How To Decide Which Golf Club To Hit From A Fairway Bunker

For both amateur and professional golfers, the fairway bunker shot throws up a number of difficult challenges.

The golfer must decide whether to stick or twist, to take the extra risk and attack the green or hold, be safe and play out sideways. After making this decision the golfer must then decide on which club to use.

The way a player thinks through the shot will often determine how successful it's likely to be. Follow this guide to help achieve success from the sand.

Distance to flag

The first thing a player must judge is how far they have left into the green. If the flag is too far away then golfers should be looking to judge where the best lay up spot will be. When judging the distance, it's important to remember that balls struck cleanly from fairway bunkers tend to have more backspin. This will reduce the distance the ball will travel. Another thing to keep in mind is what lies between the pin and the bunker. If the golfer is hitting from the fairway bunker over water and on to the green, they must get the yardage spot on and weigh up if the shot is worth the risk.

Height of bunker lip

The height of the fairway bunker lip will directly affect what club can be used. If a pin is 200 yards away but the bunker lip only allows a 9 iron to be hit, the golfer should resign themselves to the fact they won't hit the green. In most cases, the golfer should be cautious. The last thing golfers want to happen is a pure strike on the ball which hits the lip and ends up back in the bunker. If unsure, the golfer should increase the amount of loft and ensure they advance the ball towards the green.

Quality of the lie

When faced with a long fairway bunker shot, golfers should be honest with themselves when assessing the lie. If the lie is poor, then the likelihood of producing a successful shot begins to diminish quickly. This is because on a fairway bunker shot the golfer needs to make a clean contact with no sand caught in between the club and ball at impact. If any sand is between the club and ball at impact, the distance of the shot will decrease dramatically. If the ball has found a poor lie, the golfer shouldn't try to force the next shot, they should play safe and advance the ball as far as possible.

Confidence in ability

Not many golf courses or practice ranges have a fairway bunker for practice. This means many golfers haven't had any chance to practice the technique required for a successful shot. If the golfer stands over a fairway bunker shot and is unsure what to do, it may be a safer course of action to play out sideways.

Position in game

Something not to be overlooked when deciding on what shot to play is your position in the game or match. If a golfer is one shot off the lead coming down the last hole and needs a birdie to tie the medal or the match they have more reason to take the shot on.

If, however, a golfer is five shots clear coming down the last ,they should decide if laying up or playing out sideways would be a safer option.

When deciding what club to hit from a bunker, players should weigh up each of these different options and only then should they tackle the shot.

If you are like most golfers, you probably don’t give fairway bunkers very much respect.

How to Decide Which Golf Club to Hit from a Fairway Bunker

Sure, you'd like to keep your ball out of them whenever possible, but you don't treat them in the same way that you treat a water hazard, or even a group of large trees. However, fairway bunkers can be just as penalizing as other types of hazards on the course. If your ball winds up in the wrong spot in a particularly nasty fairway bunker, you may be lucky to even get out on your first shot, let alone reach the green. From a strategic standpoint, you would be wise to give fairway bunkers the proper respect when planning out your tee shot on any given par four or par five hole.

Unfortunately, even if you do give fairway bunkers the proper amount of respect, you are still going to hit the ball into one from time to time. Some courses feature a great number of these hazards, and no golfer is perfectly accurate on the tee. That means it is inevitable that you'll need to play some fairway bunker shots in upcoming rounds, so you should have a plan for how to play those shots. And, of course, part of having a plan involves figuring out which club you are going to use based on the situation at hand.

In this article, we are going to provide you with information that should help lead to quality club selection decisions in fairway bunkers. Of course, club selection is only one piece of the puzzle, as you'll also need to make a great swing in order to come away with a satisfying result. While the main topic at hand here is club selection, we are also going to touch on some of the basics of executing a quality swing.

Naturally, you will hope to not have to use your fairway bunker skills very often. However, golf is all about being prepared for whatever the course throws your way. Even if you only hit one fairway bunker shot every few rounds, you will be glad you took the time to learn how to handle this scenario. These are not easy shots, even for professionals, but they can be conquered with a combination of clear thinking and solid swing mechanics.

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.

Taking an Overview

Taking an Overview

When you see your ball drop into a bunker from back on the tee, you are going to be a bit frustrated at first. That's okay – there is nothing wrong with feeling a little frustrated on the course from time to time. Fortunately, you have a few minutes to let that frustration pass, as you need to make your way up to the ball before playing your next shot. As you walk or ride up to the location of the ball, make sure to work through your frustration and refocus your mind on the task at hand. Fairway bunker shots are hard enough on their own – you don't need to be distracted by continuing to think about what went wrong on the tee.

Now that you've arrived at the ball, it's time to get down to work. The first thing you should do is take an overview of the whole situation. There are a few points to check on before you proceed with the shot, and those points are listed below.

