Golf Course Hazards: Placement and Design
By: Gary Panks

The definition of a hazard, as stated in The Rules of Golf, is any bunker or water hazard. Types of hazards are sand bunkers, water features and drainage channels, quarries, or any other feature found on the course which is designated as a hazard by red or yellow stakes.

Incorporation of hazards in a course is a given. They are an important element, and their placement can either enhance or detract from the quality of a golf course. Those that add beauty and a fair challenge certainly enhance the golf experience, while those that don't, seem not to blend well with other elements of the course, serving no sound strategy. They only tend to irritate the golfer and degrade the golf experience.

The most common misuse of hazards I have noticed is what I call over-cooking the course with bunkers. Many architects use bunkers as a crutch or a lazy man's approach to golf course design. They just load the course with them because they are photogenic. Some architects don't work hard enough at the design to incorporate a balance of other elements. I have seen many courses with seventy-five to one hundred or more bunkers in play. In most cases, I believe that these courses would be much better with far fewer bunkers. Time and time again, we see golf holes where the removal of one or more bunkers would greatly improve course aesthetics and playability on top of reducing construction and maintenance costs while also speeding up the pace of play.

More golf course architects should pay attention to other means of creating good strategy and aesthetics, such as artful shaping of landforms, strategic placement of trees, and creative design of green complexes.

Why in the world does a 470-yard par-4 hole require a collection of sand bunkers? Most golfers will not hit the green in regulation on very long holes such as this. What a wonderful opportunity to challenge the pitching and chipping skills of a golfer with a green complex that offers many options for imagination in one's short game.

Many of these holes, overdone with bunkers, confound only the average player, while the expert golfer will fly over or play around the bunkers. This only degrades the average player's golf experience, and has very little effect on the low handicapper who possesses the skill to escape the bunker when caught.

Other hazards such as water features, when used judiciously, can enhance the golfer's experience. They can be wonderfully pleasing to the eye and often add a great deal of drama to the golf hole. If two or more water hazards are used in the design, there should be a balance in their placement so as not to favor only one style of play. Crossing hazards should be kept to a bare minimum, as they tend to intimidate and result in slow play and high scores.

Additionally, routing two or three holes around a body of water can create a good deal of interest as well as synergy for the course. Before incorporating creeks or streams into one's design, the architect should investigate the initial costs - potentially very high - ongoing power costs, and overall maintenance costs. I have seen several of these types of water features built only to be abandoned years later due to problems of maintenance and cost.

Drainage channels can serve as hazards while adding beauty and challenge to a course routing. In arid regions they are very effective in carrying off storm water. Since golf is seldom played during major storms for the most part, this type of hazard offers a meandering element which can be landscaped with native grasses, wildflowers and plants. The result can be a hazard that is aesthetically pleasing while still offering the golfer a chance of recovery.

Placement of hazards is critical to a sound design. However, architects don't always agree on design principles and strategy for them. With that in mind, I will summarize my criteria for their use in our designs.

For the most part, I think bunker placement on a dogleg hole should be on the inside, with the outside raised or mounded to help turn the fairway. Trees can also be helpful for this turning of the hole. Having bunkered the inside of a dogleg off the tee, I will often place a bunker on the opposite side fronting part of the green. This rewards a golfer playing down the middle, and requires that a player who bales far away from the fairway bunker play a longer approach over the greenside bunker.

Many times, if multiple bunkers are used, there will be one placed short of the first fairway landing area and another 270 to 300 yards out on the opposite side. This practice, along with proper contouring, does a good job of defining the landing area for most golfers.

In the bunkering of the green complex, one should consider not only strategy of play, but other natural elements such as landforms, boulders, trees, and water features. Only after making the best use of these elements should bunkers be introduced. And, of course, good drainage should be reflected in the design. Greens should drain in at least two directions and water should never be directed into a bunker.

In our designs, there is usually a bailout area near the green for golfers who prefer not to challenge the bunkers. On most holes an avenue is provided for one to "run" the ball into the putting surface.

Various bunker styles are used depending on a chosen look and feel for the course. Although it may be a pot, beach, fairway or greenside bunker, visibility is paramount. There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this rule: a drop off bunker behind and below the putting surface - sometimes referred to as a "collection" bunker, and any bunker placed behind another that is visible.

On designing the bunker, my preference is to grade the frontal area as close to fairway level as possible without draining water into the sand. This allows a good view of sand from the tee or approach area for a bold design statement. I never like to see only a sliver of sand. Flashing sand high on a slope for visibility can be dramatic, but is probably not a good idea in areas of substantial rainfall.

Greenside bunkers as a rule are placed from four to six feet from the putting surface. There must be room for the collar and enough space to turn the mower around, and I like to roll the turf into the sand. This gives a pillow-like look to the bunker surrounds, which adds character and a look of maturity.

The thoughtful placement of forty-five to fifty-five bunkers in an architect's design, along with sound strategy using other elements such as trees, water features, landforms, rough, shortcut areas and native grasses, will often result in a superior golf course.