Ralph Lauren famously said, “Fashion is transient; trends come and go. I believe in style, not fashion.” The same can be said of the best golf architects. Trends can blow in the wind; they just believe in good golf. The reemergence of the centerline bunker is certainly proof of that.
There are few hazards as vexing as the centerline bunker. With the proper application, it plays psychological warfare on the expert player while giving the everyday golfer a simple but tricky aiming point.
The centerline bunker was commonplace during the golden age of architecture. Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, C.B. Macdonald and A.W. Tillinghast each used the hazard with regularity. The 1950s ushered in a new era of golf course design, and wide fairways with strategic bunkering were out. In was the adage that “hard golf is good golf.” Tight fairways lined with hazards and trees became the norm.
This left green committees at classic courses feeling the need to keep up with the Joneses (Robert Trent, specifically). To create what they thought was a “tougher” test, they slashed fairway widths and planted trees, making the centerline bunker all but extinct.
But times change, and today’s best architects are not beholden to standard tropes. The philosophies of ample fairway width and strategic bunkering are back, and with them the centerline bunker.
One of my favorite examples is at Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Streamsong Red course. Located in Bowling Green, Florida, the resort course is universally acclaimed as one of the best modern designs in golf.
The fourth hole at the Red is a spectacular, fun par 4 packed with strategy. It measures only 330 yards from the back tee box and is drivable in the right conditions. The unique green measures 55 yards wide and 16 yards deep with two deep bunkers that divide it into right and left portions. This drives the strategy back, with half wedges becoming difficult facing the green’s extreme back-to-front slope.
This makes the sensible strategy to lay back off the tee and leave a full wedge in. But there lies the centerline bunker. This treacherous beast measures 50 yards long and 5 yards wide and splits the 70-yard fairway in half. The bunker starts 220 yards from the back tee box and leaves players of all levels befuddled on the proper play.
They’ve got three options:
Go for it Players who pull driver will get the benefit of a wide fairway landing area. A wise play for those who don’t have quite enough juice to hit the green is to set up an angle to attack the flag. If a player is long enough, they could end up with an eagle putt, but they could just as easily find themselves in a greenside bunker or with an awkward wedge.
Attack the bunker Players who don’t want to pull driver but still want to set up a short wedge have to take on the hazard. With a fairway wood or long iron, the decision is devilish: Aim for a specific side of the fairway or at the 5-yard-wide bunker? It’s likely that aiming at the bunker will yield a safe play, but the risk of finding it with a perfect shot looms.
Play it safe It’s the option no one wants, but Coore and Crenshaw built it anyway: Hit an iron short of the bunker. This is the safest option, but leaves the most difficult approach and a smaller chance at making a birdie.
The centerline bunker is not for every architect. In the wrong hands, a poorly implemented one can quickly turn into a “Seinfeld” puffy shirt situation. But with the game’s best, the centerline bunker is a beautiful, timeless addition.
Andy Johnson is a Chicago-based golf writer and competitive amateur golfer. His website and newsletter, The Fried Egg, provides detailed coverage on golf course architecture, golf courses, professional golf and amateur golf.