Deep bunkers with steep sides are some of the hardest sand traps to escape from.
Any players who have experienced pure links golf can attest to the challenges a 'pot' bunker can provide.
One of the most famous examples of a deep, steep sided bunker is by the green on The Road Hole (the 17th) at St Andrews, Scotland (the Home of Golf!). Even the professionals can struggle to escape when faced with such a challenging shot.
Fortunately most players won't have to contend with a bunker that deep during their usual Saturday 4-ball. But if they do find themselves in a deep, steep sided bunker they can adopt the following technique to escape.
The technique used to escape from a deep, steep sided bunker is similar to a flop shot. This means the golfer wants to open the face as wide as possible and sweep underneath the ball.
1. Before playing the shot, the golfer should choose which club will best suit the problem at hand. The wedge with the highest loft will be the best choice for most golfers. For some players, this could be a 60 degree lob wedge but for others the sand wedge would have to suffice.
2. To increase the amount of height achievable, the club face should be opened up at least 45 degrees to the target line. This will increase the amount of loft the club face has. The club face should be pointing at the sky.
3. After the club face has been opened, the golfer should take their grip. Holding the club nearer the shaft will increase control of the club face.
4. The feet, hips, and shoulders should all be aiming left of the target with the club face slightly open to the right of the target (for a right handed golfer).
5. To get the ball up quickly, the golfer doesn't want to take too much sand, they want to sweep underneath the ball, nipping it away on a fine carpet of sand. Players should look to enter the sand about half an inch before the ball.
6. Unlike a normal bunker shot, the player's body weight should be evenly distributed on each foot and shuffled down into the sand.
7. To help increase the initial height of the ball flight, players can also add more wrist hinge during the backswing. The quicker the wrist hinge, the more potential height will be created.
8. Golfers need to keep their speed up through the shot, zipping the club underneath the ball and getting it flying up and away as quickly as possible.
Deep bunkers with steep sides do represent a challenge for golfers but by using the flop shot technique, they can become easier to escape for the everyday player.
How to Escape from a Deep Steep Sided Golf Bunker
Hitting your ball into a bunker isn't always a big deal. Sure, you don't want to hit your ball into the sand, but many bunkers are very playable. If you find your ball sitting in a good lie in a relatively shallow bunker, you should be able to splash it out and onto the green with relatively little effort. Once you learn the basic technique that goes into hitting an explosion bunker shot, you will find that you aren't nearly as scared of the sand as you might have been when you were a beginner.
With that said, the story is quite a bit different when you find your ball sitting down in a deep bunker with steep sides. Even if you are adept at hitting quality sand shots in most situations, a deep bunker is going to put your skills to the test. Sometimes, it will be a great effort just to get the ball out of the sand at all - even if you can't get it anywhere near the hole. Playing from an extremely deep bunker is less about getting up and down and more about avoiding a big number on your scorecard.
Before we get into the technique and strategy involved with playing from a deep bunker, we should pause to point out that the best thing you can do is simply avoid these bunkers in the first place. When you notice that there is a particularly deep bunker guarding a fairway or green, you should give it just as much respect as you would give a water hazard when playing your shot. It is basically a one-stroke (or more) penalty when you hit the ball into a deep bunker, so you can't treat them the same as a shallow bunker from a strategy standpoint. Even if you need to play away from the hole with your approach shot to steer clear of the deep bunker, that is a better plan than taking on the risk of finding your ball at the bottom. Scoring well on the golf course is all about avoiding mistakes, and knocking your ball into a deep, steep bunker is something that you should try to avoid when at all possible.
One last point that needs to be made before getting into the instructional part of the article is this - you need to have the right equipment in your bag to handle this kind of shot. Ideally, you will have a wedge of at least 58* or 60* in order to get the ball out of a deep bunker - although a 56* wedge may be able to do the job. Good golf equipment isn't going to hit the shots for you, but having the right assortment of clubs available to you during a round is a big part of playing well. Without the right clubs to use, you will have nearly no chance to hit the shots that are required to make your way around the course - and that includes coming up with a high, soft sand shot when down in a deep bunker.
All of the instruction contained 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.
The Basics of a High Bunker Shot
If you are going to get the ball out of a deep bunker, you need to be able to hit your bunker shots as high as possible. That might be a pretty obvious point, but it is important nonetheless. Without sending the ball high in the air, you won't be able to clear the lip of the bunker - and the ball will likely wind up back at your feet. Not only can you use your high bunker shots to get the ball out of a deep trap, you can also use this kind of shot when you want to land the ball close to the hole and stop it quickly.
