Professional golfers sure make sand shots look easy, don't they? Then why do amateurs struggle so mightily just to get the ball out of bunkers, let alone knock it close?
Several common mistakes plague the average player's sand game. Primary examples include:
- Decelerating on the downswing.
- Trying to lift the ball up and out by flipping the hands.
- Failure to rotate the body through the shot.
- Leaving weight on the back foot.
Now let's go through some quick cures for each cause:
- Deceleration – swing through the shot: When we're afraid, we get tentative. In a bunker, this translates into a swing that's actually slowing down as the club approaches the ball. As long as you hit 2-3 inches behind it, there's nothing to fear. Keep your eye on a spot behind the ball and smack it with your wedge, making a follow through that matches the length of your backswing. Remember, the only thing to fear is leaving the ball in the bunker.
- Flipping the hands – hold clubface open on follow-through: When you try to lift the ball with your wrists, you're more likely to scoop it weakly or hit it thin. Prevent this flipping action by keeping your left wrist firm through impact and into the follow-through, with the clubface pointing up.
- Failure to rotate – use your big muscles: While you typically want to limit lower-body action in the sand, using an arms-only swing is a recipe for disaster. Turn your body back and through the shot, with your chest facing the target at the finish.
Poor weight transfer – better setup balance: Another way golfers try to lift the ball is by placing more weight on their right side and leaving it there as they swing. This moves the bottom of your swing arc (where the club enters the sand) too far behind the ball. At address, your weight should be evenly balanced across the feet, or slightly favoring your left side. It should shift very little going back and through.
Causes and Cures Leaving Bunker Shots in the Sand
The vast majority of shots you hit during a round of golf are going to be played from the grass. However, you are likely to hit one or two – or maybe more – from the sand during any given round. While these sand shots are never going to make up a large percentage of your strokes, they are important nonetheless. Making a mistake while in the bunker will quickly cost you a shot or more on the scorecard, so you want to have this part of your game in good condition at all times.
Unfortunately, sand shots are difficult for the average amateur player. A big part of the problem stems from the fact that sand shots are played completely differently than shots hit off of the grass. When you are on the grass, you need to hit the ball first in order to have success. That is not true in the bunker – at least, not when you are in a greenside bunker. When playing a greenside bunker shot, you actually want to hit the sand first in order to 'splash' the ball out of the bunker and onto the green. This is known as an explosion shot. It is hard for some amateur players to force themselves to hit the sand prior to the ball, and those players struggle with the explosion shot as a result.
This article is going to focus on greenside bunker shots. Specifically, it is going to focus on one goal that you should always have in mind when playing a greenside bunker shot – trying to get the ball out of the bunker. While you would certainly like to hit your bunker shots up to within a few feet of the cup, you first need to make sure the ball comes out of the sand safely. Even if you don't get up and down for a sand save, getting the ball out of the bunker in a single swing will at least allow you to limit the damage.
It is easy to overlook the goal of getting the ball out of the bunker while you are thinking about trying to hit a great shot. Often, this is how players get into trouble. They become so focused in on producing a great sand shot which comes to a stop right next to the hole that they forget to at least get the ball out onto the grass. This may lead the player to ignore a high lip or a poor lie that puts the shot in danger of landing back in the bunker once again. Never put the 'cart in front of the horse' when it comes to your greenside bunker shots – think first about getting the ball onto the grass, and then go from there.
All of the instruction 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.
Why the Ball Stays in the Bunker
There are a variety of reasons why you may not wind up getting your ball successfully out of a greenside bunker on the first swing. It is important to understand these reasons so you can watch for them prior to hitting the shot. The list below contains a few of the issues you may face in trying to safely splash the ball out of the sand and up onto the green.
