Golf course bunkers: a line in the sand

Traditional sand bunkers can be labor-intensive and expensive to maintain. A handful of courses are seeing what life is like without these hazards.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Sheep Ranch, part of the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore., features precisely zero traditional sand-filled bunkers, but it’s not without plentiful eye candy. Photo courtesy of Sheep Ranch

Is there a more universally despised golf course feature than the lowly sand bunker?

Golfers hate them, owners are loath to pay for them, and superintendents as a rule resent how much of their preciously thin maintenance budget they eat up.

Why, then, are they so ubiquitous? Why do so many golf courses keep pouring work hours and piles and piles of money into the seemingly bottomless sand-filled pits? Why all the love for the hazards everybody seems to hate?

Who better to answer that question than the man who wrote the book on golf course bunkers, Forrest Richardson. Principal architect at Richardson | Danner, Richardson literally co-wrote (with Mark Fine) the book on golf course bunkers: “Bunkers, Pits & Other Hazards: A Guide to the Design, Maintenance, and Preservation of Golf’s Essential Elements.”

“A bunkerless golf course really is an interesting idea,” Richardson says. “I’ve always thought there are plenty of other things that can make the game interesting other than bunkers.”

It doesn’t take long before Richardson, who describes himself as “not a person who overdoes bunkers,” starts to wax philosophical on the nature of bunkers, which according to lore appeared on the first golf courses as natural depressions in the land, where wildlife took refuge and wayward shots frequently settled. As golf courses migrated, so, too, did bunkers, even if the sand-filled depressions were as foreign as the game.

“I just refinished a golf course that had just 20 bunkers — three on the practice green, 17 bunkers on the golf course,” Richardson says. “We have several holes that didn’t have bunkers. A punchbowl we did, all it is is green, and we depressed in mounds and dimples. In my estimation, that’s enough. We didn’t need a bunker on that hole. Another hole had a ha-ha wall that flanks the green. That hole didn’t need a bunker.

“The challenge is always, what is there besides a bunker to make you think, to make a golfer think? My biggest single issue with a bunkerless golf course is how to keep a golfer’s interest without bunkers. There are a lot of ways to do that, but some may be outside the thinking of some owners and golf architects.”

While bunkers might be an enduring fixture of the American golf landscape, there are few courses — a very few — that break the mold and whose owners and architects think they’ve solved that riddle. Whether by design or necessity, one bunkerless course on each coast opened (or reopened) in the last three years with the same claim to fame, while one course in Alabama has proudly touted its bunkerless pedigree for more than two decades. And another is in the works in Louisiana.

“I’m not saying we started a trend,” says architect Nathan Crace. “Other people have had the same idea. But everybody is looking to do something unique and different and fun. And there are only so many ways you can design a golf course.”

Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes

Bandon, Ore.

When Ken Nice, senior director of agronomy at decorated Bandon Dunes in Bandon, Ore., looks over the agronomic to-do lists for the six — soon to be seven! — courses under his care, one line item from one course in particular stands out.

“It’s always interesting when I see the game plan from Greg Harless, the superintendent at Sheep Ranch — it says on his notes, ‘Fertilizing bunkers.’ You don’t see that very often,” Nice says.

Sheep Ranch opened in 2020 to become the sixth high-profile course in the Bandon Dunes portfolio. It was designed by the firm of Coore & Crenshaw to be devoid of traditional sand bunkers, not as a gimmick but because the relentless ocean breezes wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Some of the other courses on Bandon, but especially the Sheep Ranch site, are very exposed to the wind,” says Nice, a 27-year GCSAA member. “There’s just nothing protecting it. From a maintenance standpoint, it’s huge. We don’t have to battle that sand issue every day. Unfortunately for Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes, Old Mac(donald) … bunkers are a huge maintenance effort for us, especially in the summer, when every wind is a north wind. Every day the staff is shoveling sand back in the bunkers. We really do battle that. It’s a big labor suck for us. I don’t really have the stats, but I’d predict (bunker maintenance) is about a fourth of our labor efforts in the summer.”

As the “fertilizing bunkers” notes suggest, Sheep Ranch isn’t bereft of bunkers. They’re just lined with grass — fescue, to be precise — which are loosely trimmed to provide some penalty to a wayward shot.

“Probably once every two weeks,” Nice says of the bunker mowing. “It’s not real extensive. It’s nowhere close to the same as preparing bunkers every day. If it’s (mowed) too tight, you’d have a lot of divots. Our interest is in growing enough grass you get somewhat of a fluffy lie, so the ball has some air under it, so you can get a wedge underneath it, maybe.”

Here’s a fun fact: Sheep Ranch could have sand in its bunkers in the future.

