What Is a Bunker on a Golf Course?

Graham Marsh plays out of the Big Bertha bunker at Royal Portrush during a Senior British Open
This is the 'Big Bertha' bunker at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Ireland. Don't worry: Most bunkers aren't this big or this deep. David Cannon/Getty Images

A "bunker" is a "specially prepared area intended to test the player’s ability to play a ball from the sand," as the latest edition of the Rules of Golf puts it. Bunkers, which used to be classified as "hazards" (a term that was deprecated in the 2019 edition of the rule book) on the golf course, are holes or depressions in the ground, whether natural or manmade, that are filled in with sand (or a similar material). Bunkers vary greatly in size and shape and depth. They are most commonly found serving as guardians of putting greens, but also often show up in fairways and alongside fairways.

A stroke played out of a bunker is called a "bunker shot." Bunkers themselves can also be called traps, sand traps or sand bunkers. Most golfers use "trap" and "bunker" interchangeably. But golf's governing authorities, the R&A and USGA, only use the term "bunker," never "sand trap." Slang terms for bunkers include beach, kitty litter, sandbox and cat box.

"Bunker" is one of the older terms used in golf, dating back to at least the 1700s. It probably goes back farther due to another of its meanings: "small, deep sand pit in linksland" (as defined in The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms).

There is a specific rule in the rule book — Rule 12 (Bunkers) — that covers the do's and don'ts of playing from bunkers: what is allowed, what is not allowed. That rule also includes a diagram and video to help golfers understand what the rule book allows and disallows when your golf ball is inside a bunker.

Official Definition of 'Bunker' in the Rules

This official definition of "bunker" is from the condensed Player's Edition of the Rules of Golf:

"A specially prepared area of sand, which is often a hollow from which turf or soil has been removed. These are not part of a bunker:

  • "A lip, wall or face at the edge of a prepared area and consisting of soil, grass, stacked turf or artificial materials,
  • "Soil or any growing or attached natural object inside the edge of a prepared area (such as grass, bushes or trees),
  • "Sand that has spilled over or is outside the edge of a prepared area, and
  • "All other areas of sand on the course that are not inside the edge of a prepared area (such as deserts and other natural sand areas or areas sometimes referred to as waste areas)."

(Note that a fuller definition with a few additional details appears in the Definitions section of the Full Edition.)

Specific Types of Bunkers (Plus a Couple Things That Are Not Bunkers)

A few types of bunkers have their own terms that, when used, let golfers know of the specific type of bunker being referenced.

A "cross bunker" is a bunker on a golf hole that is positioned so that a golfer must cross it on the normal line of play for that hole.

Cross bunkers can be entirely in the fairway, entirely in the rough, or partially in the rough and jutting into the fairway. They are typically (but not always) wider than they are deep and aligned roughly perpendicular to the fairway.

But cross bunkers can have a wide variety of shapes and sizes. They key concepts are that they are perpendicular to the line of play, and placed in a position that you may be forced to hit over them to advance your ball up the fairway or toward the green.

A "greenside bunker" is any bunker that is adjacent to the putting green. Such a bunker is often said to "guard the green."

A "pot bunker," sometimes called a pothole or pothole bunker, is a small, round, but very deep type of bunker common on links golf courses.

A "church pews bunker" is a long bunker whose length is interspersed with rough-covered berms. Church pew bunkers are rare, but one of the most famous bunkers in golf is the church pews at Oakmont Country Club.

In the vernacular, one might hear reference to a "grass bunker," a hollowed-out area or depression in which, rather than sand, there is simply more (often deeper) grass. However, a "grass bunker" is not technically a bunker. It's simply akin to rough.

The same goes for so-called "waste bunkers," which are typically not treated as bunkers under the rules.

Watch Now: How To Do The Fairway Bunker Shot