There are a number of reasons players may find themselves unsuccessful at hitting from bunkers. Here are five common bunker mistakes and how they can be corrected.
Quitting on the shot
Many amateur golfers fear bunker shots and this fear drives them to quit through impact. This means the golfer seizes up and slows down at the crucial moment they should be accelerating to lift the ball up and out of the bunker. This usually results in a heavy strike with the ball being left in the sand. To help avoid quitting on the shot, golfers should try holding the club high on the handle. This extra length on the club will add extra club head speed through the ball increasing acceleration at impact.
Too much sand
Players only need to slide the club underneath the ball so it flies up and out of the bunker on a fine carpet of sand, not a woolly mammoth rug! Taking too much sand behind or underneath the ball will rapidly decrease club head speed. If the golfer hits the sand too far behind the ball they will have to heave a massive amount of sand.
Too little sand
Take too little sand and other problems can appear. Because of the length and speed generated during a standard splash bunker shot, direct contact with the ball will produce a lot of distance. If no sand is taken at all, the golfer could also thin the shot resulting in even less control of the golf ball. To ensure enough sand is taken during the bunker shot, the golfer must ensure they enter the sand at least an inch before the ball.
Golfers are often so desperate to lift the ball out of a bunker they resort to flicking their hands at the ball. This flicking is caused by a breakdown of the left wrist at impact (for right handed golfers). This breakdown rapidly increases the upward arc of the swing through impact. The flick usually results in the club either not entering the sand at all or rising so quickly out that a skulled or thin shot is almost inevitable. Golfers should try to ensure that the left wrist stays firm, down and through impact. The large amount of loft on a sand wedge will impart enough lift on the ball without extra help from the golfer.
Scooping the ball is quite similar to flicking but with the added bonus of leaning back through impact. This scoop sees the golfer transfer most of their weight on to the back foot during the shot in an attempt to get underneath the ball. This transfer of weight backward usually results in fat or heavy strikes as the swing arc bottoms out too early and enters the sand a long way behind the ball. Scooping is a nasty habit to ingrain and should be avoided by ensuring body weight is slightly forward at impact and the left wrist (for right handed golfers) is firm through impact and does not break down.
Five Common Golf Bunker Mistakes
The average golfer is terrified of bunkers. Okay, so 'terrified' might be a bit strong, but most golfers are scared of the sand, to say the least. The typical amateur sees the bunker as something to be avoided at all costs, on the same level with a water hazard or even an out of bounds stake. While it is true that you want to do your best to keep your ball on the grass and out of the sand, you don't actually need to fear these relatively harmless hazards. In fact, with a little bit of practice and some quality instruction, you could come to understand that getting the ball up and down from the bunker is a relatively simple proposition. In some cases, saving your par from the sand can even be easier than doing so from the grass.
Unfortunately, the average golfer makes a number of mistakes when playing from a greenside bunker. These mistakes lead to a variety of problems, from difficulty controlling the distance of the shot to a total inability to even get the ball out of the sand in the first place. You should always have two goals when stepping down into a greenside bunker – first, of course, is to get the ball out of the sand and back onto the grass. From there, you should be working to position your ball as perfectly as possible for an easy putt. If you can get your ball out of the sand and into the hole is just two shots on a fairly regular basis, you will be saving strokes as compared to your competition.
The content below highlights five of the common mistakes made by amateur golfers when they find their ball in a greenside bunker. As you review this list of mistakes, you will likely notice at least one or two that you are guilty of yourself. Once you make the necessary corrections to take these mistakes out of your game, you should find that you start getting up and down from the sand at a higher rate than ever before.
All of the content below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.
Mistake #1 – Not Swinging Hard Enough
You have to swing hard to get the ball out of the bunker – it's just that simple. When playing a greenside bunker shot where you are going to blast the ball from the sand, you need to make a hard swing in order to get the club to carve through the sand effectively. The sand that you are going to contact behind the ball is extremely heavy, so plenty of speed will be needed to keep the club moving through the shot. Without enough speed, the club will stick in the sand and the ball will come up well short of the target (and it might not even get out of the bunker at all).
It can be difficult to convince yourself to swing hard enough on your greenside bunker shots since you are only a few yards away from the target. Making a full swing just feels 'wrong' from this close to the green, as it seems inevitable that the ball will go rocketing across the green as the result of your big swing. Of course, if you execute the shot correctly, the ball isn't going to fly across the green – it is going to float up out of the sand softly, only to land on the green and stop relatively quickly.
