What Is a 'Pot Bunker' on a Golf Course?

Paul Dunne of Ireland plays out of a bunker on the 5th hole during the third round of the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course on July 19, 2015
A series of pot bunkers on The Old Course at St. Andrews. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

A "pot bunker" is a small, circular but deep bunker with steep faces. Pot bunkers are most commonly found on links golf courses. The are sometimes called "pothole bunkers," and because of the fact that they are small and deep, pot bunkers are some of the most hazardous of all bunkers on golf courses.

Pot Bunkers Found Mostly on Links Courses

British Open golf courses are famous for their pot bunkers, which can be placed as greenside guardians or as fairway menaces.

Pot bunkers are sometimes made even more dangerous by fairways or greensides that slope down toward the bunker, gathering up golf balls that roll too close. Also, it is not uncommon for pot bunkers to lurk ahead in fairways in spots that are blind to golfers from the teeing ground.

Pot bunkers originated on the earliest golf courses, Scottish seaside links, as natural depressions in the linksland. Their small, deep, steep-sided nature kept the seaside breezes from blowing away the sand. That feature eventually led designers of inland golf courses in Britain to begin purpose-building pot bunkers on golf courses.

Getting Into a Pot Bunker is Easy, Getting Out is Harder

How do you deal with a pot bunker once your golf ball has rolled into one? Their small size and steep sides making advancing the ball forward a more difficult proposition than with other types of bunkers (which tend to be much larger and shallower than potholes).

Take your medicine. If the forward facing of the bunker is so steep that you don't think you can get the ball up over it, don't try. Instead, check the options of playing out left or right, or even behind (back down the fairway away from the green). Even the best golfers in the world sometimes have to play out sideways or backwards (away from the green) from pot bunkers.

The most important thing is to choose the play that gives you the best opportunity of getting the golf ball out of the bunker. At the British Open every year, there are at least a few scenes of some of the world's best golfers failing to escape on their first (or even second) try from pot bunkers.

Origins of the Term 'Pot Bunker'

One might think that "pot bunker" is a contraction of "pothole bunker," and one of the definitions of "pothole" is (from Merriam-Webster) is a "rounded often water-filled depression in land." But that's probably not the case; the use of "pot bunker" seems to predate the use of "pothole bunker."

So the truth is probably more mundane: That "pot bunker" derives from the hole in the ground's evoking the look of a cooking pot. Two other definitions of "pot" are interesting, and perhaps contributed in some way: pot can refer to a basket or cage used to catch fish or shellfish (pot bunkers catch golf balls); and pot can refer, in a strictly British usage, to "a shot in snooker in which a ball is pocketed."