Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Great Set of "Lost" Bunkers

I came across this photo from the July 1921 issue of the USGA magazine, showing an amazing bunker on the par-5 fifth hole of Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md. That month the club hosted its only major, the U.S. Open. "Long Jim" Barnes smoked the field with a 289, nine strokes better than Walter Hagen and Fred McLeod.

Prior to the event, the course had been redone by architect William Flynn. However, it is likely this magnificent sand hazard that had to be negotiated on the second shot was not Flynn's but that of Walter Travis, who worked on the Columbia layout after architect Herbert Barker designed the first golf course.

A 1921 Golf Illustrated article prior to the U.S. Open says Columbia member Dr. Walter Harban, a member of the USGA executive committee, came up with the design but that is doubtful. What Harban might have done is hire Travis to upgrade the course and then make suggestions during the renovation. Harban and Travis were members of Garden City Golf Club, a Travis design.

This bunker is, in all likelihood, a Travis creation and fits in with other bunkers he fashioned throughout his career. It doesn't appear that Barker ever created a hazard like this on his handful of designs and Harban was never a golf course architect.

In that same Golf Illustrated, a description of the putting surface at the fifth also sounds like the work of Travis.

"One must hold this green like grim death, for steep sides and an even deeper gulch at the back await the unsuspecting shots that do not live up to their purposes."

Columbia CC remains, but the bunker is gone. The photo I posted above, is well-known at the club and is a favorite of the members, who refer to the hole as, "Lost Bunkers." Since the fifth-hole corridor is the same as it was in 1921, the hazard, along with the rest of the Travis-Flynn golf course that had other audacious features, could be easily restored but that will not happen anytime soon. In fact, from what I understand, there is not even a discussion about reinstating this bunker or any of the others. Where the fabulous creation once rose from the ground, a bland, elongated depression sits below the fairway.

This appears to be just another case of post-World War II golf course redesign where the distinctive and challenging architecture was eviscerated to accommodate the higher handicaps and shorter hitters. Again and again, difficult hazards and green complexes, no matter how well built, how effective as part of a golf hole, or how beautiful, are removed to make the golf course play easier for those golfers who would have the toughest time negotiating the test.

Where Columbia CC once sought to be among the finest golf courses in the country, it is now content to be nothing more than just another golf course in the Washington D.C. area.


  1. Wow.
    What would you do if it were your course?
    I'd have a hard time restoring that bunker.
    A. It looks funky - good for then.
    B. Seem to only effect the poor player. There is no way they could carry that thing on their 2nd shot. They'd have to lay up, and couldn't reach the green from the lay up spot.
    I'm sure there is a middle ground.

  2. Mike

    I'm wondering if tees for the higher handicap players are set forward enough to allow them to clear the bunkers on their second.

    This hazard really reminds me of the famous 7th hole at Ekwanok, which originally had bunkers strewn over the top of a steep hill. That was the first design of Walter Travis and would have presented the same problems for the shorter hitters as Columbia.

  3. I'm sure you are right that the tees should be put so the average player can clear with 2 decent strokes. It would be fun for them to clear.
    I've never been to Ekwanok - will do so one day.
    I think you're right that some work would be a big improvement - especially given the history.
    Thanks for sharing the picture.