Bunkerless golf: Playing the game without sand

Could the opening of the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes make bunkerless courses cool?
The 510-yard par-5 13th at the Sheep Ranch features the grassy depressions that look like old, abandoned bunkers.

Think of how many times you've hit into a bunker at your home course.

Now imagine that same course without any bunkers. Would removing all the sand traps improve the experience or destroy it?

It's an interesting question to ponder as the Sheep Ranch prepares to open June 1 as the fifth 18-hole course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon. Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw made the bold - and probably correct - decision to build the Sheep Ranch with no bunkers. You read that right: NO, NONE, NADA.

"Ben and I for years had talked about maybe one day doing a course with no bunkers," Coore said. "There's a photo from Robert Hunter's book, The Links, from the 1920s. It's black and white and shows all this rumpled, twisted ground. The caption, and I'm paraphrasing, reads 'One day there will be a site interesting enough where formal sand hazards will not be necessary'. We both remembered that."

A sandy history lesson

A look at the manicured 8th green found on the Old course at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club.

Bunkerless golf might sound like a modern marketing gimmick, but it's not. Courses without bunkers as hazards have been around for a century or more. The United Kingdom sports a handful of bunkerless courses built pre-1930 that are still beloved today. Perhaps the two most famous are the private Old course at Royal Ashdown Forest and Berkhamsted, both located in England with roots to the late 1800s. Berkhamsted recently made news by allowing women to compete for the first time in the Berkhamsted Trophy, an elite amateur event, but the pandemic postponed the tournament's attempt at "gender equality" in its 61st year.

Coore said many courses of that era were built without bunkers before the hazards were added later.

"They built the greens and tees and fairways first and would come back later and add bunkers after watching people play," he said. "There's the famous stories from Myopia Hunt Club (outside Boston) after watching good players, they (the club staff) would lay down a blanket (to mark): 'Here’s where they hit the ball. We are going to add a bunker here'. The bunkers were afterthoughts after studying how people play the course, instead of how the architect designed the bunkers to dictate the strategy of play."

Bunkerless courses worth playing
Have you found others? Let us know in the comments below.
Berkhamstead, Dacorum
Semi-Private
0.0
0
Kington, Herefordshire
Semi-Private
4.688
30
Llandrindod Wells, Powys
Public
4.7647058824
20
Braemar, Aberdeenshire
5.0
1
Welshpool, Powys
Public
4.8788
13
Blythewood, South Carolina
Private
3.7368823529
245
Uckfield, Wealden
Semi-Private
3.6667
3
London, Merton
Semi-Private
1.2916666667
5
Stroud, Stroud
Semi-Private
0.0
0
Painswick, Stroud
Semi-Private
3.9378176471
90
Scalasaig, Argyll
0.0
0
Luton, Luton
Resort/Links
3.8461058824
30
Grand Prairie, Texas
Public
4.3689117647
580
Woodhouse Eaves, Charnwood
Semi-Private
0.0
0
Bandon, Oregon
Resort
4.8666666667
6
Owens Cross Roads, Alabama
Public
4.3444294118
34

Bunkers eventually became a staple of course design. Leaving them out has become almost taboo. A comment on Golf Club Atlas from Tom Doak in 2009 shows that he isn't a fan of the bunkerless concept. A handful of bunker-free courses have been built in the modern era.

Prairie Lakes Golf Course , a 27-hole facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, built by Ralph Plumber in 1963, challenges golfers with plenty of water and trees but not a single trap. Golf Advisor users don't seem to mind, giving the facility a star rating average of 4.4. "Been my "home course" for over 30 years," wrote user 'stevels' in a four-star review in January. "Played a number of other local courses, this is my favorite. Only thing some golfers won't like is there are NO sand traps. No issue there for me."

Robert Trent Jones Sr. and associate Roger Rulewich built the bunkerless River Course at Hampton Cove, giving the Robert Trent Jones Trail some interesting variety.

Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa, a bunker-free resort course designed in 2008 in England, gets mixed reviews on Golf Advisor with at least two reviews from 1 star through 5 stars. "Just to point out, there are no bunkers on the course," wrote user 'CUSHLASH' in his two-star review from December. "The fairways were very wide and forgiving, which suited my powerful slices. Sadly, I won’t be in any rush to return to Luton Hoo."

A future of bunkerless golf?

Like Coore & Crenshaw, Architect Nathan Crace, the principal of Watermark Golf Design in Mississippi, has always dreamed of building a bunkerless course. That dream could come true with a client who is ready to build a bunkerless routing somewhere in Louisiana. Crace and the client aren't ready to divulge the exact location for the to-be-named project.

"My concept is a ground up, roller-coaster ride of a course," Crace said. "It will be Pete Dye shaping with no sand. Hollows and slopes and grass bunkers and native areas. It will not be just a walk in the park. It will be very dramatic visually. That was the vision I had. The topography fits."

Crace said whenever he tweets about the project, he gets two responses: 1, from superintendents who support the idea after years of battling costly maintenance in their bunkers, and 2, from golfers who have played and enjoyed bunkerless designs.

The key to both Crace's course and the Sheep Ranch is dramatic terrain. Crace said his design will be set upon hilly land with seven holes playing directly on a lake, while 13 total holes sport views of the water.

"If it is a flat property, you need to move a lot of dirt (to go bunkerless)," Crace said. "You need some vertical relief to the eye, the proportion of land versus turf. You can’t just see the sea of turf. You've got to have some contouring and features. I prefer to build drama into the hole the closer you get to the green, then the putting surfaces are more tame."

Land doesn't get more epic than the cliffs of the Sheep Ranch. Coore said the decision to go bunkerless was almost entirely due to the windy nature of the site. Much of the sand from the Sheep Ranch's original bunkering built by Doak and Jim Urbina years ago had been carried away by the whipping winds. Coore enjoyed the "abandoned" look of the original bunkers and eventually built more.

Ken Nice, the resort's director of agronomy, agreed with the decision from the start. Coore wasn't sure what Bandon Dunes Owner Mike Keiser and partner Phil Friedmann would think of the idea.

"Mike's first reaction: That's unusual but I might be able to go with that," Coore recalled. "Phil was more traditional. He said, 'You're thinking about a course with no bunkers? You could build some of the most spectacular in the world'. Visually spectacular bunkers could be built, but the more we thought about the big picture, the contours should suffice. We could do some depressions for keeping balls from going over the cliffs. Instead of sand, they could be eroded, edged depressions. They could be fescue turf. There could be a variety of conditions inside these."

Greens hug the cliffs at the Sheep Ranch.

The result is a visually explosive 6,636-yard clifftop links that promotes the ground game below the breeze. Eight greens and six tees sit precariously close to the cliffs. Views of the Pacific from virtually every hole will have players staring off into the horizon, not down where bunkers would normally be.

Bunkerless courses make a lot of sense for developers and operators. They cut down on construction costs in the short term and maintenance costs in the long run. Considering how expensive it is to build, maintain, repair and eventually replace bunkers, it's not hard to envision a future with more bunkerless courses. More than a few munies could do their customers a service by filling in dilapidated bunkers with grass instead of constantly delalying expensive renovation work.

"I don’t know if two (bunkerless) courses (being built) makes it a trend, but hopefully it is not just a novelty," Crace said. "You see a lot of golf courses that go in and do a bunker renovation: 'We have 100s of bunkers and want to cut it to 50 because of the maintenance costs. It is a lot of money to spend'."

Crace also sees bunkerless holes as a boon to players as well.

"Bunkers for better players are not as penal as heavy rough or a tight lie around the greens," he added. "To me, it’s more fun all the way around for a better golfer and beginner (with no bunkers). The beginner doesn’t have that anxiety (trying to hit out of the sand). They can pull out a putter."

If you've played a bunkerless course, how did you like it? Should more courses be built without bunkers? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Bunkerless golf: Playing the game without sand