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Architecture Glossary - Cape and Bay Bunker

26 April, 2022
Ryan Book

The message of great, strategic golf course architecture is clear. The actual words used to describe those golf courses, however, are many. The Architecture Glossary column will examine more precise terms and concepts that one will find when exploring golf course architecture. Hopefully understanding these terms, and why certain architects employed them, will help you to better understand the golf courses you play…and maybe even improve your scores!

Today’s term is ‘Cape and Bay Bunker’.

The roles that capes and bays play in some of the world’s most scenic golf courses is a fact that cannot be misunderstood. The concept of a Cape and Bay Bunker, on the other hand, is one that’s fallen increasingly out of use, and therefore makes for an excellent subject for this month’s Architecture Glossary column. (It’s a concept that’s also unrelated to C.B. Macdonald’s Cape template, which you can learn more about here).

As with so many concepts in the golf course architecture lexicon, we can find a renowned example at St. Andrews’s Old Course.

Although the Hell bunker easily pre-dates the term 'cape and bay' bunker, the hazard exemplifies its challenge. Photo Credit: St Andrews Links.

Consider “Hell,” the massive guardian off of the left of No. 14, and how its shaping can share a name with the geological features named above. In this case, the peninsular arm that reaches into the bunker from the front would be the “cape.” And when you have such an arm extending into a trap, it tends to create smaller gathering areas at either side. These are the “bays.”

Adding such a cape creates a variety of possible outcomes for a ball that enters the hazard. Those who get lucky and stay to the back of Hell may not be able to hit the green, but they’ll have a relatively simple line out of the deep trap. Those who get too far into the revetted bunker may not be able to move forward; those in the bays would have had a lateral option if the cape were not there. Now, if they don’t trust their lofting angle forward, they must consider traveling backwards just to get out.

Granted, mention the concept of a “cape and bay” to the average St. Andrews devotee and you may get a raised eyebrow. Although this bunker certainly fits the description, the term was popularized during a much different era of golf course architecture.

The origin of the term is ill-defined, but here’s a handy definition as written by architect Bob Lohmann during 1988 for Bob Lohmann during 1988 for The Bull Sheet (a blithely titled publication of the Midwest Association of Golf Course Superintendents).

“A commonly used bunker is the cape and bay bunker, where sand is placed on constructed mounds and grass is placed on capes between and below the mounds,” he writes. “By varying the outline of the sand and modifying the heights and widths of both the sand and the grass capes, the overall bunker becomes attractive.”

Tom Fazio in particular has became known for utilizing this style of bunker to create the visual appeal described by Lohmann. Fazio’s use of steep sand faces on many of his bunkers creates an undeniable sex appeal when seen from the tee box…and the kind of animal magnetism that attracts tee shots as well.

Perhaps the concept of “cape and bay” bunkers was created for visual appeal, as Lohmann notes, however there is fortunately a side serving of strategy to go along with it.

Consider No. 18 at Victoria National Golf Club, arguably the toughest course in a large collection of intimidating courses designed by Fazio. Water and bunkers play a role throughout the round at this backbreaker, and the final trap will make one consider their approach carefully. There’s water right of the green, so left would be a preferred miss. But whether it’s five yards long and left, or five yards short and left, may create a recovery just as tricky as the lake. For example, if the pin is at the front of the green, and the player hits over the cape to the back bay of the bunker, clearing the cape and carrying the front of the bunker to reach the front of the green is a doubtful proposition.

Even the most novice of golfers understands that landing in a bunker is a bad thing. Those who understand the cape and bay concept will recognize that landing in some parts of the bunker is worse than others.

The front right bunker at Peahtree's No. 6 demonstrates the more modern understanding of a cape and bay bunker, with sand rising up the face of the cape extending into the hazard. Photo credit: Billy Satterfield Golf Course Gurus.

Although the actual term “cape and bay” may be more recent, its concept dates back several generations. Robert Trent Jones certainly had a role in influencing Fazio’s approach to architecture, but some of his most artful cape and bay bunkers can be seen at a project from early during his career, at Peachtree Golf Club.

Jones worked on the project in collaboration with Bobby Jones, who wished to create a course of equal quality to Augusta National. Part of that unfolds in the bunkering, which took considerable influence from Alister MacKenzie’s work with Jones at Augusta National. When it debuted during 1932, it featured a notorious collection of what could now be called cape and bay bunkers (which can be seen in this feature from Golfer’s Digest). While many of those hazards have lost their cape fingers, a significant number of holes at Peachtree still offer capes to challenge golfers.

Perhaps the most daunting is the front-right bunker at No. 6. If you miss right on this 235-yard par three, try to at least stay left of the cape…or even miss the bunker entirely by going too far right. Those in the right bay will be forced to blast uphill over the grassy knob toward the green.

Tillinghast's talon-shaped bunkers at Bethpage Black serve as even more sinister versions of the cape and bay bunker. Photo credit: Ryan Book.

Another Golden Age rendition comes in the form of the notorious Tillinghast talons that the architect demonstrated at routes such as Winged Foot and Bethpage Black. The length of the capes in a hazard such as greenside right at Black No. 18 means the player essentially has one line of escape. If the flag is at the back and you’re in the front bay, good luck getting up and down for par.

There are obvious difficulties in playing out of a cape and bay, but the style presents a challenge for superintendents as well. As with any other form of flashed-face bunkering, water and gravity will tend to bring the sand from the walls of the bunker down into the bays. Therefore you’re more likely to see a Fazio-era cape and bay at courses with high budgets to spend on upkeep (a descriptor that fits with many of the architect’s most acclaimed designs).

Even if your local course’s bunkers don’t feature a pretty sand face, beware of its grassy fingers nonetheless. If you miss, make sure you miss to the correct side of the cape.


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