In mid-May, rain started falling midway through the first round of the NCAA East Regional Championship at Lonnie Poole Golf Course on North Carolina State’s Centennial Campus.
Enough rain fell that play was eventually suspended. All total, there was 4.8 inches of precipitation, which was more than enough to wash out the course’s nearly 5-year-old bunkers.
“That next morning we focused solely on getting the bunkers repaired and had 90 percent of our staff working on that,” said Brian Green, Lonnie Poole’s director of golf course maintenance. “We spent 70 man-hours getting the bunkers turned around and then we were able to resume the first round around noon that day.”
The following week, Lonnie Poole underwent a nearly four-month, $1 million bunker reconstruction project that was completed in early September. As part of the project, the total square footage of the bunkers was trimmed from 215,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet — a reduction of nearly 25 percent. Green said most new golf courses being built today have bunkers totaling 100,000 square feet or less.
“The bunkers are a big part of this golf course, so we didn’t want to take too much away,” said Green, who said the integrity of Arnold Palmer Design Company’s initial layout was not compromised. “We spoke with them and tried to incorporate a number of their ideas. You might notice changes on one or two holes, but that is about all.”
The reconstruction received proper funding and approval earlier this year, but the washout that occurred during the NCAA East Regional put the spotlight on one of the course’s pressing needs.
“When I got here over two years ago, one of the biggest weaknesses of the golf course I saw were the bunkers — from both a playability and maintenance standpoint,” Green said. “We didn’t want to take away from the strategic play of the course, but were looking to improve them from a maintenance and sustainability standpoint.
“Other than greens, bunkers cost more than anything else on the golf course to maintain. If you can reduce the square footage, you’re already coming out better in terms of the man-hours you’re spending to maintain them.”
Green said that before the reconstruction his staff would log between 50 and 100 man-hours on maintaining the bunkers following heavy rains. Now the bunkers can be repaired in a fraction of that time.
Maintenance was only part of the reasoning for the change. Playability and sustainability also factored into the decision.
Better Billy Bunker Inc.’s bunker construction method was chosen for the project, which was performed by Fuquay-Varina-based Landscapes Unlimited, a certified Better Billy Bunker installer.
First, the bunker floors were reshaped to be more concave and to create a better collection area. After subsurface drainage was installed, a 2-inch polymer-treated layer of gravel was poured. Though the gravel is bonded together, the process allows for faster drainage, eliminates silt contamination and reduces washouts.
“The biggest reason to use the method is to reduce labor and extend the life of the bunker by at least double,” said Jerry Lemons, president of the Old Hickory, Tenn.-based Better Billy Bunker, who cited an American Society of Golf Course Architects study on different golf course components that determined the normal lifecycle of a bunker to be about seven years. “So we think the Better Billy Bunker will be at Lonnie Poole for at least 15 years or longer.
“When you eliminate the erosion or the washouts in bunkers and bunker sand stays in place when one of those rain events occur then the sand doesn’t even change. So if the sand doesn’t get contaminated with the soil, the bunker sand will last an extremely long time.”
Lemons said his company’s method was developed 11 years ago and reached the marketplace four years ago. He estimates that nearly 300 courses have selected the method for use.
In addition to the reconstruction and square footage reduction of the bunkers, Green said an attempt was made to identify and divert areas where water ran into the bunkers. Also, a lighter-colored grain of sand was used.
Jeff Joines, an N.C. State associate professor, is a Lonnie Poole dew sweeper who plays an estimated 100 rounds a year at the course that opened in July 2009. Joines quickly noticed the difference in the new bunkers.
“The new bunkers are more consistent,” Joines said, “and [inconsistency] was one of the biggest gripes with the old bunkers. In fact, I liked them best after it had just rained because they were packed down and much more consistent.”
Joines, whose USGA Handicap Index is 7.8, said balls now hit into the bunkers seldom end up as “fried eggs” or roll up against the natural grass islands that made for difficult recovery shots.
“At times the [old bunkers] were too penal,” Joines said. “If you got a decent lie, then you were OK. But there were also times that if you didn’t see the ball go into the bunker, especially up near the lip, you wouldn’t have been able to find it because it buried up underneath there.
“The new bunkers you don’t have that issue. The ball tends to roll back down into a flat spot and they are consistent from one to another, about 4 or 5 inches deep before you get down to the rocks.”
Lonnie Poole, which has been nationally recognized since opening, was built with the expectation of being a tournament-caliber course. And while Lonnie Poole has achieved that level – the course will also host the NCAA Women’s Regional in 2015 – Green believes the bunker reconstruction has reaffirmed that commitment.
“That’s why we decided to do it,” Green said.