Shaping 72 bunkers in six weeks over the course of two winters may seem like a ridiculous project to take on, but, in fairness to everyone involved in the renovation of Castletown Golf Links on the Isle of Man, it wasn't originally supposed to work out like that. I suppose I only have myself to blame - after all, nobody seemed the slightest bit concerned about the condition of the traps until I first started visiting the course around four years ago.
I was initially invited to spend a couple of days at this magnificent old links by its owner, Graham Ferguson Lacey, after he had completed the takeover of the Machrie Golf Links, where I have been employed for ten years. A change of Head Greenkeeper soon after my first visit (this had nothing to do with me, honest!) resulted in me making further visits to the Isle of Man, during which it was suggested that I take on a role where I would use my knowledge of the game to suggest subtle changes that might enhance a golf course that had remained relatively unaltered for almost 50 years.
It certainly didn't look like any of the rather ineffective and unattractive bunkering had been altered during that time, and a recommendation to Mr Lacey that something might be done about the situation resulted in an architect being employed to give the place the once over. The resulting plans were poured over by one and all, but it didn't appear to any of us that what was being suggested actually made much of an improvement.
Time passed on without much progress being made, until a disappointing drop in the 2006 rankings of the Golf World top 100 clubs, despite a noticeable improvement in turf conditions since Mark Kitching had taken charge of the greenkeeping, prompted crisis talks. Mr Lacey wanted to know once and for all what Mark and I thought should be done about the bunkering.
So we told him; "rebuild and subtly alter all the existing traps, and evaluate where a selection of new ones should be added in order to improve the strategy of the golf course and to ensure that the integrity and inherent difficulty of the original design was retained, even with Castletown's members using the best of today's technologically advanced golf equipment". That must have sounded pretty good, because we were basically told that he wanted it done, and that he wanted it done before Golf World returned to evaluate the course in 2008.
Now, I would think that, under normal circumstances (especially considering that Castletown is a free-draining links), it is entirely feasible to rebuild 50 bunkers and add 22 new ones over the course of two winters. The problem we were facing was that, although Mark was extremely confident that he could turf and finish off the bunkers, he felt that he did not have the knowledge of the game and its strategy required to project manage such a huge architectural change. We felt we were confident enough to do it together, but that meant me coming down to the Isle of Man for long periods of time - a scenario my wife wasn't entirely over the moon about!
Still, we figured it was on, and having promised Catherine that I wasn't planning to be away for more than two weeks at a time, we set about making plans and communicating with the membership as to what they thought was required. Ideas were passed back and forth over the summer, before a final drawing was sent to Mr Lacey for his enthusiastic approval.
Before any construction took place we met on site to discuss the practicalities of the task ahead. We had decided not to revet the bunkers as, although Castletown has fantastic links turf, it is laid out over a shale bed.
Cutting turf to the depth required to revet bunkers is impossible - an inch is about all you get before the turfcutter starts to chuck you about like a ragdoll. We decided instead to go for a very simple formula - stripping the turf, digging a hole, chucking the spoil to the sides and out front, and aiming the 'snout' of every bunker we did right down the line of play.
I strongly believe that bunker building never needs to be any more technical than this - much as I love the ragged edges of Mackenzie bunkers, or the heather faces of Walton Heath, I think there is hardly ever much call for making unnecessary artistic statements that detract from the beauty of the surrounding landscape. I do think that anybody planning to rebuild any bunker needs to follow this list of architectural rules:
1) Always point the middle of your bunker down the line of play, and always point the middle of greenside bunkers towards the centre of the green. Then, when a golfer goes in it, he will hardly ever get what he considers to be an awkward stance, and he will usually feel relatively comfortable. You can always follow this rule, no matter what shape your bunker is.
2) Never, ever, create a hump at the back of your bunker. I fail to see what point there is in creating a mound that stops a ball from going into a hazard. At Castletown, we lowered more than half of the entrances in to the new bunkers, in order to increase their effectiveness at catching balls. If you are building your bunker on a side slope, use the same rule - dump the spoil on the bottom side to build up the bank (creating the illusion that the hazard is on the level), and leave the top side relatively open to catch balls that kick down the hill.
3) Resist the temptation to get too fancy. Bunkers are supposed to fit into the landscape, not take it over.
4) When planning how deep to go, think about how your golf course is perceived by the golfing public. If you are redesigning a championship links, as we were, feel free to go deep and toughen things up a bit. If you're running a busy municipal where slow play and wear issues are problematic, think about the impact making the course more difficult might have. Try to make the challenge set by your bunkering mirror the challenge set by the overall design of the course. Woodhall Spa and Royal County Down are great examples of this.
