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Architecture Glossary - Revetted Bunkers

28 February, 2022
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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 ‘Revetted Bunker’.

The simplest understanding of a “revetted bunker” comes from comparing the iconic hazard style at the links courses of old to modern minimalist masterpieces.

For the latter, consider the large “blown-out” bunker style of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Sand Hills Golf Club, designed to look as if they have been there forever, and mankind simply built a golf course around these exposed sand areas. Next, consider the many bunkers at the Old Course of St. Andrews, which appear quite constructed, often circular with steep walls. This bunkering is referred to as “revetted,” a reference to the construction of the walls. More on that in a minute.

The infamous Hell bunker guards the route along No. 14 at the Old Course (Photo Credit: St Andrews Links)


The “new” style of Coore and Crenshaw is in fact the oldest form of creating sand hazards, and indeed even the Open Rota’s gems once hosted similar hazards. Unfortunately for the Scottish course managers of old, “blow-out” was often a literal problem. The linksland’s sandy terrain was constantly influenced by coastal winds. Keeping sand in hazards proved difficult, until the introduction of revetting.

This process involves taking strips of turf — the grass itself and the immediate layer below where the root system takes hold — and stacking them meticulously around the edge of a bunker. The layers of roots bind to create a solid wall of sod, which holds the surrounding soil from collapsing outward, while keeping the sand portion of the trap well below the blowing winds at ground level. A revetted wall often resembles a 14-layer cake, however there are generally many more layers than that. Depending on the height of the bunker, there may be more than 50 layers of turf required to revet.

This term “revetted bunker” can be used interchangeably with “sod-faced bunker.” However, although the wooden sleepers serve the same purpose, they don’t fit the description of “revetted” as understood in golf course architecture.

The origins of the concept may have been for utilitarian purposes only, but the resulting product came with strategic implications. This strategy is most evident in the revetted bunker’s most iconic form: the pot bunker.

One of the world's most famous pot bunkers guards the left side of the green at the Old Course's No. 17 hole. (Photo Credit: St Andrews Links)


The Open rota is pockmarked with pot bunkers, which have become one of links golf’s most enduring images. Although smaller than the average American parkland-style hazard, the impact on the next shot is considerably more penal. The depth of the trap requires an extreme loft to escape. Although better golfers can sometimes find the green in regulation after finding a standard bunker off the tee, a pot bunker makes such a lengthy shot impossible. And moving forward is a best case scenario! Because the ball often rolls forward into the bunker, it may come to rest near the front of the hazard, requiring a lateral exit because the forward shot is simply too steep.

This emphasis on heavier penalties is, interestingly, a relatively new phenomenon, correlating somewhat with Americans’ fascination for tree-lined fairways. Old photos showing Bobby Jones at St. Andrews indicate that the Road bunker, perhaps the most notorious pot bunker in the world, was not revetted at all. Over time it evolved until the point where the greenside face is nearly five feet deep.

Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie wrote about the trend for Golf Course Architecture magazine.

“In the space of about a decade from the mid-1970s, most bunkers on Open courses were revetted, if they were not already, and most other links followed suit,” the architects wrote. “As this approach became adopted widely, the style evolved, with many bunkers becoming deeper and steeper faced. It was like an arms race to see how hard they could become.”

The famous ring bunker at Muirfield's No. 18 green during the process of reconstruction. Note the sod being stacked to form the wall of the hazard. (Photo Credit: Gary Eunsun)


A revetted bunker is hardly required to be a pot. In fact, many of the UK’s most famous monsters are revetted as well. Another St. Andrews example is “Hell,” as well as one of the other most famous hazards in Open history, the ring bunker that guards the final green at Muirfield. Although more shallow than the examples listed above, players must also deal with the infamous mound of grass that runs through the center.

The ring bunker after a successful reconstruction. (Photo Credit: Gary Eunsun)


That trend has carried across the Open Rota and elsewhere, as courses seek to both keep sand safe while maintaining their challenge to the modern golfer. That said, the modern golfer rarely complains when they find a revetted bunker outside of the UK, because the style has become intertwined with what modern golfers associate with classic links. Their employ around the world have been both utilitarian and aesthetic.

The No. 5 hole at New South Wales features revetted bunkers to defend against winds coming off of the South Pacific. (Photo Credit: New South Wales Golf Club)


One of the most famous sets of revetted bunkers outside of the UK is at New South Wales Golf Club in Sydney. The pots that now dot the route are unlike anything else in Alister MacKenzie’s portfolio. Part of this is because Eric Apperly handled bunker construction after MacKenzie left, but — as at many UK courses — the current slew of revetted bunkers is a relatively new addition. The club used the technique to defend its hazards against the stiff winds off the Tasman Sea.

Absence of a sea has hardly prevented inland courses from introducing revetted bunkers to its property. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry went all out at The Pulpit Club’s Paintbrush course, near Toronto, which features 108 revetted hazards.

The Paintbrush Course at The Pulpit Club. (Photo Cred: The Pulpit Club)


Why haven’t more courses taken the style up? For one, revetting a bunker requires more labor than the average sand trap (The Paintbrush has rebuilt all of its bunkers three times in the course’s relatively short history). If a parkland course isn’t battling coastal winds, the process is often not worth the club’s time or budget. And, as suggested earlier, revetted hazards are more likely to slow up play. A worthwhile challenge at a championship club, to be sure, but worth destroying the ego of the sand-weak weekend golfer? In many cases, probably not.

In fact, some old world clubs are moving back to the “new” way of crafting bunkers. As part of his celebrated work at Trump Turnberry’s Ailsa course, Ebert returned the course’s revetted bunkers to a more “blown-out,” natural style.

Will we soon see other courses on the Open rotation change their tune and move away from the revetted style? Perhaps in some instances, but increased viewership during the television era has made the revetted bunker an integral part of the links identity for modern players. These hazards will likely endure for years to come.

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