Before you head to your local course to practice hitting some high bunker shots, review the points below. By using these tips in your technique, you should be able to elevate the ball nicely when coming from the sand.
- Lay the club face open. One of the most important things you can do to get the ball up in the air is simply to lay the clubface open at address. Even though you are already using a lofted wedge, you want even more loft than is built in to your club - so you need to open it up before the swing. Lay the face open dramatically at address, so much so that it is nearly pointing directly up toward the sky. You are looking for as much vertical lift as possible out of this shot when you put the club into the sand, so maximizing the loft of the club is an important first step.
- Make a steep backswing. Anytime you want to move the ball high up into the air on the golf course - whether playing from the grass or from the sand - you need to make a steep backswing. Swinging up high going back will obviously cause you to swing down on a steep plane as well, which is important if the ball is going to lift up out of the sand cleanly. To make this steep backswing, focus on hinging your right wrist early in the takeaway. This is not a technique that you would usually want to use when hitting a full shot, but it can be perfect for lofting an explosion shot high up out of the sand.
- Swing hard. There is no way around this point - you have to swing hard if you are going to send the ball up into the air. Since you are hitting down into the sand rather than hitting the ball directly, most of the energy of your swing is going to be soaked up by the sand itself. Only a fraction of the speed you put into the swing will actually be transferred to the ball, which is why this shot is only going to travel a handful of yards in most cases. To make sure you get the club through the sand and under the ball nicely, make a big backswing and apply plenty of effort on the way down into the shot.
If you can hit on all three of these points with your bunker technique, there is a good chance that you will be able to send the ball high into the air on a regular basis. Of course, you can't just read some instructions and instantly have a golf technique mastered, so you will need to spend plenty of time practicing this shot if you want to be able to use it reliably on the course. Spending time in the practice bunker working on high shots will build your confidence for dealing with this tough situation the next time it arises.
The mental side of the game of golf is just as important as the physical side. In fact, some would argue that having the ability to think logically as you move around the course is even more important than the ability to make great swings. Smart shot selection and a steady hand under pressure is worth just as much as the technical skills that are needed to play the game. Golfers who can think clearly from the first tee to the last green will always give themselves a chance to post a solid score.
It can be difficult to think clearly after you see your ball drop into a greenside bunker - especially if it is a deep bunker with steep sides. You are probably frustrated with yourself for hitting a bad shot to put the ball in the bunker in the first place, and you mind is already thinking about the shots you could lose while trying to get out. In order to deal with this situation as successfully as possible, the first thing you need to do is calm down and assess the situation rationally. If you act out of frustration before clearly thinking about the shot you are facing, you may wind up doing more damage to your score than what has already been done.
To make sure you are making smart decisions while in the sand, use the following points to guide your thinking.
- Can you get out of the bunker on a line with the hole? You are naturally going to want to aim at the hole when you get down into a bunker, but that might not be possible in all cases. Your first objective should always be to get the ball out of the sand and back on the grass, so keep that in mind when picking your target line. If the bunker is simply too high or too steep between your ball and the hole, play out to the side (if possible) and minimize the damage.
- Can you get out at all? If the bunker is particularly deep with steep sides, you might not have a path to get out of the sand at all from where your ball is currently sitting. If that is the case, the best thing you can do is pitch your ball within the bunker to a better location. Obviously you would rather not have to use two shots to get out of the sand, but two is better than three (or four). Taking on shots that are simply impossible is never a strategy that is going to succeed, no matter how much you want to get out on the first try. Be patient, be smart, and play the shot that is going to allow you to finish the hole in the least number of strokes.
- How is the lie? Without a good lie, you simply aren't going to be able to get the ball high up into the air quickly enough to get out of the bunker. THere is no sense fighting against the lie, because there is nothing you can do about it. If the ball is sitting down in the sand (as is often the case in soft sand), you aren't going to be able to hit a high shot effectively. When this is the case, look for the easiest path out of the bunker, even if you have to play out backwards or to the side. Only when you have a clean lie with the ball sitting up on top of the sand will you really be able to loft it into the air nicely.
