The Evolution of Bunkers

The sheer and ridged face of a revetted bunker are commonplace on links golf courses today, including Royal Liverpool. But no one knows who first introduced this design concept to the game, although early photographs suggest there were revetments on the Old Course at St Andrews as long ago as 1893. Revetted bunkers are created by layering sections of turf one on top of the other, until a wall or bank is created. This enables designers to create small, deep and steep-faced bunkers that are extremely difficult to escape. In fact, the threat of finding pot bunkers off the tee was one of the main reasons Tiger Woods opted to use his 2-iron off many tees in 2006. 

It’s safe to assume the practice of revetting is almost as old as the game itself. After all, such landscaping appeared on golf courses before there were proper tees and greens or fairways. It was necessary to prevent the rough areas of sand from expanding across the field of play. Traps were originally no more than sandy hollows, created by wind erosion and by sheep grazing the land looking for shelter. Golfers in those days would traipse straight through these sandy areas, trampling down the banks. As a result, they were constantly changing shape and increasing in size. Something needed to be done and so revetting was born. The word was most probably taken from the French “revêtir”, which means to reclothe. Thanks
to revetting, bunker sizes have decreased dramatically over the last century as golf has evolved into a game where the playing area has become more and more defined.

The revetted bunkers at Hoylake will play a huge part in deciding who takes the Claret Jug home. Everyone in the field will surely have to negotiate one of these traps at some point and their success in escaping these sandy graves could be the difference between a weekend off and a Sunday afternoon chasing major glory. 

BEFORE: At the 2006 Open, the revetting extended to the entire height of the bunker face, creating an excessively harsh and stark look.

BEFORE: At the 2006 Open, the revetting extended to the entire height of the bunker face, creating an excessively harsh and stark look.

AFTER: Reducing the height of the revetting encourages golfers to play forwards more often instead of sideways, while making the crest of the bunker smoother ‘softens’ the look and makes them look more natural.

AFTER: Reducing the height of the revetting encourages golfers to play forwards more often instead of sideways, while making the crest of the bunker smoother ‘softens’ the look and makes them look more natural.

Hoylake’s Bunker Evolution

GW talks to course architect Martin Hawtree about the changes he made to Hoylake’s bunkers ahead of this year’s Open.

What changes have you made to the bunkers at Hoylake?
When I arrived on site, the revetment was right up to the top of the crest. For various reasons, I preferred to roll the crest of the bunker over and then start the revetment lower down the face. It was mainly aesthetic. 

Are the bunkers now easier to escape from than before?
It really depends on how close you are to the face. I suppose you could call it a ‘softening’ process. We have given this treatment to all of the bunkers on the course as I felt it gave the course a more natural look. When you take the revetting right to the top edge of the lip, it can look very stark and a little man-made.

What other factors were involved in your decision to ‘soften’ the bunkers?
The revetment made it tougher to play aggressive recovery shots. Being a members club, I think toning down the penal nature of the sand traps has been welcomed. I think The R&A are keen to encourage players to try to play attacking strokes more often. I know that last time The Open was here, there was a feeling that too many players simply hit a wedge out of the bunkers and back into play.

Are the bunker faces less steep now?
No. We haven’t changed the gradients at all, but reducing the height of the revetted section will make it easier to play forwards rather than sideways.

Have you moved any of the bunkers?
On the 2nd hole for The Open – the club’s 18th – we’ve made it harder to skirt the bunkers with the second shot by bouncing the ball through the light rough. We’ve moved them and created what I call ‘broken ground’, by making it more undulating so the ball is easily deflected. The land was a little too flat to the right, so we’ve toughened that up by re-contouring.

Nick Wright