How To Hit A Bunker Shot In Golf? A Comprehensive Guide

They lurk, yawning like hungry monsters and gleaming in the sun like happy beaches. Their long, delicate fingers, sweeping faces, and geometric balance belie the trouble they can cause your scorecard.

Bunkers add both artistry and complexity to the golf course. Bunkers guard the fronts, sides, and backs of greens, catching the timid, the bold, and the off-line shots of players who miss the target.

Flagsticks hide behind them, tempting players to hit shots over the bunkers or provoking enough fear to have them steer shots away from the hole to vacant portions of the green.

Some bunkers are deep and some shallow; some are simple and some complex. Make no mistake, however: Bunker play is an art as refined and as thoughtful as the very design of the splashy hazards themselves.

This article will help you learn how to successfully hit a bunker shot, appreciate their dangers and demystify their desperate, desert spell.

Tackling the Bunker

Bunkers, hazards filled with sand, provoke an extraordinary amount of “sand angst” among golfers. (You may also know them as sand  traps, but many golfers and commentators shy away from this term, and so do we.)

But sometimes, aiming for a bunker actually makes sense — on a long, difficult approach shot, for example. The pros know that the up and down (getting onto the green and then into the hole) from sand can actually be easier than from the surrounding (usually gnarly) grass.

Bunkers began as dips in the ground on the windswept Scottish linksland. Because such areas were sheltered from cold breezes, sheep would take refuge in them. Thus, the dips expanded and got deeper.

When the land came to be used for golf, the locals took advantage of what God and the sheep left behind and fashioned sand-filled bunkers. (No word on what the sheep thought of all this.)

On these old courses, the greens were positioned so as to maximize the bunkers’ threat to golfers’ shots, which is why they came to be named hazards in the rules of golf. Later, course architects placed these insidious “traps” so as to penalize wayward shots.

That’s why you generally don’t see bunkers in the middle of fairways — they’re mostly to the sides. Few amateurs have ever aimed at a bunker. Mired in sand is the last place they want to be.

The saga the late Tip O’Neill endured years ago during the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, a pro-am tournament (where professionals play with amateurs), is a great example of how amateur golfers look at bunkers.

The former Speaker of the House, admittedly not the strongest golfer (even among celebrities), found himself in a very deep bunker.

He then spent the next few hours (okay, it just seemed that long) trying to extricate first the ball and then his hefty, honorable self from the trap — all on national television. You could almost hear millions of viewers muttering, “Been there, done that.”

Getting your mind out of the bunker

Why do bunkers scare most amateurs to death? Just what is it aboutsand play that they find so tough? Simple: It all comes down to lack of technique and/or a lack of understanding.

Faced with a bunker shot, many golfers are beaten before they start. You can tell by their constipated looks, sweaty foreheads, and hesitant body language. Their reactions when they fail are also interesting. After a couple of shots finish up back in the bunker, most players don’t focus on technique.

They merely try to hit the shot harder, making more and more-violent swings. Wrong! Swinging harder only makes them angrier, and then the ball sure isn’t going to come out.

They wind up digging a nice, big trench perfect for burying a small animal but not much good for anything else. Part of the reason for this all-too-human reaction is that long stretches of failure resign you to your fate.

In your mind, you’ve tried everything, and you still can’t get the damn thing out. So you trudge into the bunker expecting the worst, and that’s what you usually get.

Building a better bunker shot

So how do you go from digging for buried treasure to ejecting your ball from the bunker? Golf, and especially bunker play, is mainly in creating the proper angle that the clubhead must take into the ball.

Most golfers address the ball in a way that makes creating the correct angles in their golf swings all but impossible. Ball position is the root of many duffs, hacks, slashes, and other misbegotten shots.

If you have the ball positioned way back toward your right foot, as so many people seem to do, you’ll never get it out of the trap.

You can’t hit the ball high enough, for one thing. For another, the clubhead enters the sand at too steep an angle. In other words, the clubhead digs into the sand instead of sliding through it. When that happens, the ball usually stays in the bunker, sucking sand.

Setting your bunker goals

Well-executed bunker shots are a beautiful sight. The sand bursts up in all directions, looking like a splashy fireworks show, and from this cloud emerges the ball, which soars high to its apex and lands softly on the green, checking up and stopping near the hole.

If you’re an average player, your expectation and goal should be one in the same: Get the ball out of the bunker and onto the green in one shot. From there, make two-putting your new expectation and consider the outcome a success.

If you happen to hit it close to the hole and make your putt — a lofty goal — enjoy your wild success. If you play golf long enough, you’ll hit some splendid, beautiful shots from time to time, and you’ll feel great.