- Where do you want to be? If you are lucky and you have more than one option available to you for getting out of the bunker, you will need to take a moment to think about where you would like to place the ball for your next shot. Usually you are going to want to leave an uphill chip or putt toward the hole, so the smart move is often to position the ball on the low side of the green complex and play from there. You don't always have to aim directly at the hole in order to minimize your score - think smart and always play your bunker shots while considering the position that you would like to achieve for the next shot.
Smart decision making is one of the biggest keys in the game of golf. Without making good choices, you will always struggle to post low scores, even if you are able to make nice swings consistently. In this case, it is important that you think clearly while in a deep bunker so you can avoid posting a big number on your scorecard. It is quite easy to allow your score to 'get away from you' when you find your ball way down in a steep sided trap, so be smart and do your best to minimize the damage.
Your Right Hand is Your Friend
On many golf shots, your right hand is your worst enemy - you need to keep it out of the action if you are going to hit a good shot. However, when playing from a deep bunker, your right hand is the biggest friend you have. In order to create speed at the bottom of the swing, and to get the ball high in the air, you need to use that right hand aggressively on the way down through the ball. You are going to thump the club head into the sand behind the ball, using your right hand to drive through and propel the ball up into the sir. Without an attacking move from your right hand, there is almost no chance that you will be able to get the ball out of a deep bunker successfully.
To learn how to use your right hand properly when playing a greenside bunker shot, you may want to spend some time hitting one-handed sand shots with just that right hand alone on the club. By taking the left hand away during a practice session, you aren't going to have the option of dragging the club through with the left - you are going to have to release the club properly by using right hand action. Set up in a practice bunker at your local course and blast a few out of the sand while your left hand is tucked away behind your back. Once you get the feel of how your right hand can work in the downswing of a bunker shot, put your left hand back on the grip and bring everything together.
It is important to understand, however, that the use of your right hand when hitting an explosion shot should not carry over to the shots you hit from the grass during the rest of your round. When you release the club early with your right hand to put the club into the sand, you are essentially hitting the shot fat on purpose. While that is exactly what you need to do in this situation, that same technique would be nothing short of a disaster on the rest of the course. Releasing early with your right hand is something that you should be trying hard to avoid in your regular swing, while using it intentionally in the bunker. This is one of the things that makes golf so difficult - different swing rule apply from shot to shot depending on the situation.
You also need to be sure that you are committed to this type of shot before you make a swing, as any lack of confidence could lead to an ugly result. The most common mistake that golfers make when hitting an explosion shot from a deep bunker is looking up to see where the ball is going before it has even been hit. If you try to get a sneak peak of your shot too early, your head may come up, which will raise the level of your entire swing along with it. The eventual outcome of this mistake is going to be a thin shot which is rocketed directly into the side of the bunker in front of you. To get under the ball as necessary for this shot, keep your eyes down and swing through the sand to a full finish.
Putting in the Bunker?
One of the few good things about being in a bunker is that you don't have to worry about club selection. When you are near the green, you simply grab your lofted wedge and get to work - right? Well, maybe not. If you are in a spot in a deep bunker that isn't going to allow you to get out in a single shot anyway, the best option you have available may be to use your putter in order to improve your position.
That's right, your putter. Picture the following scenario - your ball is down in a deep bunker with steep walls, and it is up near the side with very little room to swing. There is no chance that you are going to be able to get the ball out of the bunker from that position, regardless of which way you try to play. So, what do you do? If the sand is firm enough, you could choose to use your putter to play the ball into the middle of the bunker, and then from there you could use your wedge to blast it out. The putter may be the easiest club in your bag to control, and you need to control that first shot in order to position the ball just right.
Obviously this is not a position you want to find yourself in very often. However, when you do wind up in a tough spot in a deep bunker, you need to find a way out as quickly as possible, and the putter just might hold the key. This play won't work at all when the sand is soft, and it also won't work when you have a poor lie with the ball sitting down in the sand. The sand itself needs to be somewhat firm, and you have to have enough space to swing the putter hard enough to move the ball into position. To be sure, this isn't a shot you are likely to use more than once or twice a year, but it has the potential to save you when the occasion does arise.
Knocking your ball into a deep, steep sided bunker is always going to be bad news. These are hazards that are designed to be avoided, so hitting your ball into one will almost always cost you at least a shot on the scorecard. Hopefully, with the help of the instruction included above, you can limit the damage to just a single shot. Be smart when you go down into a deep bunker, and practice your technique in advance so you know exactly what you need to do in order to hit a high shot. Good luck!