“They’re shaped in. That gave us the option to add sand if we wanted to,” Nice says. “It wouldn’t take a huge twist to bring sand into it.”

Not that anyone making the trek to Sheep Ranch — or any of the other five Bandon courses — is complaining.

“It’s working well at Sheep Ranch. It’s a fun golf course to play,” Nice says. “I haven’t heard a lot of negative feedback from people missing bunkers. Every green has an ocean view. It’s a pretty nice distraction from not having bunkers.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
In an effort to save money during and after a recent renovation, The Preserve at Eisenhower, near Annapolis, Md., went bunkerless. The ecologically sensitive municipal course has plentiful low-maintenance areas as well as sometimes-massive fescue-covered hummocks to provide visual interest and challenge. Photo by Brian Dearstine

The Preserve at Eisenhower

Crownsville, Md.

The great experiment to remove all sand bunkers from The Preserve at Eisenhower has met with an overwhelmingly “meh” response.

“Honestly, it’s been mixed reviews,” says Brian Dearstine, superintendent at the suburban Washington, D.C.-Baltimore course. “It’s funny. I came here thinking golfers were going to show up because there weren’t any bunkers. After the first year, I think a lot of people would rather have the bunkers back.”

Curiously, Dearstine, a six-year association member, was among those who made the pilgrimage to The Preserve because of its features, or lack thereof.

“I saw there were no bunkers,” he says, “and jumped at that fact.”

The former Eisenhower Golf Course about a mile outside of Annapolis, Md., that was named for the former U.S. president who also was an avid golfer, used to have bunkers, but as part of a $5 million renovation, they were all removed under the guidance of architect Andrew Green. Green recently was lauded for his “sympathetic restoration” of 2023 PGA Championship site Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course in Rochester, N.Y.

Dearstine wasn’t there for the “before.” He headed there in March 2022, about a year after the renovation wrapped up and The Preserve revealed its additive approach to adding interest and challenge to the course. In place of the subtractive sand bunkers, Green installed tall fescue-covered hummocks — mounds of various sizes that block sightlines and serve as obstacles to be avoided.

“We keep them long,” Dearstine says of the turfgrass stands atop the hummocks, which he estimates range from 6 or 7 feet high to up to 15 or so feet tall. “I think the main thing is, people are saying it’s just too difficult as long as it is. It’s too penalizing right now. Right now, it’s a no-mow area. When you walk through it, it’s coming up to your knees. People are spending a long time looking for their balls. If they can even find their ball, it’s tough to even get a shot out. I think next year we’ll try to keep it mowed down more. If we kept it around 5 or 6 inches, it would be more playable, and they’d be able to find their balls better and get a shot on them.”

Dearstine came to The Preserve with plenty of previous bunker experience.

“They’re the most hated thing that people want to be perfect,” he says. “You get more complaints on bunkers than on your greens.”

Dearstine isn’t complaining about the positive effect going bunkerless has had on his maintenance budget. His in-season staff numbers between 10 and 15, he says, with four full-timers at a public course that sees as many as 220 rounds a day.

“From the maintenance side of it, you don’t have to rake bunkers every day,” he says. “You don’t have washouts, you don’t have all the maintenance practices that go along with bunkers. It frees up a lot of time, which allows you to take care of everything else. You see it a lot in this area. A lot of storms come through, and other guys in the area are fixing their bunkers. That’s just something we don’t have to worry about.”

Layout of Smuggler's Run golf course
Ground hasn’t yet broken on Smuggler’s Run in Jonesboro, La., but architect Nathan Crace envisions an 18-hole bunkerless course that takes advantage of the area’s “cool land shapes.” Illustration courtesy of Nathan Crace

Smuggler’s Run

Jonesboro, La.

When the powers-that-be at the Jackson Parish nine-hole course brought in architect Nathan Crace to take a look around and give his thoughts on his vision for what was to become, after the addition of an adjoining 80 acres, an 18-hole course, they probably had no idea what he’d suggest.

“They were wanting to do something unique, something different, but also something pragmatic,” says Crace, a first-year Friend member of GCSAA. “I’d always wanted to do a golf course with no bunkers. There were a lot of falloffs, a lot of mounding, cool land shapes. I said, ‘How would you feel about a course with no bunkers?’ They were immediately, like, ‘Sounds great.’”

Those golf committee members weren’t the only ones.

“It was funny. Before I even got the plan done, I sent out a tweet: ‘Excited to be working on a brand-new bunkerless golf course,’” Crace recalls. “I’d bet I got 30 DMs (direct messages) from superintendents around the country: ‘Where is this golf course, and when are they hiring?’”

