On the coast of Wales, not far from Swansea, is Pennard Golf Club, called the “links in the sky.” Golf here dates back to 1896, with James Braid and then C.K. Cotton responsible for the design.
There is disdain in my heart for Pennard, even though I’ve never been anywhere near it. The contempt rose in me after reading an item in Golf Course Architecture about alterations to Pennard.
Tom Doak has been appointed Pennard’s consulting architect. No problem with that.
“The club has just started a program of rebuilding its bunkers, installing the EcoBunker artificial revetting solution to reduce its maintenance burden, and Doak will advise on both placement and shaping of those bunkers,” the article reads.
Great, just what the industry needs: Fake bunkers that don’t have to be maintained, that require very few man-hours, that don’t need, well, humans. It’s an owner’s dream come true – install fake bunkers, lay off a couple of crew guys.
It’s stunning that Doak, of all people, would get involved with something like synthetic bunker faces. Isn’t he a minimalist, a naturalist, a traditionalist? Isn’t this the guy who – rightfully – had a fit when the Links Trust decided to soften the 11th green on the Old Course in St. Andrews and add bunkers near the second green? (Full disclosure: I did, too.)
It’s difficult to imagine Doak, in his book “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses,” giving a favorable review to such an old layout implementing imitation sand hazards.
We all know the need to save money is real in this era of golf where all the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. There has to be, though, places where the ground, the actual ground and not something meant to look like the ground, remains real. Bunkers are one of those places. Already so many appear fake with brilliant white sand that has to be trucked into a site because it’s not naturally found in that part of the universe. (Thank you to Augusta National for trumpeting that trend.)
Rough-edged bunker edges or well-maintained tight edges are appealing because they’re real and because no matter how much work is put into them, nature will have its way with soil and the turf, ensuring it’s never flawless.
Look, a real golf course should never look like a computer animation of a golf course. My opposition to faux bunkers isn’t just about appearances.
Slowly but surely, right before our eyes, the world of golf course maintenance is becoming about machines and not man, with robot mowers and counterfeit bunkers.
There’s a talent in properly doing almost any form of labor as part of course maintenance, whether it be walk mowing greens, hand raking bunkers or tweaking an irrigation system. Correctly building a revetted bunker is a true gift.
It’s a fact lost on just about anyone who has never worked on a golf course, but that’s human nature. It’s difficult to understand or appreciate the work others do if one has never been exposed to it.
I fear, too, that this is just the start of the counterfeit golf course movement.
We all know what’s coming down the pike.
First it will be synthetic turf on tees, then greens and then ultimately fairways. The movement will be driven by research that shows maintenance costs decline dramatically as does water usage. The high-end desert layouts will be the first to make the switch.
Does it seem unlikely that will happen?
Do you think that when ChemGrass made its debut in 1966 at the Astrodome, and then was re branded as AstroTurf, that most people thought plastic turf would one day be found everywhere from professional football stadiums to youth league soccer pitches?
No way. Fake golf courses are inevitable. You’ll see fake turf, fake sand, probably even fake clover just to give the fairways a little bit more of a realistic look.
There will never be a time when 100 percent of golf courses will have phony turf, but there will be a sizable percentage and that will be a sad day.
Years from now, the minimalists, the naturalists and the traditionalists will look back and yell out with bile on their breath, “Pennard!”