Photo: Simon Bruty

Fiery Ejections

An epic tale of bunker failure

I’m a bit of a map nerd. When I read epics like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, I constantly check the maps at the front to study their gnarled coastlines and jagged mountains. I’m particularly fascinated by ancient maps—those museum pieces originally scrawled onto rolled-up parchment. Seafaring explorers were history’s original badasses, venturing into lands and waters previously unknown to their cultures, intent on discovering what lay beyond the margins. My eye is inevitably drawn to these edges, where all manner of exotic chimeras lurk. Unfortunately for me, there is a real-life application of the texts along these borderlands that may as well be posted knee-high around every bunker I find: Here be dragons.

I’ve played golf for more than 20 years. I’ve watched more professional golf than most retirees and read as many instruction-laden magazines as I can stomach. Yet my handicap remains in the 8s due to one fatal flaw: the most embarrassing sand game since Top Gun.

I chuckle every time a golf announcer says something like, “He can bail out in that front bunker; it’s an easy up-and-down from there.” Watching someone splash a bunker shot that hops twice, checks right and stops 6 inches from the cup, I’m an audience member at a Houdini show. Jason Day got up and down from a tall greenside bunker in the Japan Skins Game with a 6-iron! When I play golf, each sand trap may as well be the Great Pit of Carkoon, a sarlacc sucking the life from my otherwise jaunty round.

I’m not clueless when I find myself in my version of a Zac Brown Band song (that is, with my ass in the sand). I know the basics, and occasionally I can even pull off something respectable. But, like those explorers of old, I descend into each bunker not knowing if my round is coming out alive.

And that’s the crux of the issue: There’s nowhere to practice. I know of one course within reasonable driving distance that accepts public tee times and has anything resembling a practice bunker. I have had all of three bunker practice sessions in my adult life. One came at my hometown’s muni in December two years ago, the course closed and the weather mild. I walked from the range to the 18th green and shoveled my way around a bunker the consistency of Play-Doh. I did the same thing that winter at Granite Links in Quincy, Massachusetts, covertly blasting balls with only a bare hillside shielding me from prying clubhouse eyes. This summer, a weekday afternoon nine at Franklin Park in Boston granted me a nearly empty course and free reign in the nasty trench bunker fronting 17 green, where I attempted to find a repeatable thump.

I’ve been lucky enough in recent years to play several private clubs where the short-game areas seem ripped from a corner of golfing heaven. The sand is fluffier and more consistent than my mattress, so it’s no wonder that the members own an array of elusive sand-escape techniques. 

Yes, I understand that these hungry wastes are meant to penalize wayward shots. I just wish I could get some reps in on my own time, so that when I thin another wedge off the edge of the known world, I’ve at least got a compass and sextant to guide me back toward civilization.