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A bunker named Billy
A former superintendent fights back against bunker washout with a product he shares a name with.
Billy Fuller's on his mobile phone, driving to the Leatherstocking course in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the rolling terrain and sparse population mean cell coverage that can be charitably described as "erratic." Fuller, the former superintendent at Augusta National Golf Club and now a partner with Cupp Design, is part way through a discussion of Trevira liners -- a key component in construction of the bunkers that bear his name -- when the line goes crackly. Then dead.
"Billy, I'm losing you. Call me back when you get a good cell."
When he next checks in, on his way to Birmingham, Ala., Fuller comes in loud and clear. "Why don't I start from the beginning," he says. "When I arrived at Augusta in 1981, I was told that every summer they took all the sand out of the bunkers because of the siltation they'd get over the course of a year. Quite honestly, I wasn't thrilled about spending so many man hours replacing bunker sand every year. So we started experimenting with a bunker construction method that allowed us to keep the sand clean and reduce erosion potential."
The process he discovered and continues to perfect is affectionately called the Billy Bunker Method. More than 20 years later, superintendents are reading Fuller louder and clearer every day, as Billy Bunkers and their spiritual descendants become more popular across the country -- but especially in the Southeast, where heavy rains and clay soils make washouts and chronic contamination issues troublesome and expensive facts of life. That is, unless you've got the Billy Bunkers.
"These bunkers get the water into the tile so fast, the sand doesn't have time to wash," says Bo Alexander, superintendent at Wade Hampton Golf Club in Cashiers, N.C., where 38 greenside bunkers were Billy-fied in 2001.
"The Billy Bunkers definitely save us a lot of money on manpower," adds Butch Foust, director of golf course maintenance at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., where 36 of the resort's 81 holes have been outfitted with Fuller's namesake bunkers. "If you just put sand on top of that Georgia red clay, you'll get contamination. Billy Bunkers keep the sand white, the way it's supposed to be. And you can't destroy them with a strong frog-choker [read: heavy downpour]. Out here, it was easy to tell which holes haven't been done in the Billy Method. They were the ones that wash out all the time."
Keep 'em separated
A Billy Bunker is shaped and laid with drainage tile in the normal fashion. The difference comes above the tile, starting with a 1.5- to 2-inch layer of pea gravel laid over the entire bunker floor. Then a synthetic mesh material, a Trevira liner, is laid over the gravel. "The pea gravel basically serves as conduit," Fuller explains. "The Trevira just keeps it all separated: sand from native soil and pea gravel, because you don't want that in the bunker either. When you get heavy rain, the water goes through the sand, through the liner, into the pea gravel and funnels down to the tiles -- without pulling the bunker sand along with it."
A few more pieces of the puzzle have evolved over time.
"We discovered that if you simply lay Trevira liners throughout the bunker, eventually organic material like grass clippings will migrate into the bottom of the bunker and gather right above the tile lines. That will slow drainage. To remedy that, we cut the liner out over these tile lines... Then we started covering the entire drain-line scheme with Enkamat, a fiberglass mesh material which keeps the gravel from resurfacing in the sand layer."
Some may pick on Augusta National GC for its membership policies. Other more golf-savvy folks may roll their eyes when they consider the amount of money the club spends on essentially cosmetic maintenance -- indeed, each April, the dreaded "Augusta Syndrome" prompts impractically high member expectations across the country. But let's give credit where credit is due: For all its flower beds and pond dyes, Augusta National has also proved a useful laboratory for agronomic advances. The Sub Air system was invented there, and without the club's means and encouragement, the Billy Bunker Method might never have been realized.
Augusta National spares no expense and, befitting this heritage, Billy Bunkers aren't cheap.
"The hand work required, to lay the gravel and custom-fit the liners, is where this process gets labor intensive and expensive," says Bob Pinson, who's contracting firm, Gainesville, Ga.-based Course Crafters, has installed hundreds of Billy Bunkers, including those at Wade Hampton, Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club and Augusta CC, across Rae's Creek from The National. "But in the long run, with all the repairs you end up doing to a regular bunker, all the wash-out repair, it ends up costing less. In my view, the Billy Bunkers ultimately reduce maintenance costs. You can pay for the cost of your bunker renovation within a 5-year period."
So Billy Bunkers are not for the penny wise and pound foolish. Pinson also warns that superintendents should check their sand depths in each Billy Bunker at least once a month, because "players splash the sand out and if you don't keep your depths consistent, someone will tear the Trevira. Also, you can't mechanically rake the Billy Bunkers or they will rip the Trevira and Enkamat all to pieces. You have to hand-rake them, but not nearly as often as regular bunkers."
