by Forrest Richardson, ASGCA

Sometimes when meeting with course owners and committees it comes out that, in my previous life, I was a well-respected designer of corporate brands and a copywriter of all things marketing and advertising. From the early 1980s, for twenty years, I manipulated the printed page, anguishing over the spacing between letters (this is called kerning), the cropping of photographs and the exact color that would be best for a brochure about cell phone accessories. I was an art director who could form sentences and write. Better put, I was a creative director.

About midway through my ‘other’ career the passion for golf design arose again. Golf architecture had been my first calling, but it got set aside during college in favor of taking a good paying position at a television station. Designing golf courses eventually overlapped my time in corporate branding and writing — and now it is evident to me that the two pursuits are not entirely different.

Take bunkers. In golf they help tell the story. They create the drama, set the mystery and help define the aesthetic. ‘Help’ is key in this explanation. Bunkers do not set 100% of the tone of a golf experience anymore than a particular type font sets 100% of the tone of an annual report. When you are designing, the details become only part of the end result. They are essential, yet none individually can bear the load to do all that is required in defining the full impact.

Today, golf architects have become used to allowing bunkers — especially the qualities that make up their edging and style — to define a golf course. I think this is bad practice, especially when it is allowed to stand for ‘doing a complete job’ (i.e., the 100%). Back when I was directing corporate logos and packaging themes for large concerns such as Disney, News Corp and others, we knew that the selection of a particular typeface and a color palette was, while important, not enough to capture interest and create brand loyalty. Far more important was the writing, the storytelling and the concept.

In golf design I find that crinkled bunker edges and the ‘style’ of how we adorn bunkers with various grasses and maintenance protocol is somehow being held up as completing the story. In many instances, to put it bluntly, the golf designer stops short of creating a concept for the golf course. Once the bunker style is set and a slick photo realistic image is beamed to the client, all is OK. Now let’s get to building.

One lesson I learned in brand design is that typeface selection, size, color, etc. are all important, but without good writing and a concept, these details are isolated. Much like the football player who runs plays to their own design instead of being part of the team mission, they may occasionally get a reaction — but are mostly show without substance. Or, in golf, like the showy course with a neat bunker style, but not much in the way of intellect or overall meaning.

Longevity of bunkers is my way of expressing the necessary qualities that will last when it comes to golf architecture. Allow me to quote the best title ever conceived for a book on golf architecture, complements of Aleck Bauer who in 1913 wrote the seminal work: HAZARDS, THOSE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS IN A GOLF COURSE WITHOUT WHICH THE GAME WOULD BE TAME AND UNINTERESTING. Bauer, without even needing his audience to read a single page, communicates a hallmark concept that should not be lost to those who are given the opportunity to design, or approve the design, of any golf course: That bunkers, being hazards, are fundamental to the individual journey a course will yield.

Of course bunker longevity is also much more. It is the lasting quality of the bunkers (will they survive time?) … their placement (will they incite a riot in the golfer’s mind?) … their frequency (will they become ho-hum amidst a sea of so many scattered about?) … and their severity and differentiation (will they occasionally take on a personality, or will they look just like the next one, only with a different address?)

Over the years the following list has emerged to remind me of such ‘bunker things.’ It is memorialized on a page from one of my annual Moleskine sketchbooks, a device (habit) that has been with me now for decades.

1. A bunker deserves to be an individual, set apart from its neighbors yet part of the community. Every once in a while a course needs a crazy old man who yells at children, hoards junk and stands out like a sore thumb on the block.

2. A bunker must be placed with great care, for this is the one quality that is never likely to change. Placement must not be confused with quantity. Placing more bunkers is no better than serving more appetizers or courses to a meal. Enough is usually enough. (Remember this.)

3. A bunker must not solely be defined by edging and pretty grasses, because to do so would be to ignore its anatomy, personality and intelligence. Think of a bunker as a person and you will begin to realize why fashion does not make for better people.

4. A bunker should be built to withstand time, because this will make the course a stronger asset and will conserve resources. Avoid the errors of building in all sorts of bells and whistles that will not last long. Remember to avoid building the wrong slopes, shapes and depths in the wrong climates and locations.

As a footnote, my own creed with bunkers has been to expand greatly the advice in “4” above. In recent years it has been my experience that as golf architects we need to be much more interested in making sure our bunkers last as long as practical. While liners (fabric, etc.) have become commonplace to separate bad soils from sand, and to aid in drainage and quality, these efforts come with cost and also replacement cost. In my practice the bunker specification is beginning to shift to one of sustainability. I am now a fan of rock-lined floors† that are sealed together, but allow percolation. These not only isolate the sand layer from contamination, but also serve as large and efficient drains. I know the longevity of rock gravel is basically forever, and there is usually plenty of it on my work sites.

This approach comes with another decent gift: my bunkers are not likely to get re-worked as they are more permanent in size, shape and location. Of course they may always be filled in! I suppose this is akin to death, something we must accept in golf. Golf courses need — and do — undergo change.

In my previous life it would be called editing.

† The Better Billy Bunker System has been used by Richardson. In essence, a bunker is prepped in the traditional way with drainage tiles, and then lined with a few inches of clean gravel. This layer is sealed with a polymer spray that bonds the stone, but permits water to pass through. While longevity may not be certain, the simple recipe of natural stone gravel and the long lasting polymer is thought to surpass other liner types by many, many years. Sand remains as the sole layer that must be tended to as it needs replenishing, replacement or filtering.