Course Photographer Captures the ‘ABCs’ of Bunker Shots

September 16, 2015

Never mind those tips you got from Peter Kostis. Here’s how to produce a great bunker shot: acquire a good camera, learn how to use it and then take off in an airplane and patrol the skies.

Unorthodox, perhaps, but the strategy has worked for Mary Whitworth, an avid golfer and aerial photographer who captures golf course images from on high.

Her favorite subject: bunkers shaped like letters, portraits of which she sells on coffee mugs, coasters, tote bags, prints and more.

“Once you look down and see your first letter,” Whitworth said, “it’s hard to look at sand traps the same way again.”

Like an old Polaroid, her business, In the Sand Golf, took time to develop. A Florida native, Whitworth, 57, was into snapping pictures and flying planes long before she turned her eye to golf. She wasn’t even a golfer to begin with; in the late 1980s, when she earned her pilot’s license, Whitworth had never posted an 18-hole score.

She went on to make a living as an aerial photographer, capturing the lilt and scale of parcels for contractors, developers and other real-estate concerns. Her introduction to golf came through client outings. Frustrating game, but addictive too. Whitworth worked at it. She whittled her handicap to 14.

In late 2012, while she was winging through the air in her Cessna 210, a brainstorm struck. Christmas was approaching. Her husband, Bruce, was a golf nut, too. Maybe, she thought, as a present to him, she could produce a print of his name spelled in the sand.

Almost at that moment, somewhere over the city of Bonita Springs, Fla., Whitworth looked down and saw a bunker shaped like a “B.” The remaining letters in “Bruce” showed up soon after.

From that personal project, a commercial enterprise was born. Fleshing out her archives wasn’t easy. It took Whitworth a year and roughly 500 flying hours to track down the entire alphabet; about half of that time was spent searching for a “Q.”

In the years since, she has tracked down all 26 letters in upper-case, but the lower-case “g” still eludes her: a glaring omission not only in her collection, but possibly in golf design.

All of the images are from layouts in Whitworth’s home state, though (with a few exceptions) she isn’t certain which letters come from which courses. She could research the matter, but there’s not much upside in that for her, since slapping names on those photos might invite legal questions.

Once you’ve mastered photography and flying, taking bird’s-eye images of bunkers isn’t all that tough. Not for Whitworth anyway. Cruising at an altitude of about 1,000 feet, camera set to high shutter speed, she slows her air speed to 100 miles per hour (down from her usual 175), clicks a button, and voila.

More difficult than snapping is knowing when to stop. She can’t look at a golf course without seeing letters.

“It’s especially bad when they cut to the blimp views on TV,” Whitworth said.  

Earlier this year, she was tuned into the Northern Trust Open when her phone started ringing: friends wanting to know if she’d seen the ‘W’ at Riviera.

“Of course I had,” Whitworth said. “I felt like flying out there right then and there to take a picture of it. It’s the best ‘W’ I’ve ever seen.”

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