I was driving along Interstate 70 and decided that I wanted to play a Donald Ross…so I stopped at Broadmoor.
No, not the Denver-area resort. Although that Broadmoor checks all the above boxes, I live in Columbus and needed a quicker fix. That, and an email alerting me to all of the restoration work that had recently been completed by Bruce Hepner, led me to pull up short in Indianapolis and check out the other Broadmoor, a country club on the near-west side of town.
I’m the kind of guy who does bare-bones research in the lead-up to a round — usually looking at Google Map aerials — so I know what to expect and, more importantly, what I should ask about.
Immediately, from one glance at Google, I had several questions, and they all dealt with the bunkering. After playing the course, I had even more.
It’s dangerous to describe a “normal” Donald Ross course, as the architect created almost as many courses as his Golden Age competition combined, which gave him room to wiggle and tweak. I’ve read Golf Has Never Failed Me and I’ve played enough Ross courses to know that no one breaks Ross’s rules as much as Ross himself.
That said, the bunkering at Broadmoor struck me as highly irregular on three fronts. I was able to speak with Bruce Hepner, who oversaw the restoration for Broadmoor, so he could set the record straight on these three aspects of Broadmoor’s bunkering.
I. The Sheer Volume
No one would label Donald Ross as conservative in his bunkering, yet he’s hardly known for taking the Whistling Straits approach to adding hazards. Broadmoor is an exception.
“I’ve been working there probably 25 years now,” Hepner says. “I’ve never seen that many bunkers on a Ross course before. It’s pretty cool.”
According to the architect, the current course features 135 sand hazards. And, ultimately, the master plan — made while Hepner was employed with Renaissance Golf — ended up removing numerous traps from the route (many of which were additions from Ron Kern, who had previously done work at the club).
One example was at the front of the No. 3 green, where Kern had added a pair of bunkers to mess with incoming shots as they crossed the creek. Hepner stuck with historic aerials, which resulted in an uneven shortgrass area that impacts shots as they bounce.
There were also instances where trve Ross bunkers got the axe — or at least weren’t re-included — in Hepner’s master plan. A number had gotten lost in the woods at the outskirts of the property, or were now sheltered by a treeline growing between fairways. One of the more compelling bunkers that didn’t find its contract renewed was the one-time centerline hazard at No. 17, a reachable par five. Per Hepner, the current fairway width didn’t gel with its purpose: The original corridor (~60 yards) would have made the hazard a more legitimate risk-reward scenario, whereas the current setup (~40 yards) would unduly punish higher handicappers.
“We could restore it, yeah, but it would probably piss off 90 percent of the members. We didn’t want any negative vibe. We thought we were doing such good work,” he explains. “If we eventually want to put it in, we have to cut down 20 trees or so if we want to, but let’s not end this project on a negative note.”
Alright, so, end of the day…why so many bunkers? I’d played Inverness, one of Ross’s supreme championship-oriented tests, and it only packed 90 traps.
Hepner suggests the property led Ross to utilize bunkers for a purpose outside of mere hazard. Largely flat, especially across its front nine, the former farmland featured few trees or other landforms that could have been used to separate holes in the eye of the player. With the original fairway widths, holes that ran parallel to each other could have operated like the Old Course…immense swathes of short grass allowing attacks from all angles. Sounds nice to some purists but it makes little sense without St. Andrews-size greens. So Ross defined the corridors of holes with clusters of small bunkers, which often came into play for parallel holes as well. Consider the trio between Nos. 12 and 17…bad news for bad shots off either tee.
Hepner compares Broadmoor to Holston Hills as another example of Ross separating holes on a treeless property. Because of the hilly terrain at the latter, he argues, bigger bunkers made for more sensible viewing.
“Holston is a hilly piece of property where he used those giant bunkers to separate golf holes,” he says. “While at Broadmoor he used little clusters just because he was more on level playing ground, so you could separate them by 100 yards and they’d still look like they were part of the same cluster.”
So there you go. Broadmoor’s excess of hazards? Probably less to do with destroying your soul than the simple act of separating corridors. Going back to Inverness, although it may have fewer hazards than Broadmoor, I’m willing to bet it has more sand ground coverage. As for Aronimink and its 178? That may have something to do with crushing your soul.
But are all of Broadmoor’s bunkers fair?
II. I Can Hardly See Any of Them?
It was around this point where I and Hepner delved into perhaps the stickiest philosophical debate in the Ross repertoire. I’ll open with what evidence I brought to the fight:
“Bunkers should be placed as to be clearly in view, and in such locations as to make all classes of players think.”
So writes Ross during Golf Has Never Failed Me. There were many bunkers for my tee shot to land in from the tee…and I could see sand in very few. Didn’t this fly in the face of everything Ross had written about good bunkers? Was Hepner waiting for more funding to more fully restore these suckers?
