Bunkers Prove Penalizing, As Some Think They Should
June 17, 2017 Erin, Wis. By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Players this week are finding the bunkers at Erin Hills to be true hazards. (USGA/John Gress)

W.C. Fownes, the man who continued his father Henry’s lifelong tweaking of nine-time U.S. Open host Oakmont Country Club, once said, “A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost.” On Saturday at Erin Hills, such a punishment is likely to be exacted several times, including on a seemingly benign 123-yard par 3.

No. 9 at Erin Hills has been dubbed “the shortest par 5 in championship golf,” because those who fail to reach the putting surface from the tee have a better-than-even chance of ending up with a testing lie in one of the seven bunkers that surround the green. Through the mid-point of Saturday’s third round, just 16 of the 54 players who found a bunker on No. 9 saved par, or 30 percent.

As Brendan Steele, who stood tied for 13th through two rounds, put it on Friday, “The bunkers here are a one-shot penalty. They’re very steep. You get a lot of lies that aren’t very good.”

When asked about what it meant to host the 117th edition of this championship at Erin Hills, Ron Whitten, one of the three architects, was quick to reply: “I think what impact I’d like Erin Hills to have after this U.S. Open is really in terms of its bunkers. We try to make a statement that bunkers are supposed to be hazards.”

Professional golfers have become so adept at saving par from bunkers that the concept of the sand as hazards has become almost old-fashioned. Top PGA Tour players typically save par half the time when bunkered around the green. In this U.S. Open, that figure has slipped much closer to one-third of the time. The field was successful in converting par just 105 of 281 times through two rounds, or 37 percent.

Whitten rues the modern design trend, which calls for uniform, consistent sand and level lies at the bunker bottom.

“Architects spend as much money building bunkers as they do greens,” said Whitten, who writes about architecture for Golf Digest and who collaborated with Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry on Erin Hills.

Asked about the bunkers at Erin Hills, 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott said, “I think the bunkering is quite severe. It’s quite a severe piece of land, there’s a lot of undulation, and therefore it probably would have been impossible to put bunkers in that weren’t severe.”

“We contoured the floors of the bunkers, so you’ve got awkward shots within the bunkers,” said Whitten. “You have shots that you can’t advance forward, you’ve got to play out sideways. Is that fair? You know, golf is not a fair game. You’re not supposed to be in the bunkers.”

Scott noted, “Maybe the sand is the most unique thing. It’s quite gravelly, gritty, although it doesn’t play too dissimilar to what we’re used to, but maybe a little less control out of the bunkers. And because of the random shaping of the bunker edges, there are some very precarious positions that the ball could end up. So if you can avoid them, it's a good idea.”

Scott mostly heeded his own advice, managing to avoid the bunkers over the first two rounds until his final hole, the aforementioned ninth. He found the daunting back-left bunker off the tee and made a bogey after barely extricating his ball. He ended up missing the 36-hole cut by two strokes.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.