Can Erin Hills put the bite back in bunkers?
ERIN, Wis. – Ron Whitten is one of three co-designers of Erin Hills. He’s also the longtime architecture editor at Golf Digest magazine. Thus, he understands what makes a good story, a compelling hook, a headline grabber. So how about this one? Make Bunkers Great Again. OK, so those aren’t exactly the words Whitten is uttering at this week’s U.S. Open. Given the political overtones, he’s probably wise not to even go there (plus, he’d need a red cap). But in essence, that’s his hope for Erin Hills’ lasting legacy once the final putt drops Sunday afternoon. Bunkers in America, he said, have lost their way. They’ve gone soft. Too uniform, similar sand, flat-bottom lies. Rarely do they challenge the world’s best golfers. Once tough and foreboding, bunkers now are often warm and inviting – especially at U.S. Opens, where bunkers can be the preferred play instead of the thick rough that’s usually part of the tournament set-up. “Oh, my god – they’re pillows,” Whitten said Wednesday on the eve of the 117th U.S. Open. “Everyone wants the same fluffiness, the same consistency, rolling to a flat spot. “Somebody has to take a stand.” Enter Whitten and co-designers Dr. Michard Hurdzan and Dana Fry. When they began constructing Erin Hills more than a decade ago, they set out to make bunkers true hazards, with a significant penalty possible for any balls winding up in the sand. Radical thinking? Perhaps. But bunkers were, of course, originally created to be penal. As Gil Hanse, the architect of the Olympic golf course in Rio and an analysis this week for Fox Sports, said, “For the history of the game, bunkers have been a hazard. If they’re no longer hazardous to play or no longer extract some sort of penalty from a player, then they’re really just taking up space.” Yet many of the world’s best players do seem to make bunker shots easy like Sunday morning, and it’s been that way for the last few decades. Consider this: In 1980, the sand save percentage on the PGA TOUR was 42.64 percent. The percentage began to rise fairly rapidly after that, and in 1992, the average eclipsed 50 percent (50.52) for the first time and stayed that way for the next nine years. Just twice in the past 28 years has sand save percentage dipped below 48 percent – in 2005, when it was 47.99, and in 2011, when it was 47.77. Going into this week’s major, the TOUR average is back over 50 percent (at 50.31). “Especially for the best players in the world,” Hanse said, “it’s gotten to the point where … really the only difference between being in the bunker and being in the grass is the surface they’re hitting off of.” Jason Day, the world’s No. 3-ranked player, concurs. “Unfortunately I think we’ve become accustomed to having certain depth, sand, thickness in bunkers,” he said. “… But ultimately in the end, it’s a hazard and that’s what they’re there for – for you not to be in there.” The Erin Hills design team hopes their course sends out that message loud and clear this week. Utilizing the contours of the land -- rolling terrain reflective of the Kettle Moraine area shaped long ago by converging glaciers – they carved out bunkers void of flat areas, essentially taking the same approach as they did with the undulating fairways. Players hitting out of Erin Hills’ bunkers could face an uphill lie, a downhill lie, a sidehill lie, perhaps a ball resting precariously on a crest or in a valley between mounds of sand. “You have awkward shots within the bunkers, shots you can’t advance forward,” Whitten said. “You have to play out sideways. Is that fair? Golf’s not a fair game. You’re not supposed to be in the bunkers.” Is he positive that none of Erin Hills’ 138 bunkers have a flat lie? “If there’s one out there,” he said, “it’s by mistake.” Sand, of course, could be smoothed out to make the lies more even. But Erin Hills has “finely granulated granite,” according to Whitten, with small pebbles that help the sand stay in its original formation and hold the contours. Although some have wondered that the pebbles might fall onto the putting surface when a player splashes out, Whitten has a solution – just use a towel to whisk away the pebbles. “They’ve got caddies to clear away loose impediments,” he said. “It’s legal.” Meanwhile, the designers were determined to include erosion bunkers as a key element of the design. Whitten traveled to the foothills of Kansas and took photographs of the water erosion in the land. He brought the photos back to Wisconsin and basically wanted to match that look. Thus, there are approximately 35 to 40 erosion bunkers, with little nooks and crannies – “fingers” if you will – extending out into the rough. The areas are so small that using a rake is impossible; players or caddies will simply need to smooth out the areas with their feet after shots are taken. Depending on which direction the finger is pointing, a ball finding one of those areas could result in a bunker shot with no chance at the pin. Or perhaps even the green. Consider the par-3 ninth, with erosion bunkers around the green. In a USGA video this week, amateur Brad Dalke tried to maneuver a shot onto the green from one of those lies. He couldn’t. Whitten said he saw Daniel Chopra trying to do the same thing. Hanse estimates that just 10-15 percent of all shots in the bunker at the ninth hole will wind up in a crevice. But perhaps 100 percent of the players will be thinking about it off the tee because of the fingers. “The bunker will have expanded in your mind, the emphasis it has on the hole,” he said. Players will learn quickly that it’s useless to try a hero shot from certain spots. Instead, they’ll find it’s best to simply accept the consequences of their errant shot and move on. Or better yet, just avoid the bunkers altogether. “They accept it in Scotland,” Whitten said, referencing the deep-faced pot bunkers. “But in the U.S., it’s considered unfair.” It’s a noble objective, putting teeth back into bunkers. Making it painful to visit rather than a place of beachy tranquility, in which saving par is better than a 50-50 proposition. Will Erin Hills succeed? Whitten certainly hopes so. But there are no guarantees. “It’ll be interesting to see if our philosophy is rejected or copied,” he said. Perhaps he’ll know more once the tournament starts. If players start complaining about the erosion bunkers and the impossible shots they encounter, please forgive him for feeling a sense of satisfaction. Erin Hills will have brought back the bunker.
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