Apparently not. Hepner maintains that he’s seen no historical evidence for views of the beach from the tees at many of these holes. And here’s where I should add an important clarifier: The bunkers were by no means invisible. On such a flat palette, it was easy to spot mounding that marked a bunker complex.
It’s a Golf Course Architecture Supreme Court case waiting to happen. Ross did indeed state that bunkers should be “clearly in view.” But how would an Antonin Scalia textualist interpret “clearly”? Are the mounds enough? Or does the screaming contrast of white sand against green grass more definitively embody “clearly”?
Hepner makes an argument for the former, and it’s a compelling one. He suggests the “see the sand” approach is a more modern mutation in understanding Ross.
“When people restore these bunkers, they’d have members say ‘I need to see sand in every bunker’ because that’s what they think is right. And I don’t agree,” he explains. “Especially when they’re clusters. Especially like on No. 13, where you’ve got like six bunkers in a cluster. In the last bunker, you’re not going to see sand because of all this mounding in front of you.”
The hole in question is somewhat “Cape”-ish, doglegging left and offering the best angle into the green for those who challenge the six bunkers. To clarify, these hazards are separated into two groups, of two and four, respectively. Still, line of sight across the mounds of the first two does not allow the player to see anything but the mounding on the back four, so it would be a moot point to flare up the sand. Hepner joked that he could, but the aesthetic would become less Ross and more Flynn.
Is the course better for it? I’m not sure, honestly. I personally feel that some flaring at the backs of the first few bunkers in a cluster would make it fairer for the visiting player. But then again, I was that visiting player and perhaps I’ve fallen into line with the “modern” mindset. I’ll cede to Hepner’s expertise on the matter.
Of course, plenty also have expertise in the matter. Hepner describes arguments across his career with various members of the Donald Ross Society. He says he and DRS Treasurer John Stiles went at it “pretty hard” on the topic of sand visibility when Hepner was handling the work at Holston.
I’m hugely biased and I tend to side with architects themselves in most arguments, being a GCA nerd. But it can’t be denied that Ross left his opinion just open enough for alternative interpretations. So while this is not the final word on the visibility of bunkers, I’ll let Hepner have the final quote for this section:
“Shit, these mounding bunker complexes are so cool,” he says. “I’m not going to water them down because someone feels they need to see sand in them.”
III. OK But What if I Can’t See Them Because They’re Behind a Bunker?
Bunkers at the back of greens are certainly more rare than those at the front, especially at Ross courses. Part of this may be due to the aforementioned quote about bunkers being “clearly in view.” As the average green runs back-to-front, a bunker at the rear is inherently out of view…not even mounding to alert that danger lies in the back for those playing toward a green.
No less than 11 of the greens at Broadmoor feature a sand hazard I would define as “at the back.” All are originals. Compare that to Aronimink, an even more well-sanded Ross, which only packs two.
I’ve often understood the concept of a “member’s bunker” to mean a bunker that the member knows is there but that a visiting opponent, even if he has a yardage guide, does not think about it because it falls from his line of sight. Consider the opening hole, “Valley,” at National Golf Links, for example. You can see most of the bunkers on the left side of the fairway…but you can’t see the last one…and I’m willing to bet this one gathers the lion’s share of balls…shots from good players who underestimate the carry needed to find the perfect landing area.
These are bunkers that clearly benefit members over visitors. Hepner suggests that the post-green bunkers at Broadmoor play a similar role, albeit with a different flavor. He cites No. 12 in particular, a short par five that looks like a cat with a bulging forehead — the two “ears” are fun pinning areas, and landing on the wrong side of the knob makes for a tough two-putt, as does landing above the pin at any given flag position.
But landing in the bunker that sits between the two ears at the back? Cruel.
There’s the twist on the member’s bunker concept. Sure, that bunker spooks a lot of members. They’re going to leave themselves with 10 to 20 footers for birdie. They may play for par. Doesn’t sound like much of a member’s “benefit”…but consider what happens when the visitor plays. They don’t know the hazard exists, so they go flag-hunting and find the bunker. Now they’re not even playing for par…they’ll be lucky to save bogey if they’re taking a birdie shot out of that thing.
“I think there’s more fear in that bunker so that you don’t go long,” he says. “Because coming out of that bunker, you might not hold it on the green. It puts the fear of god in you, that when you play 12, you’re always going to be short.”
No. 17 is another example of a funky green with a backing bunker, where wise parties will lay up. I referred to this trap as the “unicorn”; the front portion of the green is fairly open but a “horn” extends back and to the right. Running a ball up to that flag requires premium marksmanship…a risk potentially not worth taking due to the big, deep bunker at the back of main green (and left of the horn).
So at the end of the day, will Ross purists enjoy their time at Broadmoor? Tough to tell. As we described, the bunkering will be quite the divergence from the traditional vein of our Ross understanding.
Then again, how does one even define a “Ross purist”? As Broadmoor exemplifies, trying to nail down a pure “Ross” is a tougher proposition than it sounds.