It’s amazing how a man’s memory can work so wonderfully on certain matters, yet it fails completely when trying to remember something his wife told him the previous evening. For instance, I recall driving onto the grounds at Southern Hills CC during a practice round at the 1996 Tour Championship and seeing Tiger Woods and Brad Faxon engaged in a spirited competition over some outrageously difficult bunker shots.
From about 20 yards away, it looked like a version of the basketball game H-O-R-S-E. The two men were going at it and having about as much fun as pro golfers can have on a Tuesday morning, digging balls out of totally buried lies and trying to grab even a trace of spin off the severe downslopes.
“You remember that?” an incredulous Faxon replied when I called him earlier this week.
Of course I did. It’s not like someone asked me to pick up a bottle of laundry detergent at 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.
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“There are so many things I remember about doing that type of stuff with Tiger,” Faxon added. “It’s a great way to practice, very situational. You can grab a big pail of balls and just work on your swing, or you can do random stuff. Pick out targets, hit one high, then hit one low, just mix it up. What I was doing that day with Tiger was creating lies, trying things, figuring out what works best.”
Twenty-three years later, it got me thinking. How interesting would it be if bunker rakes were abolished at PGA Tour events? You force the world’s best players to pay a higher price for their mistakes, which might cause them to play a bit more conservatively and make those 62s a tad more rare.
Ridiculous idea? Sure, but so was putting a man on the moon. Tour caddies are absolute masters when it comes to raking bunkers. It’s a collective show of respect to all competitors, some of whom can get up and down with their eyes closed, but perfectly groomed sand actually takes away that precious advantage to those who do it best.
“Couldn’t agree more,” says Faxon, who’s still as good as they get. “The USGA always had more difficult sand to play from, more granular. Then [Jack] Nicklaus did that thing with the furrowed rakes [at the 2006 Memorial], and it was a failed experiment, but it was a valid point.”
Nicklaus failed. Try writing that sentence three times. “Bunkers were meant to be a penalty,” Jack said that week. “They haven’t been for quite a while.”
And they still aren’t, although crazy stuff happens every once in a while. During the third round at last August’s PGA Championship, Gary Woodland triple-bogeyed Bellerive’s par-4 10th, in part because his fifth shot was struck from one of the footprints he’d left in a greenfront bunker a few minutes earlier.
Fellow competitor Kevin Kisner had also visited the same bunker, meaning there was a ton of raking to do and not much time to get it done. “It’s on me,” said Kisner’s caddie, Duane Bock, at the time. “The rake was on the other side of the bunker in a direct line with [Woodland’s] next shot. I knew I’d be in his line of sight and decided not to get in his way.
Nicklaus failed. Try writing that sentence three times.
“I should have been more aware of the potential outcome of his next shot. I take full responsibility.”
Lousy break, although Woodland isn’t exactly Houdini from the sand. It’s a well-known fact that even average bunker players on the tour will gladly take a third shot from a greenside trap on a water-laden par 5 — you can’t get up and down for birdie from the bottom of a lake. Ernie Els is probably the best bunker player I’ve ever seen. Phil Mickelson is on the short list, although he has been known to get too cute on occasion.
If your sand-save success is at 60 percent or higher, you’re cooking with gas. Only two guys have surpassed the two-thirds mark since 2010: Rickie Fowler (67.79) in 2017 and K.J. Choi (67.18) in 2013. Fowler and Justin Rose often rank among the tour leaders, but hitting great bunker shots doesn’t mean as much if you can’t make a six-footer.
“The first time I met Rory McIlroy, we were at Bay Hill,” Faxon said. “We got to talking about practice habits and I challenged him to a putting contest. I got up on him early and told him, ‘If I win, you have to go into the media center and tell everyone that Brad Faxon beat you in a putting contest.’
So he makes three of the next five. He turns to me and says, ‘I think I’ll go into the media center and tell everyone that I beat Brad Faxon in a putting contest.’ Situational stuff like that makes you a better player.”
And though practice may not make you perfect, those beige hazards you see every week on TV almost certainly are. Every once in a while, it would be pretty cool if they weren’t. Nicklaus had a point. It’s a bunker mentality.
All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.