  • How deep is the bunker? This is one of the first things to look for, as the depth of the bunker is going to have a lot to do with which club you are able to use for the shot. Specifically, you need to pay attention to the height of the bunker's edge on the path that you expect to take. For instance, if you play the ball directly toward the green, how much height will you need to get on the shot to safely escape the trap? Obviously, deep bunkers are going to pose more of a problem than shallow bunkers. You always want to get the ball out of the bunker with your first swing – when possible – so you'll want to be conservative with your analysis on this point. In other words, you don't want to use a six iron because you think it will get out of the trap. You only want to use that club if you are convinced that you are going to clear the lip without an issue.
  • How's the lie? This is another big piece of the puzzle. When you walk down into the bunker to stand near the ball, take a close look at the lie (without touching the sand with anything but your feet, of course). Do you have a clean lie, or is there sand built up around the sides of the ball? Obviously, if the ball is sitting down in the sand, you are going to have trouble achieving a clean strike. If you do have a clean lie, don't take that as a sign that you should automatically go for the green. Sure, it's great to have a nice lie, but you still need to check on all of the other important factors before making your decision. For fairway bunker shots, it is ideal to find yourself standing on firm sand. While most players would prefer soft and fluffy sand for greenside explosion shots, the story is just the opposite back in a fairway bunker. Firm sand is going to feel more like playing off grass, so you should have an easier time striking the ball cleanly.
  • What is waiting beyond the bunker? It would be easy to focus all of your attention on the bunker itself, but you also need to evaluate what is waiting beyond the trap. Assuming you do clear the lip and send your ball toward the green, what other issues will you need to deal with? Is there anything you have to carry on the way toward the hole, such as a water hazard or another bunker? Remember, it is difficult to strike quality shots from fairway bunkers, meaning there is a fair chance that this shot is going to come up short of its intended target. If that happens, you want to know that the ball will have a safe place to land. If you find yourself in a situation where you'll need to carry a hazard or two on the way to the green, it may be best to layup and keep your ball out of further trouble.
  • What is the yardage to the hole? Finally, you are going to need to figure out exactly how far it is from your ball to the hole. Not only do you need that number, but you will also need to figure out how far you need to hit the ball to reach safety. For instance, you might have 150-yards to the hole, but it might only be 125-yards to the front edge of the green. Even if you just carry that 125 number, your ball should be safe – even if you have a long putt. Take a moment to find these distances and make sure they are accurate. You can only make good decisions if you have good information at your disposal.

It might seem like this is a long list, but an experienced golfer can knock out these four putts is just a matter of moments. The task of finding your yardages will probably be the most time-consuming of the four, but even that can be streamlined through the use of a GPS or laser rangefinder. In other words, you don't have to slow down play in order to carefully think through your fairway bunker shots. Check on these points as soon as you arrive at the bunker and you should soon be ready to make a decision and hit the shot.

Picking a Target – and a Club

Picking a Target – and a Club

In this section, we are going to assume that you have done your investigation on the shot at hand, and you are ready to make a choice. Well, really, you are ready to make two choices. You need to decide on a target to use for the shot, and you need to decide on a club which is going to take you to that target. So, how do you pick a target? Let's walk through the process.

  • Start by thinking about the green. It would be ideal if you could aim your fairway bunker shot all the way up at the green, so start there as you review your options. Is it possible to reach the green with this shot? Are you going to be able to cover the distance required while also getting over the lip safely? Not only do you need to make sure it is possible to reach the green, but you also need to confirm that it is a good idea. For instance, you might be able to cover 150-yards to the hole thanks to a good lie and a low lip – but if those 150-yards are all over water, you may want to think twice. Only when you determine that you can both reach the green and it is worth the risk should you proceed with using the putting surface as your target.
  • Move your target back as necessary. If the green itself isn't going to make for a suitable target, you'll need to keep moving your target back until you find a spot that works. In some cases, you will be able to play the ball right up to the front of the green, coming up just short of the putting surface. As long as you have a good spot to chip from, this can be a solid choice. In other cases, you will need to play well short to make sure you can position the ball on the short grass.
  • Keep your patience. As you pick a target, remember that you need to be patient and accept what the course is giving you in this situation. In other words, you don't want to try to pull off a shot that is going to require you to take on too much risk. If you lose your patience in this spot, you might wind up putting your ball in an even worse position – and a double or triple bogey may be right around the corner. Even though it is never fun to lay up rather than going for the green, that is often going to be the best play out of a tough fairway trap.

Once your target is selected, the last thing to do is pick a club which you think can handle the shot. Of course, picking a club in a fairway bunker is a bit tricky, since you can't necessarily count on the same distance that you get when hitting that same club out of the fairway. As a good rule of thumb, you should consider hitting one extra club for a 'standard' fairway bunker shot. By 'standard', we mean that you have a good lie and there isn't much wind or elevation change to deal with. So, if you would usually hit a seven iron for a given distance, opt for the six iron to give yourself a little margin for error. This does bring in the risk of hitting the ball over the target if you strike it perfectly, however, so keep that in mind. If going long is worse than coming up short, you may want to stick with the normal club for that distance and just accept that you may not get all the way to the target.

As always, you need to fully commit to your decisions before making a swing. This is a rule of thumb which applies in fairway bunkers just like it applies everywhere else on the course. If you are still thinking about your decision while standing over the ball preparing to swing, it is going to be hard to execute the swing properly. Get all of the planning out of the way ahead of time, and then shift your mind to think only about hitting the best possible shot.