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Going bunkers: 4 courses with bunker success stories

Host of the 2015 PGA Championship, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits uses a wax polymer on out-of-play bunker faces. (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

Host of the 2015 PGA Championship, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits uses a wax polymer on out-of-play bunker faces. (Photo: Golfdom Staff)

 

A candle in the wind (and rain)

A wax polymer product has minimized bunker maintenance at Whistling Straits

By Seth Jones | Golfdom Editor-in-Chief

It was in the July 2015 issue of Golfdom, in a preview story for the 2015 PGA Championship at the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wis., that Chris Zugel relived the nightmare before the 2010 PGA Championship. The Wednesday morning before the tournament was to begin, 2 inches of rain washed out bunkers across the course.

“It was brutal for our guys,” Zugel told Golfdom. “But, the fire drill we had in 2010 has prepared us in that we know we can do it … we just have to stay on our toes.”

Thankfully, the weather was good to the course and the crew for the 2015 PGA Championship, won by Jason Day. Sadly, the next big event for the course, the 2020 Ryder Cup, was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Viewers would not have noticed that since then, Zugel has a new trick up his sleeve to reduce maintenance on the out-of-play bunkers on the Straits Course: wax polymer bunker faces.

The idea goes way back to when Chris Zugel’s grandfather worked at Milwaukee County Stadium, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, from 1969 to 1984. As a kid, Zugel saw how much time his grandpa spent working on the warning track. When Zugel later worked at Milwaukee County Stadium and later, Miller Park, he found himself in the same situation. That was when he first learned of Wisconsin-based Kafka Granite. He was impressed with the company’s Wax Polymer Pathway Mix, but before he could get a deal done, he left to take the superintendent position at the Straits Course.

“All the paths are gravel (at the Straits Course), and I never liked that the stones would get into my shoes,” Zugel says. “I reached out to Kafka to see if they had a solution. Glenn (Kafka, owner) was like, yeah, we have a wax polymer. He explained it to me, and I thought, that could be a bunker. He said, ‘I guess so.’” Zugel told Kafka that the pathways had to match the bunkers in appearance, as some of the pathways go through the bunkers. Glenn Kafka gave Zugel a “hold my beer” look and made it happen.

“We started experimenting with it, and I thought this could be good with some bunkers we’re not playing out of, bunkers that are purely visual,” Zugel says. “And then, Kafka processes some of the waste from Kohler. They’ll take some of the crushed porcelain and make counter tops, and things like that. And I thought, well, not only are we using Kohler’s waste, we’re having less maintenance … we’re not pushing (sand) after storms.”

Whistling Straits has around 1,000 bunkers on the Straits Course, and as Zugel says, some are purely for aesthetics — golfers never hit out of these bunkers. On the steep faces and lower edges, the crew has installed the Kafka Wax Polymer Mix. Some of these bunkers are nearing 10 years old, and Zugel says they haven’t moved an inch. Kafka describes the polymer’s reaction to heavy rains as if they buried a candle in the bunker. It pushes the rain away.

Zugel has had fellow superintendents reach out to him to see how he uses Kafka’s product. He says it is most practical for bunkers that are out of play or driving range bunkers with steep faces. As an added bonus, if they ever renovate, they can remove the polymer and put it right back. Zugel describes it as a ground-up candle.

When asked if it’s like a restaurant putting artificial flowers on a table, Zugel says a better comparison would be artificial flowers behind the bar.

“Those flowers aren’t being touched by the guests,” Zugel says. “We’ve had rains of 3-4 inches, and it doesn’t move. It helps us out with maintaining the look of the course and maintaining ahead of play … it’s acted as a bunker liner in those situations.”



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