Foust, whose Billy Bunkers at Reynolds Plantation were installed by Alpharetta, Ga.-based Medalist Golf, agrees it's "very important to get the right person putting them in, the right contractor, because a good one will do it right and won't take your course out of play for that long. But it does pay for itself over time. At lower-end courses, member expectations maybe aren't going to be what they are here. But I would still think it makes sense to do a few each year, your real problem bunkers -- or maybe redo them on a 5-year plan if you can't afford it all up front."
Spread the word
Fuller left Augusta National in 1986, but he wouldn't spread his bunker gospel to the outside world for eight more years. He formed William R. Fuller Inc., an agronomic consulting firm. After working with Bob Cupp in developing the Port Armor course on Georgia's Lake Oconee (just down the road from Reynolds), he joined the architect's firm as a design associate and partner, with the understanding he would continue his agronomic consulting where Cupp might not be involved.
The first Billy Bunkers installed outside the grounds of Augusta National appeared at Cartersville Country Club northwest of Atlanta. "That was 1994," Fuller recalls. "We had tried to do them elsewhere and finally found a client willing to give them a try."
The results were gratifying, to say the least. Word got around, and soon Peachtree redid all its bunkers in the Billy Method; then nearby East Lake followed suit and Charlotte installed them as part of its redesign.
"If East Lake and Peachtree do something, people tend to pay closer attention," Fuller says. "Word started to spread and pretty soon there were other designers and contractors doing them. I was a consultant when Brian Silva renovated Charlotte Country Club. That was the first time Course Crafters had done the Billy Bunkers.
"If you look at your top contractors working across the country, by now all of them have gone through the process with us and understand how to install them," Fuller continues. "Back in the mid-1990s, when we first started with contactors, it took them time to discover the best methods of installation. Course Crafters definitely gets it. They're very efficient and get great results. But all the contractors do it a little differently and I encourage them to be imaginative, to create more efficiencies. And the cost per square foot has come down significantly since then."
Contractors aren't the only ones who've gotten creative and pioneered subtle variations on the Billy Bunker theme. David Stone, head superintendent at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., had three Billy Bunkers installed five years ago. He estimated the cost at $4 per square foot (an accurate figure for renovation of existing bunkers, says Pinson, but higher than the cost of new-construction Billy Bunkers, which he estimates at $2.75 per square foot).
Three years ago Stone subsequently rebuilt several more bunkers along Billy lines, but with a twist: substituting one Sand daM liner for the combination of Trevira and Enkamat. This brought the cost down to $2.50 per square foot, Stone says.
"After big rains we don't see much difference [between Billy Bunkers and Sand daM bunkers] when it comes to washing," Stone reports. "With the Sand daM, we generally don't use a gravel layer, though you can and I have. But you don't have to cut out the Sand daM over the drain lines. The mesh is a little more open than the Trevira, which is why you don't have to cut it out. If you're doing it in house, this makes it easier and cost efficient. Finding those drain lines and cutting the liner is a lot of trouble and labor time.
"Will the Billy Bunkers last longer than Sand daM bunkers over a period of time? We don't know. In 10 years, maybe I could tell you one method is superior to the other. But I can tell you both of them work, on the order of 90 percent less washing."
10 years later
As Billy Bunkers and their cousins gain more currency, there is more troubleshooting and creativity to be meted out. Ralph Keppel, agronomy superintendent at East Lake, installed his Billy Bunkers "in 1996, after Hurricane Opal came through and blew up a bunch of our bunkers." But he's since noticed that some of his bunkers have developed what he calls "perched water tables."
"They seem to always have wet bottoms, whereas my edges tend to stay dry -- a reverse of what I need," Keppel explains. "The ball tends to plug on the edges and the bottom is really hard. It's a problem and I studied it all last winter because it had been so dang wet here the 10 months before."
Fuller has seen this issue elsewhere and believes it's an issue of too little sand depth, but only time and continued experimentation will tell. "For controlling sand erosion, I've been playing around with these Sand daM materials. Nothing's perfect," Keppel adds. "But when we get a storm, our bunkers don't wash out like they used to. The Billy Bunker Method definitely does its job."
Fuller continues to travel the country, introducing the idea of Billy Bunkers, fine-tuning the method that's become his legacy, and running up his cell-phone bill. "Here's how I describe the method to superintendents: It's going to do two things for you: create an efficient drainage system allowing water to pass through quickly, and it's going to reduce your maintenance costs after rain storms by 80-plus percent. When you tell them that, they say, 'Really?' Then I give them the phone numbers of superintendents with the system in place, and usually the next phone call is them calling me back saying, 'Let's go.' It becomes an alternate bid in the contract.
"We're coming up on 10-year anniversary of the Cartersville job. It's been very satisfying to see this thing catch on. And I suppose there are worse things you could have named after you."