Hitting a ball from a bunkeronto the green and then making the putt is characterized in statistics as a sand save. Your pals in a friendly game may call this occurrence a “sandy.” Enjoy sand saves when they happen because they rarely occur for the average player.

Exploring the Sand Wedge’s Bounce

To be a competent sand player, you must take advantage of the way your sand wedge is designed. The bottom of the club is wider than the top.

The bounce is the part of a wedge that hangs below the leading edge, the front part of the sole. (The sole, like the bottom of a shoe, is the bottom of the clubhead.) Trust us, if you can make the best use of the bounce, you can take bunker play off your list of phobias.

The bounce is the part of the clubhead that should contact the sand first. This approach encourages the sliding motion that’s so crucial to good bunker play. Think about it: The sand is going to slow the club as you swing down and through, which is okay.

But you want to keep the slowdown to a minimum. If the club digs in too much, the ball probably won’t leave the bunker. So slide the clubhead; don’t use it to dig. Take note, however, that not every sand wedge has the same amount of bounce.

The width of the sole and the amount that it hangs below the leading edge varies. The lower the trailing edge (the rear part of the sole) hangs below the leading edge, the more bounce your sand wedge has.

This point, of course, begs another question: How do you know how much bounce your sand wedge needs? The determining factor is the type of sand you play from. The bigger the bounce or the wider the sole on your sand wedge, the less the wedge digs into the sand.

If the sand at your home course is typically pretty firm underfoot, you need a sand wedge with very little bounce. A club with a lot of bounce does just that — bounce. Hard (or wet) sand only accentuates that tendency, so using that club leaves you hitting a lot of shots thin, as the clubhead skids off the sand and strikes the ball’s equator. Thin shots fly too low.

Either you hit the ball into the face of the bunker and don’t get out at all, or the ball misses the face and zooms over the green. Neither result is socially acceptable. The first is hazardous to your mental health, the second to your playing partners.

At the other end of the scale is soft, deep sand. For that sort of stuff, you need plenty of bounce. In fact, because the clubhead digs so easily when the sand is soft, you can’t have enough bounce.

Hitting Effective Bunker Shots

Although you can easily be intimidated by the complexity of a bunker shot, it isn’t unlike hitting a pitch shot or a flop shot. The key is to splash the sand with your club before it makes contact with the ball.

Of course, the ball isn’t technically trapped because you have plenty of methods to help it escape after you plot your exit strategy. The following sections help you do just that.

Assessing the sand variables

Not all bunkers are alike, and neither is the sand that forms them. You need to make a perceptive, smart assessment of the type of bunker your ball lands in, the lie you have to deal with, and the bunker’s sand type.

Determining the shape you’re in

The size of every bunker is different. But, generally, you encounter two extremes:

Sand scrapes: Some bunkers may be shallow but expansive, so although you may not need to fly the ball extremely high, you have to hit it a longer distance forward to escape the bunker.

In this case, be certain to use the proper amount of clubhead speed to propel the ball forward and not just up and out. A longer backswing and a closed clubface can propel the ball farther.

High lip: Some bunkers are small, circular pot bunkers that may be deep but not large in circumference. If you have tonegotiate a big lip between the ball and the green, make certain that the ball gets up quickly: Take the club back steeply and follow through.

Open the clubface and maintain that position through the shot. Regardless of the bunker shape you’re in, you have to account for the variables of height and distance: How far does the ball have to fly in order to escape the bunker and land on the green? How high does the ball have to fly in order to clear any high side or rising lip that extends up in the bunker?

The more upright your swing, and the more open thclubface becomes, the higher and shorter the ball travels.

Adjusting to the sand

The sand that one golf course uses in its bunkers may be very different from the sand another course uses. Some courses have bunkers with fine, soft sand, and others put in firm sand. You see some bunkers with more sand than others, and the sand can be fluffy or wet and hard-packed.

Although the rules dictate that you can’t test the nature of the sand before you play a shot from a bunker, take the time to be aware of whether the sand looks wet and hard or light and fluffy. Different conditions call for different techniques:

Soft sand: If the sand in the bunker is soft and fluffy, you need to put a bit more speed in your swing because cushy sand slows the club down as the clubhead goes through. So feel free to be aggressive and make a strong swing.

Hard sand: When the bunker sand is firm or wet, you need to slow your swing speed down, which means not taking the club back as far. The ball comes out more quickly because you don’t have as much cushy sand between your ball and the clubhead.

But make sure you don’t decelerate your swing and leave the ball in the sand.

Checking out your lie

Examine the ball and the way it lies in the sand. Is it sitting on top of the sand or is it buried? If you have a clean lie, consider yourself lucky that the ball isn’t buried or lying in a footprint.

