At Royal Troon, the Bunkers Bury the Best


TROON, Scotland — In Thursday’s first round of the 145th British Open, Bubba Watson’s tee shot landed in the Coffin bunker alongside the par-3 eighth hole at Royal Troon.

As Watson would learn, his ball had settled in much more than a simple collection of sand. The sunken, grainy Coffin bunker is a few feet from the most famous patch of green at Royal Troon, the tiny eighth green nicknamed the Postage Stamp.

By association, such a bunker can become renowned. In fact, the Coffin bunker is so esteemed it is both old and modern, and it even has its own Twitter account (@TroonCoffinTrap). This past week, the account has been a comic vehicle to taunt, tease and toast the golfers who have had the misfortune to step through the bunker’s sly grounds.

When Watson found himself buried there on Thursday, he dared the bunker, turning his back to the green to escape from a four-foot depth. With one swing, Watson’s ball was free of the bunker, but it ended up in the deep rough behind the green.

More golf calamity ensued.

Watson had stepped onto the eighth tee leading the tournament. Then he recorded a triple-bogey 6.

On Twitter, the Coffin bunker snickered, “Bubba now 3 back.”

After his round, Watson smiled when asked about the sandy hardship. But he knew the score — in more ways than one.

“I’ve been in that bunker all week,” he said. “Every time I play that hole, it’s killing me.”

It could have been worse. Rory McIlroy took six swipes with a wedge to get out of the Coffin bunker during a practice round Tuesday.

Photo

Bubba Watson hitting from the Coffin bunker alongside the par-3 eighth hole at Royal Troon in the opening round on Thursday. He recorded a triple bogey.

Credit
Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is entirely fitting that one sand trap, small enough to be compared to a coffin, could command so much attention at Royal Troon, because the bunkers are the runaway star features of a golf course with few other unusually distinctive elements.

Although several holes at Royal Troon are flanked by water, it takes an exceptionally wayward shot to find even the beach along the Firth of Clyde, let alone the waves. There are other estuaries on the course, meandering burns that threaten a few shots, but they are typically avoided without too much trouble. And the greens are not especially fast by major golf championship standards.

But there are 98 bunkers, an average of more than five per hole. One of them, if not several of them, will most likely factor into the outcome during the tense, closing moments of the final day of competition.

“They’re just not typical bunkers in so many ways,” McIlroy said. “There is a lot of sand in the bunker. So when the ball just trickles in, it doesn’t go into the middle. When you get to your ball, you see that you’re left with a lie next to a bunker lip or against the wall.”

The walls of Royal Troon’s bunkers are almost engineering marvels. Some appear to be at 90-degree angles to the sand floor. Various histories of the golf course have related that the small pot bunkers were built by workers with shovels who heaped the unearthed dirt toward the front of the cavity they were creating — meaning the point between the newly dug bunker and the green. Over time, the excavated dirt was shaped into steep, intimidating face walls that have bedeviled golfers ever since.

“You cannot mess around with those bunkers,” Sergio García said. “They are in charge. You just want to get out and move on.”

Several golfers last week talked about taking the penance ordained by the Royal Troon bunkers and moving on without so much as a glance backward, as if the Royal Troon bunkers would take offense at the slightest show of insolence.

“Accept the penalty; don’t linger there,” Martin Kaymer said with a laugh. “Keep your round alive.”

If a golfer is more aggressive or defiant, the results are usually not pretty. In his practice round, McIlroy kept trying to flip his golf ball out of the Coffin bunker with a sand wedge that was opened wide, the customary greenside bunker technique taught around the globe.

“But the lip there is basically vertical,” McIlroy said. “Every time I tried to get it out, the ball would just roll back into the same spot in the sand.”

It is a result in keeping with Royal Troon’s motto: “Tam Arte Quam Marte,” which is Latin translated to mean, “As much by skill as by strength.”

McIlroy took a 9 on the hole. At least that was just in practice.

In Friday’s second round, the 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis was in three bunkers on the third hole.

It took him three swings to get out of a bunker left of the fairway, where his tee shot came to rest. He ended up in a bunker left of the green with his fifth shot and needed two shots to escape that hollow of sand. The second of those swings sent his ball into another bunker.

Improving his bunker performance as he went, Curtis took only one swipe to finally reach the third green. Two putts later, he had a posted a 10 on the hole.

Afterward, Curtis said he wanted to “jump in the ocean.”

But there’s sand at the bottom of that, too.

Eighteen over par after two rounds, Curtis did not make the cut and will not be around for Sunday’s final round.

Royal Troon’s 98 bunkers are, nonetheless, in position and await the leaders.

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