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 water hazard 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, but the governing bodies of golf do not recognize them.

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 'Through the Green'

Unless otherwise covered by a local rule, a waste bunker is not a hazard under the Rules of Golf. And  the USGA and R&A don't even mention them in the rules. No special rules apply to them: Waste bunkers/waste areas are, as far as the rules of golf are concerned, merely "through the green."

So when in a waste bunker, golfers may do things they cannot do in a real bunker or other hazard, such as ground the club.

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

There really shouldn't be a problem here, waste areas are know-'em-when-you-see-'em kind of things. If you just cannot decide whether you're in a real bunker or not, err on the side of believing you are. That will lessen the chances of incurring a penalty.

Rules consultant Linda Miller, in her "Ask Linda" blog, once wrote this comparing waste bunkers (which are not hazards under the rules) to actual bunkers (which are hazards under the rules):

"If an area filled with sand meets the definition of a bunker, then it is a bunker; if it does not, then it is defined as 'through the green.' ...

"A bunker is defined as 'a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like.' In other words, if dirt has been dug out and replaced with sand, it is a bunker. Note that the presence or absence of rakes has nothing to do with whether a particular area is considered to be a bunker."

One of the keys 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.