• Alistair Tait

If Only Thommo Had Ruled Golf?


You have to wonder about that first shepherd on Scotland’s east coast who took a crook and gave a golf ball like pebble a hefty dunt, the first golfer to feel the thrill of seeing an orb arcing towards its intended target. Did the shepherd curse when the pebble ended up in a sandy waste area short of the target?


Did the sheep tender scream at the flock for not smoothing their hoof prints after leaving the sand? Or perhaps the curse was directed at that great greenkeeper in the sky for not creating consistent depth to the sand in those early, rudimentary bunkers.


I constantly hear Goldilocks complaints about sand in bunkers.

“This bunker has hardly any sand. This one has too much. Why can’t they all be the same?”

My answer –“Er, because they’re hazards?” – never seems to get a favourable response.


You can imagine that shepherd looking wistfully out to the grey North Sea and lamenting:

“Bloody greenkeeper hasn't got a clue!”

A complaint that, sadly, has been repeated since Allan Robertson’s day.


These thoughts are flowing through my head following a large response to my recent blog on bunker raking. Many agree the art of bunker raking seems to have become a lost one for a minority of golfers following nearly a year of rakeless bunkers and preferred lies in the sand. Most intriguing was the suggestion that perhaps permanently removing rakes from bunkers is the way to make this game more challenging, especially at elite level.


After good friend and excellent RTE golf commentator Greg Allen tweeted about Greg Norman and the late, great Peter Thomson being strong advocates of no rakes in bunkers, Comrie Golf club's head greenkeeper Ally Phelp sent me a copy of Thomson’s thoughts. They make for interesting reading.


In Tom Ramsay’s World of Golf, published in 1977, Thomson wrote:

“Brave men will tackle their trouble shots with courage and resourcefulness. The coward will take all kinds of detours to avoid it in the first place, but once in it will quiver in his shoes. All the more reason, therefore, to lament the passing of the ancient sand bunker, and to deplore the way they carefully prepare the traps nowadays in order to make escape easier. If I had my way, bunkers would be real hazards, a holy terror to get caught in, and a frightening experience to get out of.”

We know most bunkers are no longer “a holy terror” or “frightening experience” for top players. Bunkers are usually so well manicured, tournament pros often prefer their chances from sand than rough.


That can’t be right?


As a five-time Open champion, Thomson knew all about proper bunkers: those that grace the world’s best links. Not sure you’ll find many willing balls into the pot bunkers dotted around the Old Course at St Andrews or Royal Lytham. Ditto for those on great heathland classics like Woodhall Spa (pictured) or Ganton. Proper hazards.


Thomson argued:

“Why prepare the hazard? Is there someone on the fairway, ready to restore the divot marks in case some hapless follower gets a bad lie? No there isn’t. But they rake the bunkers. They see to it that there are no bad lies in the sand. They make them shallower, too.
“The professionals are the first and worst complainers if sand bunkers present anything extraordinary in the way of punishment. Sand play is popularly presented as an art, incorporating a mystique that befuddles the less competent. In truth, it’s as simple as pulling rabbits out of a hat to the professionally initiated.”

Dr Alister MacKenzie had a similar lament in the 1930s. In The Spirit of St Andrews, he wrote:

“The more money these clubs have had to spent, the more their courses have deteriorated. Not only has the turf been ruined, but there has been a wanton destruction of many of the natural features. The greens have been flattened out, sand hazards which created interest and strategy of the holes have been filled up.”

Needless to say, both were fans of golf architect Charles Blair McDonald’s philosophy:

“I’d never let the sand be raked. Instead, I’d run a herd of elephants through them every morning.”

Thompson, who passed away 2018, predicted that…

“…championships of the future will be played on courses where the sand is not raked and smoothed, but left untidy, foot-marked, weed-ridden, windblown, cavernous and horrifyingly hazardous. Then we’ll see the real fun. We’ll see champions become terror stricken at the prospect of getting caught, mind-tested in the process of getting out and altogether forced to display their propensity for greatness.”

Oh, if only Thommo had been in charge of the royal and ancient game. Maybe golf, at the top level anyway, would have far more variety than the seemingly endless procession of 20-under par winning scores on courses manicured to perfection.


#JustSaying: “Bunkers have probably caused more joy and/or misery to the human race than any other subtle torturings of man’s contriving.” H. MacNeile Dixon

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