5) If you are in any doubt whether an architectural change is really necessary, don't do it. If you do intend to make changes, consult absolutely anybody who you believe could give you an informed opinion, and make your decision based on all the information you have amassed. An arrogant belief that it is 'your golf course' is a sure way to get things all wrong.
Anyway, enough of the architecture tutorial, back to Castletown. The ease with which we executed the first phase of the plan showed that, by doing our homework and keeping our design simple, we could rattle through the work in no time, despite only having a JCB 3CX with an extending backhoe to work with. Machine operator, Matthew Carter, was absolutely brilliant from the start, getting to grips with the design principles immediately and showing a talent for always getting the scale spot-on.
Mark and his team stripped the turf, Matty would dig the pit and scatter it round the faces to the best of his machine's limited ability, and I would come in with a landscaping rake to do the finishing and consolidating. Once I was convinced that all the angles were perfect and that everything was tramped tight enough, I would move on to the next one, which would invariably be ready for me to move right into.
The first two week period went like clockwork, and Mrs Freeman was delighted to learn that we had 21 bunkers ready for Mark's team to turf. A couple of weeks back at Machrie reconstructing our 12th green followed, before I returned to the Isle of Man for the next batch.
We hit our only real snag during this second phase; a seam of rock at the 14th which saw Mark and I strapped to a pneumatic hammer drill for almost a whole day, removing over two feet of tightly packed slate from the pair of traps we built in front of the green. Apart from this minor setback, we battled on as well as before, completing 11 holes and 40 bunkers before I sneaked off back to my island hideaway for the winter.
At this point I had no idea how our work would be received, but the members seemed happy enough, and plans for phase 2 were quickly put into place. I was especially keen to get to work on the two par 5s during this stage of development, as they have become less than daunting now that golf club technology has brought long and straight hitting to the masses.
Castletown's fairways run faster than any I have ever played on in summer, and the 12th especially had ceased to provide a three shot challenge at all. We decided to alter the teeing angle at this hole, using the existing left hand fairway bunker as the corner of a new dogleg. We then did the obvious thing and built a new bunker 30 yards further up the other side of the fairway, creating a thought-provoking landing area where there had previously only been a wide expanse of grass.
The existing central fairway bunker, 100 yards short of the green, was moved slightly to the side (to actually make it central) before a pair of really evil cross bunkers were built, just 15 yards apart and 40 yards short of the green.
Lastly, the greenside bunkers were tucked in tight to the front corners, to ensure that anyone who bailed out wide of the cross bunkers would have to come in over the deep greenside ones. That may seem like a long-winded description, but I think the transformation of this hole shows how easily a mundane and relatively simple long hole can be improved dramatically just with a bit of thought. Four new bunkers and a repositioned tee was all it took to make every golfer completely change their attitude towards what they had previously considered to be a 'mickey mouse' hole.
Sometimes, even one bunker can make a world of difference, and so it proved at the 7th, the par 5 upon which the first Derby race was run. As its name suggests, this hole is flat, but is made slightly more interesting by its slight dogleg from right to left.
The main problem at this hole was not lack of length, but the fact that the cleverly angled green had been left completely defenceless by pointless bunkering. While it is true that the work we did on the rest of the hole worked well, and digging out an additional bunker next to the existing one 150 yards short of the green gave the hole an extra dimension, it was the pair of new pot bunkers that we built right into the left hand bank of the green - just where the bottom tier forms into the top tier - that had the Manx locals calling for this Scotsman's extradition.
The rest of this year's work went smoothly and was actually fairly mundane compared to what had gone on before but, to see the whole job completed within the allotted timescale and without spending an absolute fortune, is immensely satisfying.
What we have done shows that it is possible for a couple of greenkeepers to put their heads together, communicate fully and properly with local golfers who have a lifetime of playing the course, and come up with, and execute, a cost effective plan that radically transforms a championship golf course.
So that's it, then. 72 bunkers designed, built and brought into play. Job done. No more weeks spent manically shaping in all weathers to keep to the schedule before scurrying back to Islay. No more nights spent laughing in the Union with the Castletown Ale Drinkers Society.Bit of a shame, really.
Sorry… what was that, Mr Lacey? You're planning to build a stunning new clubhouse alongside the 7th fairway, and you want to reconfigure the golf course, constructing lengthened 1st and 18th holes to work alongside a driving range and a short game area? And you want three new holes built at the top end of Langness to fully utilise the magnificent views over the clifftops? Oh, you beauty… here we go again!