The most frequent alterations to a course are the bunkers. Rhydian Lewis, director of construction experts Durabunker, reveals what you need to consider if your club is planning renovations…
My course manager wants to renovate our bunkers. What should I be looking at?
Our advice would be to gather as much information as possible. When we speak to clients for the first time, we ask a lot of questions before moving forward to discuss renovation options.
In the first stages it is critical a clear picture is built of the situation with existing bunkers. The objective is to assess needs, learn where the problems lie and make the correct recommendations. From our perspective, it is difficult to execute a successful renovation without building a clear picture and having the client acknowledge the existing problems. We discuss what their maintenance issues are and where they invest the vast majority of time and expenditure with their bunkers.
We ask what the membership feedback is regarding playability, whether the club has an architect on board, whether certain bunkers are now redundant and out of play or whether they are too penal.
There is a very specific list of questions we use to yield the type of information we need. The picture we build is slightly different every time – no two courses are the same – but a methodology to reach the right decisions and achieve the desired end goal is almost identical.
Digging a little deeper, and being more specific, also creates a picture of current performance and a road map to a successful renovation project. An example of key information to glean from your course manager might be whether the bunkers suffer from washout (sand sliding down bunker faces, leaving a wet slurry in the bunker bases), sand contamination, flooding, edge erosion, stone migration, instability and so on.
After gathering the relevant information, we would then go on to recommend products that we feel would benefit the renovation and also ideas on bunker design – whether the club have an in-house designer or whether they come to us for design services.
What are the challenges of a bunker renovation in terms of design?
We’ve designed with high-end companies such as Nicklaus Design and Greg Norman Design. We’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last eight to 10 years – enabling us to offer our own design service to clients. Course managers sometimes have their own vision of what they would like to achieve and input can also come from various other voices within a golf club: committee members, chairman of greens, club professionals and other sources.
Although our approach to design is always collaborative, setting clear and agreed design objectives is fundamental to achieving a positive end result. We always try to encourage the development of a bunker ‘masterplan’.
This is not always easy as club managers, and even course managers, are not always aware of the variety of bunker designs that exist or what can be achieved through the sensible use of different products on the market.
We often recommend an initial trial phase is implemented, where just a few bunkers are renovated, giving everyone the opportunity to assess both design style and products used. In effect, this produces a template for a larger project. There is a lot of in-house design and we’ve seen good examples and plenty of very bad designs.
There are a lot of aspects to consider. Many course managers are understandably focused on reducing maintenance, but reducing maintenance and coupling that with good design to produce bunkers that are pleasing to the eye and eminently playable is not always straightforward. To give just one example, we would ask the question ‘what is the maximum gradient of sand face that you would envisage?’ Sometimes we get a blank look, other times a vague answer and some rationale.
It’s rare to hear relevant vocabulary such as ‘the angle of repose of sand’. That is the steepest angle of descent, relative to the horizontal plane, to which a material can be piled without slumping. At this angle, the material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding.
Once a flow of water is added to the mix, sand that is just about holding on will lose its battle against gravity and will not stay on bunker faces. This causes huge maintenance issues and time investment, not to mention appalling playing conditions for members. So, if a client wants sand flashed faces, we would ask ‘what sort of gradient are you thinking?’
They might say 50 degrees but we might say ‘what we would recommend is 30 degree or less so you are below the angle of repose of that sand’.
With a good liner, it is usually possible to hold sand on slopes of approximately 35 degrees. But it doesn’t matter what liner is used if bunkers are designed with 50 degree sand faces. It is a law of physics that you are going to get slurry in wet conditions and sand is going to slide.
So one design objective would be to agree a maximum gradient on any bunker face and not build beyond that. We are continuously learning but we do have a large back catalogue of projects, and with experience comes knowledge. The challenge of good design is multi-faceted but knowledge is certainly power when it comes to a successful renovation.
If the course manager and in- house team can bring all those elements together while still maintaining a golf course, they should be commended and utilised. Investing in good design, though, usually yields significant benefits. An architect is the obvious route but there are companies, ourselves included, who specialise in all things bunker and this focused approach is something that should be considered as an option.
This part of your business is very scientific – like architecture…
The bunker design part of the business is one that is growing and we are having significant success – clients recognising our back history is something that is of value to any renovation project. There are recognised architects who are very good and obviously have a wealth of experience.
