Ever since animals first dug into the sides of sandhills in search of shelter from chilly winds, golf links have had deep, dark, foreboding bunkers. Naturally, golf architects soon began imitating nature, and the results are classic hazards like the Road Hole Bunker at St Andrews in Scotland.
Today, it’s a rare golf course that doesn’t sport at least one notorious pit or pot bunker. Sometimes its creation is pure happenstance, conceived not on a drawing board but on the spur of the moment in the field.
When workers were initially grading a fairway at the Greg Norman-designed El Cameleón Golf Club on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline, they uncovered a cenote (Spanish for sink hole), a swimming pool-size hole that connected to a deeper network of underground canals that meander through the coral bedrock. As luck would have it, the hole was right in the centre of the landing zone of the proposed fairway, so Norman decided to toss a little sand into its bottom and utilise it as an eye-stopping cross-hazard, a “cave bunker”, for the resort course’s par-5 opening hole. (It plays as the seventh hole for the PGA Tour’s annual Mayakoba Golf Classic.)
During early construction of the second 18 at Pronghorn Golf Club, in volcanic fields north of Bend in Oregon, Tom Fazio design associates Tim Jackson and Scott Hoffman were asked by the developer to provide some fill for home pads and roadbeds. They suggested scooping out lava from the flat area in front of the proposed eighth green. When crews blasted rock from that area, the ground slumped, exposing a couple of large caves known as lava tubes. This was a pleasant surprise but not necessarily unexpected, because there are nearly a thousand known lava tubes in the county around Bend.
Today, the par-3 eighth on Pronghorn’s Tom Fazio Course sits above a 15-metre-deep canyon and the yawning mouths of two lava tubes. As a publicity stunt, Fazio once posed for photos seated at a desk inside one cave, which led to an urban legend that he kept an office in the steady 10-degree environment during site visits. He did not. But the resort does offer a dining experience in the lava tube beneath the eighth green for up to 20 guests per evening.
The deep sod-face pot bunker front and centre of the green on the short par-4 sixth at the Straits course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin (site of the 2020 Ryder Cup) wasn’t provided by Mother Nature. It was built at the direction of course designer Pete Dye. But it didn’t exist when the course opened in 1998. It came into being after the 2007 US Senior Open at Whistling Straits. After Dye observed senior golfers driving the green on the 325-metre hole, he decided the hole needed an intimidation factor to be competitive for the 2010 PGA Championship. He refashioned the green into a horseshoe shape and excavated a pit bunker in front. Mindful that the Straits is a resort course, Dye contoured the sand in the bunker so balls roll a few feet away from the vertical front face (which is taller than any player), allowing even high-handicappers a chance of a recovery onto the green.