Bunker Renovations Energize Classic Courses

It can be argued that well-designed hazards are the heart and soul of a golf course. They not only give a course its distinctive character, they are essential to the strategy of the game itself.

Because a golf course is a living entity, as it matures, its hazards must evolve to remain viable. Bunkers, for example, offer a challenge for even the most skilled golfers, but maintaining them properly is an even greater challenge. And as bunkers age, maintenance alone is not enough – there comes a time when bunker renovation is essential to their playability, and to the ongoing success of a golf course.

Such was the case at the venerable Midlothian Country Club in Illinois. The H.J. Tweedie design, built in 1898, boasts a storied history, including its serving as the host site for the 1914 U.S. Open. In 2003, Marengo, Ill.-based Lohmann Golf Designs (LGD), and its sister construction division, Golf Creations, were called upon to renovate the course’s 82 bunkers.

Under the direction of superintendent Dave Berhman, and with the approval of its members, LGD redesigned the bunkers in a classic, flat-bottomed style with steep grass facing – a look very much in keeping with the vintage course. Additionally, many of the fairway bunkers were relocated, bringing them back into play after decades of encroaching tree growth had rendered them obsolete.

The previous flashed-sand bunkers, like all bunkers of that type, had been prone to washouts during heavy rains. And the need to constantly push sand back into place contributed to more rapid contamination – necessitating frequent replacement. Drainage had also been a major problem, one that was addressed with Golf Creations’ stabilizing techniques used during reconstruction.

With the perspective of three seasons of play since his course’s renovation, Behrman looks back on the bunker project as one of the most important undertakings of his tenure at Midlothian.

“What Lohmann was able to accomplish with the new bunkers has had a major impact on the playability of the course,” he states. “Their drainage solutions, combined with the flat-bottomed design, have eliminated wash outs. The man-hours we used to dedicate to pumping water and repositioning sand can now be better spent. The grass facings do add to mowing time, and we have made the decision to hand-rake all of the bunkers. But the net effect is that we expect to get up to 15 years of use from them, almost double the typical life span of the old bunkers.”

The playing conditions in the bunkers are now very consistent, much to the delight of the members. Their approval rating was at 84 percent after the first season of play, and Behrman projects that at better than 90 percent by now.

Not far away, at Chicago’s Ridgemoor Country Club, superintendent Pete Hahn has also seen the benefits of a major bunker overhaul by Lohmann Golf Designs. Like Midlothian, the old bunkers at Ridgemoor were the flashed-sand style, with the same problems of poor drainage, frequent wash outs and sand contamination.

When Lohmann first proposed redesigning all 57 bunkers in the flat-bottomed, grass-faced style, Hahn was skeptical. But the design was eventually approved and over time, he became a firm believer in their long-term benefits. “The first season after the new bunkers were in place was a learning experience for us,” Hahn admits, “but eventually our maintenance methods became more efficient.

“Even though we rake all the bunkers by hand, and even hand-trim some of the grass sides, the amount of time we save by not having to pump them out and push up the sand after it rains makes it seem like less effort overall,” he explains. Now, after several seasons of evaluation, Hahn is convinced that the bunkers will last much longer because of their improved drainage and minimal sand contamination.

In addition to rebuilding all of the bunkers, LGD recommended repositioning some of them to strengthen play strategies on certain doglegs. And on the practical side, sand from the old bunkers was buried within the new construction, eliminating the need to haul it across the course – saving time, money and wear-and-tear.

Ridgemoor’s members like the consistent play of the new bunkers. Says Hahn, “I believe their approval rating is well over 90 percent.”

Still more evidence that bunker renovations can work wonders to revitalize a golf course can be seen at Poplar Creek Country Club, a public course in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Here too, their flashed-sand style led to maintenance problems, and many of the 64 bunkers were simply enormous.

Based on its previous success, Lohmann Golf Designs was selected to handle the renovation. After in-depth analysis, LGD recommended eliminating 10 of the bunkers that were either out of play or deemed strategically ineffective, and reducing the size of others. They also relocated several of the fairway bunkers to more distant landing zones, in keeping with today’s longer club and ball technology. And, as with the previously mentioned projects, they advised Poplar Creek to convert to the flat-bottomed, grass-faced style.

As LGD president Bob Lohmann points out, “Poplar Creek now has 54 bunkers averaging 1,500 square feet apiece. That’s nearly 58,000 square feet less for the superintendent to maintain.” But with the elimination of unnecessary bunkers, and the well-planned resizing and relocation of others, the strategic and aesthetic aspects of the course have been dramatically improved. “Sometimes less is more,” observes Lohmann.

While renovating bunkers is no small feat, it is a project that can be handled in phases to minimize disruption of play. And as many satisfied superintendents and golfers can attest, the results are well worth it.

In addition to more than 60 renovation projects for golf courses across the country, Lohmann Golf Designs, based in Marengo, Illinois, has created over 35 original golf courses, including Mattoponi Springs Golf Club in Ruther Glen, Virginia and Canyata in Marshall, Illinois—both were recipients of 2005 Golf Digest Awards in the categories of Best New Public Courses and Best New Private Courses, respectively. LGD can be reached at 815-923-3400, or visit www.lohmann.com.