A ball partially buried is to be expected, but if it looks like you need a shovel, the best method is to swing the club up and down like you’re chopping wood with a dull.

Hit straight down on the sand a couple of inches behind the ball. A full follow-through isn’t necessary. Just hit down. Hard. The ball should pop up and then run to the hole.

With little or no backspin, that sneaky little escapee runs like it just stole something. So allow for extra roll. Just how hard you should hit down is difficult to say — it depends on the texture and depth of the sand and on how deep the ball is buried. That old standby, practice, tells you what you need to know.

Choosing your club

Greenside bunker shots often require you to fly your ball high through the air over a short distance. The height you have to fly your shot in order to escape the bunker is more important than the distance you need to cover; therefore, to play an effective bunker shot, you should use the shortest, most lofted club in your bag. The most lofted club in your bag is likely your sand wedge; you may also have a 58-or 60-degree club.

Raising clubface awareness

To be an effective sand player, you must be aware of what’s goingTo be an effective sand player, you must be aware of what’s going on with the face of the club. You select a highly lofted club to play the shot, and the clubface needs to remain lofted as it slides through the sand and sends the ball skyward.

In other words, when you take your grip and swing the club, you shouldn’t do anything that could deloft the clubface or change its angle, such as trying to help the ball into the air.

Your grip shouldn’t be tight, either, in an effort to keep the loft. The harder you grab, the more tension you put into your arms and hands, and if you have tension in your grip, you can’t feel the clubhead. You always want to feel the clubhead and maintain its lofted state, so keep your grip relaxed.

Taking your stance

When you set up to hit a bunker shot, you stand virtually the same way you stand to hit a pitch shot. When you take position over the ball, your lead foot should point open 45 degrees, and your body and shoulders should open to that same 45- degree angle facing down the target line and toward the target. Put more of your weight on your front foot to keep from swaying and make sure to keep your knees flexed.

Digging in and staying level

You do have to deal with one major difference between your pitch stance and your bunker stance, and it stems from the conditions of the shots.

Unlike a pitch shot, when you hit the ball off the ground and brush the grass with the clubhead, a bunker shot requires you to make contact with the sand behind the ball on the downswing at impact, forcing the ball in front of a cushion of sand. You don’t strike the ball. Because the clubhead needs to splash through thesand below the ball, you naturally have to get lower.

To make splashing the sand easier, when you open your lead foot and take your stance, dig yourself down into the sand. You should bury the soles of your shoes. If you stand level, you have to reach down unnaturally during your swing to make proper contact with the sand. You want your swing to stay consistent, and the only way to do that is to lower yourself by digging your feet in. This way, you can take your natural swing.

Choosing your ball position

Generally, when you stand over the ball, you should position it in the middle of your stance. As an average player, you should keep the ball in the middle of your stance for all bunker shots — a way to go about playing the shot that allows you to develop your touch and feel by keeping it simple.

Advanced players do some creative things with ball position, but you should play the ball in the middle, and practice with it there, until you feel as though you’ve mastered the bunker shot — to the extent that it can be mastered, that is.

When you step into a bunker without fear and are confident that you can get the ball out of the bunker and reasonably close to the hole with one shot under any conditions, you’ve come as close to “mastering” the sand as you can.

Sometimes, however, the circumstances you find your ball in dictate that you move the ball from the center of your stance no matter what your skill level is:

Uphill bunker shot: Move the ball a little bit forward of center to make certain you hit the sand in front of the ball.

Downhill bunker shot: Move the ball a little behind center in your stance to make certain the ball flies up, because gravity naturally pulls it down.

Picking a target and taking aim

Because your ball comes out higher as a result of the highly lofted face of the club you use for bunker shots, it doesn’t roll as far. If you never deloft your open clubface and splash the ball out, your ball comes out high; lands in a soft, vertical fashion; and rolls only a short distance after it hits the green.

In numerical terms, your ball should roll for only about 40 percent of its life — so 60 percent of the shot takes place in the air. After you become an efficient bunker player, you can pick a spot to aim at, but if you’re an average player, don’t concentrate on a particularly small spot.

Your expectation should be to get the ball out of the sand and onto an area of the green. You don’t want to have to hear any lame beach jokes from your partners as you scrape sand all day. Your bunker swing should be steeper than your natural swing, so you can’t go straight back along the target line. And because your clubhead comes across the target line, you have to aim a little bit to the left of the target when you set up.

Taking a sand-sweeping swing

As odd as it sounds, you have to understand that you don’t try to hit the ball during bunker shots. A well-executed bunker shot sends the ball flying out of the bunker on a platform of sand. The impact the club makes on the sand, and the reaction of the sand, is what propels the ball out of the bunker.