- A buried lie. This is probably the biggest problem that you can run into in the bunker. When your ball is buried down in the sand, there is very little you can do – other than to swing hard and hope for the best. Playing from a buried lie takes the control over the shot out of your hands because there is going to be so much sand between your club and the ball. When you do find your ball buried, you want to find the easiest possible path out of the bunker and aim in that direction (even if you wind up aiming away from the hole). Getting the ball out of the bunker at all is going to be a positive result from a buried lie, so don't expect much from this situation. The best thing you can do to deal with a buried lie is to avoid putting yourself in this position in the first place. Once your ball is buried, it will mostly be up to luck to determine where your explosion shot winds up. To be sure, this is one of the worst positions that you can find around the course.
- A high lip between you and the hole. This might be the most common reason for golfers failing to get the ball out of the bunker. When the edge of the bunker is several feet up in the air between your ball and the target, you may struggle to hit the shot high enough to clear the lip. In this case, you need to decide if you are going to be able to hit the ball high enough – and if not, you need to aim in another direction, where the lip of the bunker is lower. Assuming you have a good lie, you should be able to get the ball out of the bunker in some direction, it just might not be the direction you would prefer. Rather than forcing the issue and hitting the lip as a result, be smart and pick a line that you are sure is going to allow your ball to find the grass.
- A failure to put the club in the sand prior to the ball. As was mentioned previously, you need to contact the sand prior to contacting the ball when trying to play a greenside explosion shot. This concept is a little strange to beginning golfers, but it is one that you need to learn if you are going to become adept at getting your ball out of bunkers in a single swing. Failing to hit the sand before the ball will usually result in hitting a low shot that has no chance of carrying over the edge of the bunker. You need to slide your club into the sand in order to get loft on the shot, so keep your head down and commit to swinging into the sand with confidence. It should only take a little bit of practice before you get comfortable with this technique.
- A timid swing. When playing an explosion shot, you need to be aggressive with the club as it moves through the sand. Even though you may only be a few feet from the edge of the green, you still need to make an aggressive, powerful swing. It takes more speed than you might think to cut the club through the sand successfully, so you can't afford to be timid when playing this kind of shot. Many players make nearly a full backswing when hitting shots from the greenside bunker, so work on doing something similar as you practice. The exact amount of speed you need in your swing will depend on the shot at hand, the lie, the condition of the sand, and more. However, it is almost always true that you need more speed than you think, so be sure to put the club into the sand with plenty of speed. Of course, making an aggressive swing makes it even more important that you manage to hit the sand first, rather than the ball. Hitting the ball first in this situation would lead to a shot with way too much speed – so that outcome needs to be avoided. Stay down, make an aggressive swing, and be sure to hit the sand at least a couple inches behind the ball.
The list above is a long one. There are plenty of reasons that the ball can wind up staying in the bunker, which is why it is so important to work on your technique in this area of the game. Mastering the greenside bunker shot is something that should be near the top of your golf to-do list, simply because of the challenge that this type of shot presents. The good news is this –once you learn how to hit a proper explosion shot, you should have that skill in your bag for years to come.
The Right Technique
To master the greenside bunker shot, you have to be willing to think about this shot as its own separate category within the game of golf. You aren't going to be using the same technique that you use while playing from the grass, as this is a different kind of shot entirely. Sure, your grip will likely be the same as it is for any other shot, but that's about it. You should expect to make dramatic changes to your technique when you step off of the grass and down into the sand.
What are those changes going to look like? Review the points below for a clear picture of the technique you should use when playing a greenside bunker shot.
- Wide stance. You want to use a wide stance when playing an explosion shot from a greenside bunker. Your feet should be more than shoulder width apart at address, as you need a solid base if you are going to make an aggressive swing without losing your balance. Most likely, this is the widest stance that you are going to use anywhere on the course.
- Open stance. In addition to keeping your feet far apart at address, you are also going to open your stance relative to the target. You need to be cutting across the ball when your wedge enters the sand, and the easiest way to make that happen is to open your stance before the swing even begins. It is a good idea to determine the orientation of your stance based on the length of the shot at hand. Short shots will be best handled by a wide-open stance, while longer shots demand that you keep your stance turned back a bit closer to square.
