PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — They’re told not to speak to players or caddies unless spoken to, as well as hug the rope lines to stay out of view of TV cameras. But this emphasis on invisibility and the lowly title of “bunker raker” doesn’t make the job any less sweet. Fifty-two superintendents from across the world paid their way to Royal Portrush this week to continue the unique tradition. Besides the Open Championship, the European Tour’s BMW Championship at Wentworth is the only top professional event that has a devoted rake-wielder in each group, freeing the caddies to put more attention on their players.
Half of the bunker rakers this year are rookies. Many are the head superintendent at their course, “So most of us haven’t raked a bunker in a while,” says Danny Tyrell, who works at Gathurst Golf Club near Manchester, England, and was assigned on Friday to the group of Thomas Pieters, Tyrrell Hatton and Keith Mitchell. Not to worry, there are really only three things to remember.
1: Rake so the tine lines are parallel to the hole in the fairway bunkers.
2: Rake so the tine lines point toward the middle of the green in greenside bunkers.
3: Maintain the circle in the centers of bunkers. (To fix a divot is going above and beyond, and should be handled on a case-by-case basis with permission of the caddie.)
Asked if he liked the help that the bunker rakers provide this week, caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan of the iconic white mustache said, “What do you think? It’s great. You never have to scramble to catch up to your man.”
Augusta National once had bunker rakers for the Masters. Fluff thinks it was shortly after 1983, the year when professional caddies were first allowed in to replace the locals. Apparently, they weren’t initially trusted to do the bunkers correctly. At the 2003 Masters, Jeff Maggert famously blamed “a bad rake job” at No. 12 on Sunday for ruining his chances to win.
Although the approximately 60 bunkers of the Dunluce Links are far fewer than most Open venues, Phil Morley, caddie to Thorbjorn Olesen, loves the extra hand. “It’s bloody brilliant. There’s so much sand in these traps that it would take forever to do a decent job, and now I don’t have to worry about scrambling.” Let alone the umbrella blowing away while you’re holding the rake.
Bunker rakers must adapt to changing equipment. Each venue is different, and Portrush’s implements feature a yellow, almost rubbery, flared business-end that’s good for smoothing the rounded interior edges of bunkers. On top is a long ridge for flipping the rake upside down to squeegee wet greens. In a clever design of dual-purpose, the flared ends help prevent cutting the putting green.
“Greenkeeping can be a lonely job, so working The Open is a great way to get our members around people in the game and get inspired,” says Karl Hansell, head of the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA). Roughly one in five applicants gets the job to work The Open. “Yesterday, we had a young greenkeeper get a signed ball from Tiger Woods. He’ll keep that for the rest of his life.”
As if the world of bunker rakers wasn’t fascinating enough, during the round each raker must account for his work on a special card. A daily prize is awarded to the raker who most accurately guesses the total number of bunkers raked across the competition. On Thursday, BIGGA’s raking team raked 206 total bunkers. Andy Unwin of Birley Wood Golf Course, and Josh Dunn of Bramcote Waters Golf Course, both English clubs, each guessed 208 and so split the gift certificate.
Which makes for a potentially eerie conflict of interest. If you’re Shane Lowry, J.B. Holmes, Tommy Fleetwood or really any golfer competing in this 148th Open, the distant figure lurking behind the referee in your group might just be hoping you hit the next one in the bunker.