We have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s leading course architects, and we have learned a huge amount from them. We are focused almost entirely on bunkers – bunker styles, bunker drainage, bunker liners, bunker edges, bunker surrounds – and it’s a relatively niche market in terms of architecture.
The truth is that some architects we’ve worked with have been very aware of maintenance issues, and we have been in awe of their work, while others have built bunkers that might look fantastic but the maintenance burden left behind has course managers tearing their hair out.
Bunkers are not easy to maintain if they are not constructed correctly…
Preparation and the design are key. If the design is wrong, you have got a problem right from the outset. You can try to put product on it to help, and it may to an extent, but if the design is fundamentally flawed you’re pushing the proverbial peanut up a hill – even with the best products in the world.
The second point is to couple good design with the use of complimentary products, not only to safeguard the design but to ensure minimum maintenance is required, making bunkers playable even in the most challenging conditions.
Thirdly, the execution is also extremely important. With sand washout, if the design template states a 30 degree maximum and certain areas of bunker faces are at 40, because the shaper has been a little careless and the team have not quality checked the work, then the time spent investing in good design will have been wasted.
How do you coach clubs on what type of bunker is best for them?
The key thing is honesty. We would love to go in and sell large amounts of product – the higher the bunker wall is the more bunker edge product we sell. The larger the area of sand, the more liner product we shift.
But that’s not the right way to go about it. From a business and design point of view, we want bunkers to look right and sit into the golf course well. We want to reduce maintenance time and we want golf courses to make critical savings, gaining hidden value such as diverting staff time that traditionally was spent on maintaining bunkers to managing playing services.
So with our core product Durabunker, which is a bunker edging product, we do probably an equal amount of shallow edge bunker work with parkland courses as we do deeper faced bunkers on links courses.
If we feel a six-inch edge coupled with a liner, with a rolling sand line, is what would fit best, then that’s what we would promote to the client – rather than a four foot wall.
At Sittingbourne & Milton Regis, we reduced the area of sand by approximately 40% on some bunkers – representing significant cost and labour savings.
Bunkers there were disproportionate to the size of greens and the amount of sand was overpowering the green area. We discussed with the club the idea of creating more classical style bunkers with crisp, clean edges rather than large sprawling masses of sand. It has worked well and the club is delighted with the results.
Case Study: SITTINGBOURNE & MILTON REGIS
General manager Steve Bootes believes the bunker renovations at his course have significantly improved his club’s offering…
Durabunker listened to our ideas. They built a picture of the problems we were facing with our bunkers and got a real feel for where we were at in the process. They didn’t try to sell us product – they were more interested in creating a solution that, along with design objectives, aligned with our style of golf course, solved our maintenance and playability problems and met our budgetary requirements.
Although they ultimately provided us with both bunker liner and bunker edging products, they recommended we reduce the size of our bunkers quite considerably, built shallow revetted edges to offer clean definition and address our edge erosion issues, and
coupled this with a liner that has performed through extremely testing conditions.
At no stage did we feel they were imposing ideas on us that we felt uncomfortable with. It has certainly been a collaborative project, and continues to be so.
We were taken with the idea of one company providing design, construction, installation of product and adding to that a training element that is helping to add value to the project. It has resulted in bunkers that are now in play 24/7 even when the rest of the course is flooded. It significantly improves the product we are selling and makes my life as a club manager that bit easier now that I can be 100% confident that our bunkers will be an asset rather than an eyesore.
Case Study: LITTLEHAMPTON
General manager Stuart McConachie was excited at being able to re-introduce classic links-style revetted bunkering to his layout…
I loved the idea of our team working alongside Durabunker – learning the process and being guided by a company that had a significant back catalogue of bunker renovation projects and were happy to share their knowledge and skill with us.
It has been a fantastic experience for our staff. They are excited by the project, they have developed skills and knowledge that will benefit the golf club as a whole and it has enabled us to control costs by choosing just how much input the Durabunker team have.
We suffered a few severe rain events over the spring. Our bunkers flooded and suffered terrible washout and sand contamination. The bunkers we built with Durabunker, which included both liner and synthetic bunker faces, suffered no damage. They were as dry as a bone, the sand did not move an inch and the walls suffered no damage.
The difference between old and new was mind blowing. We feel the investment in the bunker renovation has been very worthwhile.
We are already seeing the benefits, with members talking about our bunkers in a positive light. The only issue is managing expectations and explaining we cannot complete the renovation overnight.