The fault lies squarely with the marshals who were in charge of crowd control. If the crowds were marshaled far enough away from the situation at hand (I don’t know, how about fifteen feet to start?), then the big picture of what the ground was (a sand bunker) would have been apparent to all.

I was rooting hard for Dustin Johnson to win this thing and was heartbroken for him when the decision by the PGA of America (to uphold the clearly established rule) was finalized. To his credit, he stood tall (easy for him at 6’ – 6”, I know) and took his medicine. Never once did he deny grounding his club. His simple confession was that he didn’t recognize his lie as being in a sand bunker. Frankly, neither did I. The first reaction I had was that he had a hardpan lie to a downhill target over water between himself and the Wannamaker Trophy.

But he was in a bunker. It is a clearly defined sand bunker with edges, lips, sand; the whole nine yards. The only aspect of golf architecture that becomes so intertwined with the rules of golf seems to be how to label, define, deal with, the sand bunker. In Mr. Dye’s case, I bet he doesn’t care one bit what the rules of golf say. To him, sandy waste is a hazard and nothing else. Whether it is accompanied by a rake or not, inside the ropes or not, a sand bunker is just a hazard. He probably does not pay any attention to whether a club could (or should) be grounded in it or not.

It makes no difference in golf architecture what one may call a feature. To us, they are all hazards and they are either placed intentionally to challenge or penalize a golf shot. In the case of Whistling Straits, the emphasis must be put on ‘penalize’. Over 1,200 sand bunkers dot the property in an effort to re-create the randomness of nature found in the original links courses of the British Isles. With that intention in mind, there will inevitably be random incidences where the innocent may get punished. We call that ‘rub of the green’ and it has been a part of the randomness of the game of golf for centuries. I am sure Dustin Johnson will agree with that assessment. In fact, he already declared that he should have just read the rules sheet more clearly.

Is the definition of a sand bunker dependent upon its inclusion of a rake for maintenance? According to the U.S.G.A, “a bunker is a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like. Grass-covered ground bordering or within a bunker, including a stacked turf face (whether grass-covered or earthen), is not part of the bunker. A wall or lip of the bunker not covered with grass is part of the bunker. The margin of a bunker extends vertically downwards, but not upwards. A ball is in a bunker when it lies in or any part of it touches the bunker.”

There is no mention of the inclusion of rakes nor did the PGA of America create a local rule stipulating anything to do with rakes. But they did declare that every bunker on the course would be a sand bunker, which is a logical conclusion to make. Back in 2004, the local rule separated different types of bunkers (either waste or formal) for the PGA Championship but allowed too much room for interpretation as Stuart Appleby could attest. He was penalized in the third round for grounding his club in a bunker. Yet the PGA of America allowed grounding of clubs in other bunkers.

Dustin’s unfortunate incident hits home for me this summer because of one particular renovation project I have been consumed with in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. I have been charged with the re-design of the sand bunkers at a Greg Norman golf course called the Reserve. Of many, one particular challenge is how to properly design for two types of sand bunkers: A bunker with native sand and a more traditional formal bunker with imported white sand. The questions of how to deal with each bunker from a maintenance and aesthetic standpoint have been painstakingly addressed.

Now the question of playability is forefront on everybody’s mind, particularly whether or not one can ground a club in each bunker or not. There are cases where both native and formal bunkers protect greens yet the conundrum is whether or not allowing the golfer to ground the club in a greenside waste bunker makes the play too easy. I say no. One should look at both bunker types as separate hazard types with separate challenges.

The decision was made to simply define the formal white sand bunkers as official bunkers not allowing the grounding of one’s club. One will be allowed to ground their club in the native bunkers. Hopefully Dustin will read the local rules at the Reserve Golf Club in Pawleys Island and avoid any further controversy – it is his home course.

About Richard: Richard Mandell is a Golf Course Architect in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Educated as a Landscape Architect at the University of Georgia (he is licensed in both North and South Carolina), Richard has close to two decades’ experience in designing new golf courses and renovating existing ones. Richard may also be the only golf architect in the world who is a certified arborist. He co-hosts a weekly golf radio talk show in Pinehurst and continues to teach a class on Golf Architecture at North Carolina State University which he started in 1997. Mr. Mandell also wrote the award-winning book, Pinehurst ~ Home of American Golf - The Evolution of a Legend (International Network of Golf Book of the Year – 2007).

Richard Mandell has been a Golf Content Creator for the Washington Times Communities since August 20, 2009

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