Pick a spot 2 inches behind the ball. Concentrate on that spot and swing the club through it. When you practice your bunker shots, imagine the ball sitting on an area of sand that you want your club to sweep — or splash — through.

Imagine another golf ball lying in the sand directly behind yours — that’s about how far behind the ball your clubhead should enter the sand. Attempt to hit the second imaginary golf ball in order to move the real one.

Don’t “help” the ball out of the bunker and into the air. Anytime you try to do so, your weight transfers to your back leg, and you raise up as you try to scoop the ball.

The more your weight stays on your back side, the more likely you are to belly the ball by hitting it with the bottom of the club and skulling it across the green or into the side of the bunker. Keep your weight in the center of your stance and minimize any leg action or transfer of weight.

The shape of the backswing

The shape of your takeaway and backswing should be a very upright, vertical motion. Your backswing should be steeper becauseupright, vertical motion. Your backswing should be steeper because the angle of attack needs to be steeper in order to get the ball up sooner and higher than normal. (For an example of a really upright vertical backswing.)

The angle down, when you swing a golf club through a ball, actually translates as up in terms of the ball’s response. If you swing down with your club, the ball goes up.

But also consider that the more steeply you take the club back, the shorter the distance the ball can travel because of the emphasis on height. Your club goes vertical, you swing slowly, and the clubhead is lofted, so the ball simply can’t go very far.

To swing the club back more vertically, use your hands to swing the club more than your arms. To get the backswing steeper, you need to get wristier by cocking your wrists a little more than you normally do. When you cock your wrists, the club may wander off the target line some, but you should stay focused on the face and keep your grip loose.

You swing the clubhead though the ball just as you normally do, but you swing at a steeper angle.

The length and speed of the backswing

We’re talking distance control here. With a bunker shot, the length of your backswing determines how far the ball flies after it leaves the bunker.

If you just have to get the ball out of the bunker and the flagstick is cut close to your side of the green, you can’t take the club very far back or you’ll send the ball a long way. But no matter how far youback or you’ll send the ball a long way.

But no matter how far you judge that you need to take the club back, be sure to swing all the way through and follow through to a complete swing. Take it back halfway if you need to, but be sure to finish fully!

Depending upon your lie and the density of the sand, the speed of your swing is also a factor. Think of this concept like driving your car: The faster and harder you swing, the farther the ball goes. But you also have more margin for error — just like driving too fast!

Try to maintain a consistent swing speed all the time to achieve success. The speed should be smooth and slow enough so you can feel the clubhead. If you play a course with harder sand, you can swing easier (or harder in the case of softer sand), but always keep the clubhead speed the same during the round.

To vary the distance of a bunker shot, vary how far back you take the club. The speed takes care of itself.

The follow-through

One of the biggest mistakes players make during a bunker shot is failing to follow through after they make contact with the sand and begin to move the ball forward. A bunker shot requires a big finish. No matter how short your greenside shot is, it requires the chorus line finish — a big, full follow-through, not the 9:00 to 3:00 finish of a chip shot or pitch shot.

The reason for the big follow-through is that the sand slows your clubhead down at impact. Metaphorically, if this swing is 10 milesclubhead down at impact. Metaphorically, if this swing is 10 miles per hour, the clubhead can go through the ball at 12 or even 15 miles per hour, but it shouldn’t go through at 5 miles per hour.

Your goal is to get your downswing to go the same speed as your backswing — or a bit faster. You slow the downswing by decelerating the clubhead, which kills the momentum of the swing.

Hitting off grass is different. The club goes through the grass easily, so you can swing the club more easily. Shorter grass doesn’t really catch on the blade too much. But the minute you try to hit through the sand, the clubhead slows down.

Therefore, you have to make sure that you constantly maintain good clubhead speed, and in order to maintain good speed, you need that big finish.

Concentrating on making that finish ensures that you don’t inadvertently slow down the clubhead on the downswing or at impact. The bigger the finish, the better your chances of escaping the bunker.

You may be tempted to quit on a bunker shot and not make the big finish out of hesitation or lack of confidence. If you stop the club just after you hit the ball, you’ve decelerated — and you never want to decelerate! Deceleration is the short- game kiss of death, no matter the shot.

Focusing on a full, uninhibited follow-through helps. Forget the ball; all you’re trying to do is throw sand out of the bunker.

If you can throw sand, the ball gets carried along for the ride. And that’s why better players say that bunker play is easy: The clubhead never actually contacts the ball.

(Remember: The more sand you throw, the shorter the shot is. So if you need to hit the shot a fair distance, hit maybe only 2 inches behind the ball.)





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