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Architecture Glossary - Sahara Bunker

24 June, 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 ‘Sahara Bunker’.

Golfers, and mankind in general, are prone to cliché. Given a load of options, we always manage to use the same word. We’re not sure who was the first to describe a green as “devilish” (perhaps Bernard Darwin) but we are sure that no word is used more often a century later. For example, there are dozens of deserts in the world, and yet when it gets warm, we never say “hotter than the Kalahari” or “dryer than the Gobi.” It’s always the Sahara.

Here’s something to feel reassured about: The great golf course architects of yore had the same exact problem!

There is a tendency to describe any large area of sand as “Sahara”-esque but, due to historical precedent, it’s recommended that you only use “Sahara” when describing two specific, and completely different, scenarios.

Scenario One: Within The “Alps” Template

You can learn all about the “Alps” template as part of Top100’s template series, which examined the system of hole design employed in the United States by Charles Blair Macdonald and his followers…Seth Raynor, Charles “Steamshovel” Banks, and a handful of modern architects. The core of the Alps concept is a blind second shot over a hill (the Alps) to the green. A major factor, however, was a bunker ahead of the green, blind to the player and inspiring many a nervous overhit, lest they suffer by hitting too short.

The bunker ahead of the green at Prestwick's No. 17 is named "Sahara" and therefore the name has stuck with every instance of the Alps template that Charles Blair Macdonald derived from it.

This bunker was referred to as the “Sahara”...but not necessarily by Macdonald. The original hole that Macdonald took inspiration from, and the bunker that originally bore the name, are at Prestwick Golf Club’s No. 17 hole. The founders of the club, perhaps with limited geographical awareness to draw from, managed to work references to both the “Alps” and “Sahara” into the same hole.

This term gets tricky in that Macdonald and Co. could be quite flexible within their interpretation of certain templates, and Alps more so than others. For example, the first American example was No. 3 at National Golf Links of America, where the green features nine bunkers within landing distance of an approach shot. Are they all “Saharas”? Are any actually “Saharas”?

Using future designs from the group, we can make some generalizations. Some Alps have visible greens, and some don’t even have bunkers. Many, such as the Camargo Club, feature a large bunker ahead of the green that must be crossed directly to find the putting surface. This is the most important bunker in the typical Alps setup, and therefore the “Sahara.” In the aforementioned example at NGLA, there is a clear cross bunker that divides the green from a small fairway apron. This is the big-fish Sahara, while the others are just gobies/Gobis.

Is such a bunker still a Sahara when not used within the context of an Alps template? That’s up in the air, but it may be wise to denote “Sahara-esque” when doing so.

You may have noticed we indicated Macdonald himself did not refer to any of the bunkers at NGLA No. 3 as “Sahara.” That may be because he had already used the “Sahara” moniker at the previous hole.

Scenario Two: A large, singular sand carry

This hole, No. 2, was named “Sahara,” a cue Macdonald took from Royal St. George Golf Club’s No. 3 hole. Ironically, Macdonald intentionally designed his own version so that no bunker actually qualifies as a “Sahara.” Wait, what?

The variety of lies that one could find off of Royal St. George's No. 3 tee is foretold in the title "The Unknown Sahara." Credit: The Golfing Annual.

Let’s consider Macdonald’s hole first. The purpose of the big bunker at the left is that the bold player can choose to carry it for the most direct line at the green, and potentially receive a very short approach (the hole is just 330 yards) as a reward. However those who don’t like their chances can bail out any degree to a fairway running along the right of this bunker.

This option means that the bunker along the left, while large, is not a “Sahara,” which we’ll define as forcing a carry. Macdonald explains No. 3 at Sandwich as he saw it (which has since been redesigned as to be less punishing): “Otherwise the name is a trifle misleading; for whereas at Sandwich a sandy waste stretches in front of the tee for a distance of nearly two hundred yards, at the National the chief bunker is more circumscribed, and therefore less reminiscent of the African desert.”

The hole he described was one of the most notorious at Sandwich, which was perhaps the world’s most challenging course. Paintings indicate that the “Sahara” was more than a simple stretch of sand, but a rollicking stretch of small dunes. As with many other holes on the course at its founding, the landing area was blind from the tee...hence the title “The Unknown Sahara” as seen on an 1888 routing map.

Macdonald may not have embraced such a penal shot, but another Golden Age architect certainly did: Albert Warren Tillinghast.

Macdonald had flirted with the idea of a true Sahara at The National; the “Hell” bunker complex at his original “Long” hole is quite the ornate layout. But it doesn’t quite live up to Tillinghast’s version. The young Philadelphian found the ear and funds to bring his beast to life at Pine Valley Golf Club, an 100-yard behemoth popularly-known as “Hell’s Half Acre.” This scruffy, unkempt patch serves to dissuade a carry for any who miss the fairway from the tee. Although Tillinghast wrote of this as “the great hazard,” it’s tough to deny its initial similarities to the desert at Royal St. George’s. Photos within Andrew Mutch’s Crump’s Dream show the sand sculpted into artificial dunes, promising unpredictable lies to whomever disappeared within.

Hell's Half Acre at Pine Valley's No. 7 hole began its life even more frightening than its current version. The rolling sand hills werelikely inspired by Royal St. George's Sahara stretch. Photo credit: Andrew Mutch’s Crump’s Dream.

One undecided discussion when looking at such a forced carry is whether a “Sahara” must be a single, tremendous bunker, or whether it can consist of multiple hazards conglomerating to form a “Sahara.” Gil Hanse’s recent restoration at Baltusrol (Lower) is telling: No. 17 originally featured a large expanse of sand dotted with vegetation, much like Pine Valley’s current version, but it eventually became four large, individual bunkers. Hanse’s recreation of the single behemoth was one of the more celebrated elements in his work.

Gil Hanse restored No. Baltusrol (Lower)'s No. 17 Great Hazard to a single sand trap, woven with greenery, which may make it a definitive "Sahara," while the four large bunkers that sat there before may not have qualified. Photo Credit: Baltusrol Golf Club

Does any of this strictly prohibit you from describing any old bunker as a “Sahara”? No, of course not. But understanding the historical context within golf course architecture might make you think twice before dubbing the next fairway bunker you land in as “Sahara.”

Remember, there are dozens of other deserts awaiting use in your descriptions. And who knows? Maybe 100 years from now, we’ll be discussing how your least favorite sand hazard came to be known as “Mojave” or “Sonoran.”


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