Crace is about the farthest thing from a card-carrying bunker hater. When he built his first course — a three-holer on family land in Indiana — as a preteen, he fastidiously carved bunkers out by hand. His father, a general contractor, delivered a truckload of sand to fill them, but not before extracting a promise to keep them from becoming overgrown with weeds. So Crace learned early on the importance of bunkers hazards … and the upkeep they entailed.

Now principal and head architect at Watermark Golf with more than 1,000 designed holes to his credit, Crace and his team have made bunker renovations a core part of the business, primarily in the U.S. Southeast. When it was suggested all that bunker work qualified him as “The Bunker Doctor,” Crace did a quick search to see if that domain name was already registered. It wasn’t, and now and both redirect to his Watermark website.

Now the Bunker Doctor is designing a course with none.

“That is irony,” Crace says with a laugh. “Even the best neurosurgeon needs a break.”

Crace hopes work can begin on the course as early as this fall. He realizes there are risks to going sans sand.

“There are pros and cons,” Crace says. “They are much less expensive to maintain, and this will be something unique. It gives people a reason to say, ‘Hey, let’s check this out.’ But you have to do it the right way. There are some cons to it. You still have people who like the traditional look of a bunker. They downplay the golf course: ‘It’s not really a golf course if there are no bunkers.’ You have to have the right piece of property. This is a beautiful piece of property that wraps around a gorgeous lake. You do have to be careful. In the middle of the day, when you don’t have any shadows, you have to have some nice shaping to pull it off.

“I don’t think it’s a trend or a gimmick. It’s just a niche thing that has to fit the right site, the right client.”

Layout of Smuggler's Run golf course
Hampton Cove in Huntsville, Ala., features the only course on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail — or, for that matter, on any RTJ course in the world — without a bunker. Hampton Cove’s River Course is built in a flood plain, and while that brings its own set of challenges, the constant headache of maintaining bunkers is not one of them. Photo by Robert Edmonson

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Hampton Cove

Huntsville, Ala.

Robert Edmonson, GCSAA Class A superintendent and director of golf course maintenance at the Robert Trent Jones Trail course at Hampton Cove, has been with the Trail since he was in college, dating to 1995.

Approaching three decades in the business, the 21-year GCSAA member has never encountered anyone quite like himself.

“I’ve never met anyone else who works at a bunkerless golf course,” Edmonson says. “When I went out to the Farmers (Insurance Open) and worked at Torrey Pines, everyone — especially the Canadians — it blew their minds I have a golf course that doesn’t have any bunkers.”

Hampton Cove is a 54-hole facility that proudly describes its River Course as “the only Robert Trent Jones layout in the world designed without a single bunker.” Seems RTJ knew a thing or two about the headaches of maintaining bunkers, especially in flood-prone areas.

“It’s in a flood plain on that side of the road. That golf course is very prone to flooding,” Edmonson says. “Not big, catastrophic floods, but the golf course can be flooded and stay flooded for a couple of days. It’ll go down, we’ll clean up a little, then the golf course is playable. But that’s why it doesn’t have bunkers. They had to dig all those lakes up and build the land up. If we have bunkers, we wouldn’t be able to keep sand in them.”

Hampton Cove adheres to the additive approach to challenges. Though its greens are made to USGA recommendations, they’re also push-up greens, in that they’re pushed up — way up — as far as 10 feet and contoured.

“This golf course was built in 1992. I remember coming out of high school and reading about this golf course. The guy at the time who was the director of golf made the comment that there are situations around the greens, you wish you were in a bunker,” Edmonson says.

Edmonson especially appreciates the low-maintenance approach his team can take toward the River Course, at least when it’s dry. He estimates he saves roughly four hours a day — the equivalent of one worker every morning — over the 364 days each year the course is open not dealing with daily bunker duties. The other two courses at his stop along the Trail also have their bunkers edged two days every three to four weeks, or roughly 48 workdays a year. And washouts, common on the Highlands Course, cost another 26 work hours — six hours for a four-person crew — for every serious washout.

“Not having bunkers down there, more or less, you mow tees, fairways, roughs and greens and you’re done,” he says. “There’s no spinning bunkers, no topping bunkers off, no edging bunkers.

“Maybe it’s a gimmick thing, but there are some things you can do in and around the greens to add challenge and give customers more options. I wish more could be built like that. It certainly does make things cheaper in terms of maintenance. If that golf course never flooded, with no bunkers on it, costs definitely would go down. Construction costs would go down. Maintenance costs would be reduced. Even the cost of, over time, having to come back and add sand, topping bunkers off … you just never have to do those sorts of things. If I were an assistant superintendent on the Trail, that’s the golf course I’d want to maintain, the one I’d want to be responsible for.”

Andrew Hartsock ( is GCM’s senior managing editor.