Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bunker Maintenance and Expectations

The other day, Albert Nunes (Golf Superintendent for Morro Bay
and Dairy Creek Golf Courses) and I were sitting down for our weekly meeting.
During our discussion we were

discussing course conditions and our golfers’ expectations. Recently he had

heard a few complaints from some of our regular patrons, golfers that we value greatly;
complain about the condition of our sand bunkers. Primarily these comments were
directed at the amount of sand in the sand bunkers and/or their relative
firmness. I have also received similar comments or questions regarding the sand
bunkers at Chalk Mountain since we renovated those hazards in 2008.

The comments are a concern of Albert's as he desires to please
as many golfers with the course conditions as possible day in and day out. He
and the staff at Dairy Creek pride themselves

in the product quality they produce especially given that our staff size is down
to 6.5 full time employees and one and a half of that quota is Albert (0.5, as
he is the superintendent of operations at Morro Bay and Dairy Creek) and Brad
(1.0, our equipment manager at Dairy Creek). This full time crew is bolstered
by 5 to 6 seasonal/intern staff that work 20 hours per week on average. I am
blessed with a fantastic crew that is dedicated to our customers

and our courses.

I wanted to discuss some of these issues as many courses have
some of the same issues. Sand material that is used to build golf sand bunkers
is selected based upon criteria established through testing by the USGA.
"Bunker sand" as it is called meets a specification that primarily
allows for the penetration of water over a certain amount of time, as well as,
limits cohesion of the material particles. These specs help to maintain
drainage by alleviating standing water after irrigation or rain events, but
also allow for a quality playing surface that does not easily washout during
rain events, create fried egg lies, or become firm like concrete.

The recent comments that we have been receiving stem from the
firmness of our bunkers. Our courses are watered with medium overhead
sprinklers and these sprinklers water our green surrounds and therefore also
irrigate our greenside sand bunkers. We consistently rake our sand bunkers at
Dairy Creek each and every day so that the sand is not too firm on the surface
and to eliminate foot prints. WHAT!? Footprints you ask? Well even though
common etiquette suggests that you are to rake out any remnants of an attempt
to remove your ball from the sand bunker, many players feel as though this is
the duty of maintenance staff and leave these areas prone to "poor
lies" for the following golfers. Please rake the sand bunkers after
playing your shots so that the conditions are ready for the next group behind
you. Now that we have that issue resolved let's address the firm sand/no sand

As I mentioned before the sand can be compacted by the
irrigation water as it waters surrounding turf areas. Many new courses have
been built with small pop-up heads surrounding their bunkers so that bunker
faces and the turf surround them are more adequately irrigated and maintained
by keeping the water out of the sand and on the sod, which prevents sand
washouts and crispy turf. With overhead irrigation, like we have, the sand can
become contaminated with fine soil particles and grass clippings allowing the
sand to become compacted over time. Through the course of play sand is also
lost from the bunkers as shots are hit and sand is thrown out of the bunker
onto the green or roughs around the sand bunkers. Consequently we have to
replenish or replace the sand over time to provide quality playing conditions.
Quality playing there is a difficult term to define.

The expectations of golfers has increased over the past 15-20
years as equipment technology has improved greatly and the amount of daily fee
courses providing the country club experience boomed in the early to mid-1990's.
The ability to travel to a new course across town or in another community exposed
many players to conditions they had not previously experienced. When they returned
to their home course or club they began to ask why their course could not
produce the same conditions. When these
questions are asked, they do not consider the cost they paid to play

the other course which was typically much higher than what they pay for their round
at home or their monthly dues. In short they were not comparing apples to apples.

The amount of time spent maintaining sand bunkers is
considerable. On average we spend 2 hours per day raking the traps 7 days per
week. These areas are edged and defined
at least 2 times per year and that often times takes two workers 3 days to
complete 18 holes, so that is 152 hours per year raking, edging, and keeping
the sand relatively clean. This figure
does not take into account the number of times rain washes out the sand and we
spend 3-5 days reconstructing the sand profile within the bunkers
themselves. This procedure can easily
eat up 40 hours per occurrence. Luckily
we live in CA and this does not typically happen more than 3 times per year (In
the Midwest and East this can happen weekly or multiple times per week). So let’s see that is 866 hours of minimal
bunker maintenance per year. With the
cost of sand and labor alone we likely spend $30,000 per year maintaining our sand

Albert's concern is valid as customer satisfaction is high on
our minds these days given the recent economy and the number of the daily fee
courses that are now competing at the municipal

fee level to stay competitive. As the Director of Operations/Superintendent, satisfaction
is also a great concern of mine as well. This is why earlier I said quality playing conditions
is a difficult thing to determine as the rules of golf deem sand bunkers as
hazards, but many players are upset when they are greeted with a fried egg lie,
on hard-pan, or for god's sake in a footprint!
In fact many tour players aim for greenside bunkers, especially in the majors,
as a lie in bunker sand is much more consistent than that of the lush sticky

My final thought here is that each course’s budgets, customer
expectations, and course conditions vary.
You can typically rest assured that the golf course superintendent is as
concerned or more concerned about your lies across the golf course as you are
because her/his reputation and job may depend upon it. That being said you are participating in a
sport without rigid surfaces like a basketball court and mother-nature often
dictates what we do or how the turf performs on any given day. I can tell you that my staff and I are
working hard to make sure that your experiences on our courses are pleasurable,
but if you want a truly consistent playing surface fairways and greens are the
places to be.