I'm going to be very blunt: I like railroad ties on golf courses.
Fundamentalist minimalists will disagree, arguing that formally-shaped, machine-hewn planks of wood don't have a place on a landscape that, despite human intervention, should try its best to look natural. Which is fair enough, but I don't mind some evidence of Man's capabilities of artistic and practical manipulation, as long as there's good reason for it. And in many cases, the terracing of ground above water or sand or turf can be both visually appealing and strategically interesting.
In golf course architecture, Pete Dye is the undisputed king of railroad ties. At Harbour Town Golf Links, hundreds of them line the large bunker that fronts the green of the shortish par-4 13th hole. Without them, the hole would still be exacting, although not terribly memorable. But with them, it is a visual showpiece, which is no easy accomplishment for a hole that is otherwise flat, tree-lined and situated within a residential community. In addition, there's the potential for some wild bounces off the planks. It is one of the many ways in which Harbour Town rises above its surroundings.
Though they are most recognizable as a Dye feature, railroad ties long predate the Indianan's storied career. One of their cleverest uses is on a course, Rye Golf Club on England's southern coast, that dates back more than 125 years. Among many sneaky challenges of the 6,300-yard, par-68 layout are the "sleepers" that create subtle terraces around several greens that seriously complicate certain bump-and-run attempts. It's the type of quirk that Dye would later incorporate into his own memorable courses like Harbour Town, TPC Sawgrass and dozens more.
I agree with you that railroad ties are perfectly fine, functionally, on golf courses–while even adding to their aesthetic or visual appeal. In the purely artistic sense, they add a great visual rhythm to bunkers or elsewhere, just as any form of repetition incorporated into the art of architecture (by this I mean buildings) will do, in effect. They also add in bunkers another element of unpredictability–as you’ve well articulated–for golfers to consider when trying to escape them, which in turn adds variety and greater interest to the game itself.
The minimalists to whom you refer need to broaden their horizons if they raise serious objections to railroad ties. Golf architecture is fine with some “complexity and contradiction” (to use Robert Venturi’s famous phrase); or, as he also famously said with a touch of wit, “Less is a bore” (he disliked “Less is more”).
Your picture of the ingenious use of terracing at the Rye Club is a nice case in point.
A Cool Golf Thing? Very much so.