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Architecture Glossary - Puzzle Piece Bunkering

23 February, 2023
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 ‘Puzzle Piece Bunkering’.

Although many concepts within golf course architecture are shared across a wide variety of architects, they often become associated in particular with a single architect (few come to mind as quickly as Pete Dye when discussing an “island green” for example). The same applies to Dick Wilson and “puzzle piece bunkering.”

Wilson is often associated with the penal era of golf, and some of the most challenging courses ever created. These routes often featured tight fairways, lofted greens and, of course, plentiful bunkering. Although it has become somewhat fashionable to lump all of these architects together into one oversimplified bin, the designers of this era each had definitive aesthetics. Wilson was perhaps the most stylistically distinguished of the group, thanks to his bold puzzle piece bunkering.

The simple essence of this idea is bunkering that defy simple geometry, involving a number of irregular ins-and-outs. While his contemporary, Robert Trent Jones, helped to usher in the era of cape-and-bay bunkering — generally more curvilinear in shape — Wilson often showcased a style both jagged and geometric, like he had taken a jigsaw (pun intended) to the soil. To differing degrees, the shapes of the bunkers were compared to puzzle pieces.

Consider the opening hole at Coldstream Country Club in Cincinnati, Ohio. Off the tee, there are three bunkers that feature inward pegs, giving the metaphorical impression that they could, indeed, be linked together with other “missing pieces.” Look ahead to the green, and a pair of longer bunkers are stylized in much the same way.

An aerial of the opening hole at Coldstream shows how Keith Foster's restoration added Dick Wilson's character back to the club's bunkers.

In terms of function, the turf inlets into the bunker behave very much like cape-and-bay bunkers, creating awkward lines out of the trap for those who end up near inserts. But the general presentation of the bunker is very much a question of aesthetics.

Not familiar with Wilson’s signature style? Much of this can be traced to standards of upkeep. Colstream has recently undergone a restoration from Keith Foster, which involved reconstructing Wilson’s signature, rough edges into the bunker. This style requires dedicated maintenance to preserve its appearance, and — as a result — many of Wilson’s most celebrated designs have found their bunkering taking a more curvilinear shape over the decades.

Another architect that has seen similar style degradation is Alister MacKenzie, who is noted for his “feathered” bunkering. In fact, it’s not too far to suggest that the Scot created a few puzzle pieces of his own.

Consider Titirangi Golf Club, MacKenzie’s only design in New Zealand. The greenside bunkers alongside No. 4 take more distinctly “puzzle-piece” shapes, a style that Wilson would pursue at many of his most notable courses, including Pine Tree Golf Club.

It’s unlikely that MacKenzie was Wilson’s prime influencer, of course. That title belongs to William Flynn, to whom Wilson was employed up until the Great Depression set in.

Alister MacKenzie's approach to bunkering occasionally merits comparisons to Wilson's, particularly at Titirangi. (Photo Credit: Gary Lisbon)

Through Flynn’s involvement at Merion Golf Club, Wilson became intimately familiar with the club’s East Course, and his boss’s work constructing its bunkers (Hugh Wilson completed the design and hired Flynn for construction). The shapes around this world-renowned course reflect where Wilson may have gotten his own shaping ideas.

Particularly interesting are the four bunkers that sit between the fairways for holes Nos. 11 and 12; not only do these hazards take a shape we would expect from Wilson in later years, they also seem as if they would fit together — like puzzle pieces — to create a single, massive sand hazard.

Although this is not what’s usually meant by “puzzle piece” bunkering, it does demonstrate a tendency that Flynn would take to other courses, such as Shinnecock Hills, and that Wilson would replicate his own courses. By clustering bunkers and nesting smaller sand hazards within the curves of larger ones, the architect can create an intimidating sight from the tee, as these hazards appear to be part of a much larger sand trap. Wilson, before opening his own design firm, worked creating camouflage for U.S. airfields during World War II. Who knows if his early years in golf course design paid dividends for the Allied forces?

Wilson no doubt took some cues from William Flynn while working at Merion, among other clubs. Note the similarities in style, but also how this cluster of bunkers between Merion's No. 11 and 12 holes seems to fit together in puzzle form.

The movements following Wilson have not necessarily maintained the “puzzle piece” style, however they have not thrown them by the wayside either. Joe Lee was Wilson’s most prominent student and, although his projects never gathered as much attention as Wilson’s, the latter’s style inevitably seeped to the former’s. Lee’s last original design, Musket Ridge, shows some tendencies toward puzzle piece bunkering at No. 6, although clearly influenced by the wiggling aesthetics popularized in that era by Jim Engh and Bob Cupp. The modern “minimalist” approach doesn’t quite leave room for such bunkers, however it’s not tough to imagine that a modern parkland course, relying on the frazzled fashion cues of Doak et al, could incorporate such a style.

Great golf course architecture should present itself as a puzzle to be solved. Dick Wilson found a way to make his bunkers a puzzle to be seen as well.


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