The key to pulling this shot off just right comes down to hitting the sand behind the ball. You aren't actually trying to hit the ball when you make a swing in a bunker – instead, you are trying to hit the sand, which will then carry the ball out of the hazard. This is an important piece of the puzzle, but it is one that many players misunderstand. They think they should be trying to hit the ball cleanly to get it out of the sand, which causes them to swing softly out of fear of hitting the shot too far. Once you learn that your goal is to stick the club into the sand safely behind the ball, you will then feel free to swing hard without any risk of hitting the shot over the green.
During your bunker practice sessions, work on experimenting with various swing lengths to figure out just how far back you should swing in order to create quality bunker shots. Some players are comfortable making a complete full swing while playing in a greenside bunker, while others like to swing only halfway back before speeding up the club aggressively on the way down. No matter how you like to create the speed in your bunker swing, you just need to make sure you have created it before the club touches the sand. As long as the club is moving quickly and you make contact with the sand before getting to the ball, you should be able to send the ball safely up and onto the green.
Mistake #2 – Failing to Open the Club Face at Address
When you step down into a bunker with your sand wedge in hand, one of the first things you should do is open up the club face so that you are effectively adding loft to the club. With the club face set square to the target line, your sand wedge probably has somewhere in the neighborhood of 55* of loft. However, when hitting a bunker shot, you want to lay the face open so that is has more like 75* or 80* of loft. By laying the face open, you will give the club a chance to cut through the sand cleanly while sending the ball high up into the air and hopefully onto the green.
This is a point that is hard to trust for most amateur golfers. Most players feel like they are going to go right under the ball without hardly moving it an inch if they lay the club face open. To become a better bunker player, you simply have to learn how to trust this part of the technique. Playing greenside bunker shots with a square club face is not impossible, but it certainly does make things more difficult. Also, if you are unwilling to open the face, you will struggle to get the ball up over any steep bunker edges that might be between you and the target. It's very simple – you are never going to be a quality bunker player unless you are willing to open up the face significantly at address.
To learn how to do this effectively, you need to set aside some practice time to build up trust in the open club face. The only way that you will ever be able to trust this technique on the course is if you have first seen it succeed in practice. After hitting enough quality shots in the short game practice area, you will start to understand that using an open club face is the best way to hit good shots from the bunker – so you will be more inclined to use the same technique on the course. If, on the other hand, you never bother to practice your sand game, you will always struggle to find the necessary trust to hit this shot correctly under pressure.
When you are working on your club face positioning for greenside bunker shots, you need to make sure that you take your grip at the correct time in order to avoid returning the club to a square position prematurely. It is critical that you hold the club face behind the ball with an open face prior to taking your grip with both hands, rather than the other way around. If you take your grip with a square club face, then turn your wrists to get the club face open, the face is naturally going to return to square well before you hit the shot.
The easiest way to form your grip correctly is to hold the club lightly in your right hand while positioning the open face behind the ball (remember to avoid touching the sand with the club head). Once you are happy with the club face positioning, place your left hand on the club and secure your grip with that hand. Then, take your right hand quickly off of the club, and replace it in a position that matches up with the left. This process should take just a few seconds, but it will lead to an excellent grip and proper club face positioning.
Mistake #3 – Ignoring the Lie
In golf, the lie of the ball dictates everything that you are able to do with your shots. This is a rule that applies throughout the course, whether your ball is on the grass, in the sand, or anywhere else. Of course, when you are on the tee, you have a perfect lie and you should be able to hit any kind of shot that you like. Other than that first shot of each hole, however, you are always going to be at the mercy of the lie that you draw.
Many amateurs get into trouble on the course when they try to hit shots that are not well-suited for the lie of the ball. For example, hitting a flop shot to stop the ball quickly is a great idea when you have a nice lie with a little bit of grass under the ball, but it can be a disaster from a bare lie on hard turf. One of the biggest steps you can take in your pursuit of becoming a better player is to learn how to read you lie and then select a shot accordingly. One of the reasons that the professional golfers you see on TV are able to produce so many quality shots is the simple fact that they are always taking the lie of the ball into consideration.
Understanding what you can and can't do with your bunker shots based on the lie of the ball is just as important as it is elsewhere on the course. As you walk down into the bunker to get ready for your shot, one of the first things you need to do is analyze the lie. Is the ball sitting up on top of the sand, or is it buried down deep? How much of the ball is sitting above the level of the sand – 50%? 75%? 100%? The answers to these questions are going to go a long way toward determining how you can play your bunker shot onto the green.
While the ability to accurately read your lie is going to come largely through experience, the tips below should give you some idea of what you can expect from the various lies that you will encounter.
