As new, innovative and cost-effective golf course design systems are introduced, greenkeepers need no longer be 'bunkered' by escalating repair and maintenance costs.
Mike Bailey, UK sales director of Ambrose Trading, Wholesale & Distribution Ltd - distributor of Flex MSE, explains: "Love them or hate them, and, let's face it, unless you are Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, it's usually the latter, bunkers are a fundamental aspect not just of golf course design but the very game itself."
In the early days of links golf, bunkers were little more than irregularly-shaped pits, formed by sheep scraping out sand and burrowing into banks to gain shelter. Wind erosion then took over and gradually shaped them into larger open sand areas.
Today, of course, they are an integral part of any golf course layout. Their location, size and shape is no longer down to grazing livestock, but highly experienced golf course architects who spend hours placing them accordingly in order to maximise visual impact and strategic playability.
After the state of a golf course's greens, nothing exercises golfers more than the quality of its bunkers. We've all heard the complaints, some would say excuses; too much sand, too little, too fine, too wet, wrong type of sand. As the criticism mounts it seems many golfers forget that bunkers are, by definition, a hazard.
Cursing the bunker is, however, not exclusive to the players. Of all the routine duties of a greenkeeper, it is bunker maintenance, repair and rebuilding which appears to take up the most substantial amount of staff time, resources, materials and, of course, budget. Keeping bunkers in a condition that today's discerning golfer continually expects can often require more day to day maintenance than caring for the greens and tees combined.
Bunkers can constitute many different forms though there are essentially three main placements on a golf course: the fairway bunkers which are usually larger and shallower, the approach bunkers which are smaller and usually deeper with a definite step down into the sand, and the green side bunkers.
Green side bunkers are usually the smallest; moderately deep, but often grouped in numbers for increased hazard effect. Fairway and approach bunkers are usually less frequented and therefore require less maintenance than green sides, but as technological advances in golf equipment and clubs continue to prompt a constant battle against course length, these are the bunkers that more likely need to be moved or altered to accommodate today's bigger hitters.
Green side bunkers, because of their location and numbers, are not only the most regular undoers of a promising round, but usually require the most maintenance. Renovation will inevitably involve addressing one or more of the following problems; contaminated sand, poor construction, inadequate drainage or edge deterioration.
On many courses, newer bunker traps are shallow and elevated for easier visibility and sand can flash up the front edge creating serious erosion and reduced stability. When bunker faces and edges are eroded and damaged, repair and rebuild activities usually include the removal of turf, excavation, reshaping, soil stabilisation and replacement with new slabs of turf. In recent years, various 'armouring' systems have been introduced into the golf course market to help maintain the sand trap edges and preserve the design integrity of the golf course.
The latest, Flex MSE, was developed in Canada, is already used on various North American golf courses and is now available in the UK. It offers golf course designers and groundsmen an eco-friendly solution when looking to rapidly create fixed landscape structures with enhanced engineering stability and durability.
Comprising two engineered components, soil filled geotextile bags and spiked interlocking plates; the Flex MSE vegetated wall system uses the same globally accepted principles of mechanically stabilised earth that builders rely on for making retaining walls. It only gets stronger and greener as time goes on and requires no specialist equipment or skilled labour.
Repair to a bunker face involves removing the damaged turf, digging a trench to receive the Flex MSE unit, and then laying the bags tightly end to end, with an interlocking plate placed over every bag joint in the row. Successive layers are added in a standard brick and mortar running-bond pattern to engage the interlocking plate and provide inherent system strength. The process is repeated until the desired bunker face height is reached. The structure can then be overlaid with fresh turf or, given a longer timescale, seed can be spread on top of the bags or hydroseeded to accept any type of grass. Where there is high bird or animal traffic that may eat seed then the bags can be pre-seeded to avoid this.
Bunker complex trial
One of the first golf courses to trial the system in this country has been Hockley Golf Club in Twyford, Hampshire. Course manager, Glenn Kirby, commented: "We have been very pleased with the system's ease of installation and the initial visual effect though we'll have to wait until next Spring to get the full aesthetic. Our hope is that it will offer a long term solution to the problem of moving bunker edges, erosion of the faces and animal damage, whilst at the same time presenting our bunkers in a neat, well-defined fashion."
As well as its suitability for bunker repair, it is also a proven erosion control solution that is ideal for golf course applications where land meets water, for example on drainage ditches or unstable stream or lake banks. With very high settlement tolerance and rapid drainage, its components are able to withstand strong water flow and even complete submersion without breaking down.
Elsewhere on a golf course, its construction can also create unique naturalised landscapes or flow over existing formations and site irregularities such as large rocks, trees or roots. This allows course designers to build organic structures without having to rely on right angle decisions, helping to create strong, naturally resilient geomodular structures for walls and slopes whilst delivering a fully customised vegetation finish to seamlessly complement any golf course landscape.
At a time when labour and material costs are being stretched at more and more clubs up and down the country, cost saving decisions remain an ongoing concern for golf club committees and greenkeepers alike. Drastic measures such as removing or reducing the size of some bunkers may even be considered, though this will, of course, have a serious impact on the aesthetic and character of a course.
More preferable is for greenkeepers to consider trialling new systems which help to keep project overheads down by offering savings in complex installation equipment, materials, labour and transportation and, in today's challenging market, provide sound solutions to long term course management policy.