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The Case for Going Bunkerless

One round at this sand-free master class is ample evidence

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Photo: David Cannon
No bunkers needed on the par-3 11th at Royal Ashdown Forest.

With minimalism as the prevailing trend in today’s architecture, golfers cherish courses that look more found than built. As a result, designers have become skilled in hiding scars cut from tracked machines, making it nearly impossible to tell what was shaped by man or by nature. 

Golf in the sand dunes is the soul of the game, but even on those courses the bunkers are usually cleverly designed and placed (not created by sheep and rabbits digging holes in search of shelter or nourishment, as many would hope players believe). When golf moves inland, we bring our strategically hazardous artwork with us and resculpt the land to keep those all-important bunkers. We spend a lot of money on sand, liners and their upkeep. (Guilty as charged!) But as we move beyond the renaissance period in golf-course architecture, perhaps it is time to re-examine things now that naturalism is expected. This is as good a time as any to ask: Do our courses really need bunkers?

The Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club, between London and the English Channel, has been the crown jewel of minimalism and sustainable golf for more than 130 years. Thanks to the original charter mandated to protect the Royal Forest, no excavations or artifice of any kind exist on the pristine heathland. It reminds us that golf can be full of strategic interest without the architectural crutch of bunkers.

The Old Course (the club has 36 natural holes) starts with a bash over heather, one of many exhilarating drives over native ground. Some of the tee shots at Royal Ashdown Forest have been compared to Pine Valley, as the course has been mown across the hilltops and jumps from one rugged landform to another. The forest is blessed with heather, creeks and gnarls, a bevy of natural hazards that make the course interesting and compelling. When strategy is derived from negotiating side-hill lies and playing up the edges of hazardous natural rough in order to access steep greens, there’s no want for sand. If not privy, it would likely take several rounds to realize Royal Ashdown Forest is bunker-free.

Nos. 5 through 7 are a mighty trifecta of bunkerless golf, and remind us that a clever routing that incorporates the land’s natural features is all that’s needed to generate fun or interest. This memorable stretch begins with a downhill approach over a creek to the par-5 fifth. The green runs away, making it a true challenge to hold in two. The sixth, a short par 3 with a narrow green called The Island, is wedged between the same creek and another treacherous hollow. The seventh is a modest-length par 4, playing toward the top of a hill and bending around a tempting heathery waste. Not a single splash of white sand is missed. 

With the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort reopening this summer as a full 18-hole course void of sand bunkers, some lightbulbs are bound to go off. North America, and golfers from around the world, will be introduced to a truly great bunkerless course. While Coore & Crenshaw were not under royal decree, their decision will leave many of their guests questioning the need for bunkers at all. 

Jaeger Kovich has worked as a shaper for Tom Doak and Gil Hanse. He writes about golf when he’s not creating hand-drawn plans and courses at his architecture firm, Proper Golf.