- Ball sitting cleanly on top of the sand. Not surprisingly, you should be able to hit just about any shot you wish when you have a good lie. If the ball is resting on top of the sand, and there is plenty of sand beneath the ball, you can go ahead with your standard explosion shot. Be careful to feel the sand below your feet as you walk into the bunker to make sure there is enough sand, however, as a hard-packed bunker can lead to trouble even if the lie looks good on the surface. A shot hit nicely from a clean lie should have plenty of backspin when it lands on the green.
- Ball sitting partially down in the sand. When there is a little bit of sand around the ball, you should still be able to hit a normal explosion shot, but you shouldn't expect much spin when the ball lands on the green. You will need to make sure you bring as much speed as possible with this swing, as you are going to have to cut down deep into the sand in order to get the ball up in the air.
- Ball sitting deep down in the sand. This is the worst case scenario as far as your lie in a bunker is concerned. When your ball is buried deep, the only goal you should have is to get the ball out of the sand and onto the grass. You can't really afford to be picky at this point – even if you have to play away from the hole with this shot just to get out of the bunker, that is exactly what you should do. Rather than playing this shot with an open face, you are going to square up the face of your wedge at address so that the leading edge of the club can dig into the sand as cleanly as possible. Move the ball slightly back in your stance for this shot, swing down aggressively, and use as much speed as possible. With any luck, you will be able to move the ball out of the sand and onto the grass, and you can move forward from there.
Mistake #4 – Ignoring the Lip
Just as you need to pay attention to the lie of the ball in the sand, you also need to watch the lip of the bunker in front of you. If your shot doesn't have a high enough trajectory to clear that lip, it doesn't really matter how well you hit the shot – the ball is going to bounce right back down to your feet. As you stand behind the ball in the sand and think about how you are going to get close to the target, remember to consider the issue of the lip that stands between you and the hole.
The depth of the bunker that you are will have a lot to do with whether or not you can clear the lip effectively. For instance, if the bunker is only a couple feet deep, you shouldn't have trouble getting out with any kind of greenside explosion shot. On the other hand, if the bunker is several feet deep, it may take a perfect shot with a wide open club face to get the ball onto the green. As you are walking down into the sand, pay attention to the depth of the bunker and decide if you are going to be able to go directly at the flag, or if you need to play away to another part of the bunker where the lip is not as high.
Another part of this equation is the distance that your ball is sitting from the edge of the bunker in the direction of the target. Even a short lip can be a problem when your ball is right next to it – while a high lip may be easy to clear if you have plenty of room to work with. The ball needs time to get up into the air, so you will be better off the farther back you are. Try picturing the flight of the ball as it comes up out of the sand to decide if you are going to be able to get out on your desired line or not.
The bottom line when it comes to clearing the lip of a bunker is that you should always error on the side of caution. Hitting the lip and watching your ball roll back to your feet can quickly lead to a double bogey or worse, doing major damage to your score for the day. Even if you have to play out sideways and take a bogey, you might be better off making that choice when faced with a particularly high or steep lip.
Mistake #5 – Lack of Planning
Poor planning is at the root of many bad golf shots. You have certainly been guilty of this crime during your time on the course – everyone has at one point or another. Instead of carefully planning out your shot, you simply walk up to the ball and swing away. Not surprisingly, shots that are not well-planned tend to has disappointing outcomes. If you want to be happy with the result of most of your bunker shots, the best thing you can do is take a moment to plan the shot out properly.
So what should you be planning exactly? First, you should pick out a landing spot for the shot, and visualize how much spin you are going to put on the ball. Even if you aren't confident in your ability to consistently hit your spot, it is still a good idea to pick one out, as this process will give your swing focus and purpose. Also, as mentioned above, picture the trajectory of the ball flying through the air on its way to your chosen landing spot. The more detail that you can put into the visualization process, the better your results are likely to be.
During the planning phase you should also be thinking about the potential negative outcomes that exist so you can avoid them as effectively as possible. Is there a big lip in front of you? Could your ball roll off the other side of the green and down into a hazard? Rather than pretending like these concerns don't exist, confront them directly and decide how you are going to hit your shot so that you avoid the potential trouble. In the end, you should be left with a smart game plan that gives you the best chance for success with your greenside bunker shot.
The average golfer makes plenty of mistakes as they go around the course, and some of those mistakes take place in the bunker. By reviewing the content above, you should be able to remove some of these issues from your own game, and your scores could come down in the process. No golfer is perfect – not even the pros on TV – but you can take steps in the right direction by removing mistakes from your game one at a time.