Explaining 'Waste Bunkers' and 'Waste Areas' in Golf

Waste bunker or waste area at English Turn Golf and Country Club in New Orleans
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A waste bunker, also called a waste area, is an area on a golf course that is typically sandy, usually very large, that might also have rocks, pebbles, shells or various types of vegetation in it, and is neither a penalty area nor a bunker. That's right: "Waste bunkers" are not bunkers!

Waste Bunkers/Waste Areas Do Not Exist in the Rules

It's true: The Rules of Golf make no reference to either "waste bunkers" or "waste areas." Those terms are used by golfers, by golf course architects and superintendents, but not by the governing bodies of golf.

So what are they?

They are generally some combination of sandy/pebbly areas installed on golf courses — natural areas that are not covered with grass — that are unmaintained. They might exist merely as a way to lessen the amount of sod, turf maintenance and watering required on the golf course. Or they might exist for cosmetic effect, or because the course architect wanted to provide another element for golfers to play over or around. A waste area can also be a naturally occurring area left as-is and incorporated into a course design.

Waste Bunkers Are Part of the 'General Area'

Unless otherwise covered by a local rule, a waste bunker is not a penalty area under the Rules of Golf, nor is it a bunker. No special rules apply to them: Waste bunkers/waste areas are, as far as the rules of golf are concerned, merely part of the "general area" of the golf course, what used to be called "through the green." (The "general area" is all parts of the course that are not teeing ground, penalty areas, bunkers or putting greens.)

So when in a waste bunker, the same rules apply as if your ball was on the fairway, or in the rough.

Although waste bunkers are not hazards under the rules, they certainly can be hazardous to golfers' scores. They are not common in golf course architecture, but aren't exactly rare, either. Sometimes they run alongside a fairway, and when waste bunkers do appear on courses they are sometimes in positions where they come into play with regularity on errant shots.

As noted, when a course has waste bunkers it might also have local rules governing those waste bunkers. So if you are playing a course where you know they exist, it's a good idea to clarify their status before beginning play.

Telling the Difference Between Waste Bunkers and Real Bunkers

The key to know what is a waste bunker or waste area is knowning what isn't a bunker. Bunkers contain sand, most waste areas are sandy. So if you understand what qualifies as a bunker, then you should also be able to understand that the sandy area you in does not qualify as a bunker under the rules.

The definition of bunker is "a specially prepared area of sand, which is often a hollow from which turf or soil was removed." Waste areas are not "specially prepared" (they go unraked, they often have vegetation growing inside them or are also strews with rocks/pebbles, for example) and they are not "hollow(s) from which turf or soil was removed."

If the sandy area your ball is in does not meet those criteria, then that sandy area is not a bunker — it is just another part of the "general area."

Another key to recognizing waste areas is that they tend to be large in size and to have an unkept or unmaintained (more natural) look to them.