- Dig in to the sand. You may already be aware that you need to dig your feet into the sand at least an inch or two before hitting a bunker shot – but what is this move important? There are a couple of benefits you enjoy when you wiggle down into the dirt. First, you will establish a stable stance, which is important when you need to swing hard. Also, working your feet down into the sand is going to bring you closer to the ball, which means it will be easier to swing under the ball as you should at the bottom of the swing. Your swing arc will naturally be lower since your feet are down in the sand, so the head of your wedge should have no trouble contacting the sand prior to the ball.
- Take the club back to the outside. This is one of the biggest differences between the full swing and the swing you use for an explosion shot. In your regular swing, taking the club back to the outside of the target line is a recipe for disaster. However, when playing from the sand, you want to make this move intentionally, as it will help you hit across the ball at the bottom of the swing. During practice, you can even draw a line in the sand that runs across the ball from outside in to give yourself a visual aid for this point. Swing along the line you have drawn and you should see the ball pop up out of the bunker time after time.
- Eyes down through the shot. Okay – so this is one point where your swing is going to be the same in the sand as it is on the grass. You need to keep your eyes looking down at the ball throughout the swing, as looking up even a little bit early could cause you to lift up out of the shot. You absolutely have to get under the ball when hitting an explosion shot, which means staying down through the swing is key to your success. You might be tempted to look up early to see if the ball is going to get out of the bunker, but don't give in to that temptation. Something as simple as keeping your eyes down on the ball as you swing can have a big impact on your success in the sand.
As you can see, you have a lot to work on if you are going to prepare yourself to handle bunker shots out on the course. Swings that you make in a greenside bunker barely resemble anything that you are going to do on the rest of the course, so find a practice bunker at your local course and get to work. By keeping the points above in mind as you practice, it should be possible to quickly improve on both your technique and your results.
Making Good Decisions
Once you have your technique in order, the other big piece of this puzzle is making good decisions each time your ball finds the sand. Perhaps more than any other time on the course, you have a lot of options available to you when playing from a greenside bunker. Picking the right option will not only make it more likely that you will get the ball out of the bunker, but it will also make it more likely that you will knock the ball close to the hole for an easy up and down.
As you walk down into the bunker to assess the situation you are facing, the first thing you should check is the lie of the ball. The lie of your ball, whether on the grass or in the sand, is always going to determine what kind of shots you can hit. If you have a buried lie, your decision is actually going to be rather easy – pick the easiest path out of the bunker, swing hard, and hope for the best. If you have a good lie, however, you will then need to move on to further considerations before hitting your shot.
Once you have determined that your lie is at least decent, you next need to assess the slope of the ground under the ball. If the ground is sloped down toward the hole, it is going to be difficult to get much elevation on the shot. On the other hand, if you are on an upslope, you should be able to toss the shot up into the air with relative ease. Keep this slope in mind when deciding if you are going to be able to carry the ball over a lip that is in front of you. You can't fight the slope, so just accept it for what it is and make your decisions based on what you think it will do to the shot.
At this point, it is time to decide on the line that you are going to use for the shot. You have already looked at both the lie of the ball and the slope of the ground, so you should have a good idea of what you can expect the ball to do when it is sent on its way. Obviously, it would be ideal to aim directly at the hole, but that is only possible if you think you can get out of the bunker on that line. If not, start looking for other options. It may be that you need to play slightly off to the side in order to get out safely, or it may be that you have to play out backward just to find some grass. Whatever the case, always put an emphasis on getting the ball out of the sand with your first swing.
A Note on Sand Conditions
As if playing from greenside bunkers weren't already complicated enough, there is another variable that you need to throw into the mix. This variable is the condition of the sand, and it can change from course to course – and even from day to day on the same course. Soft, fluffy sand will make it easy to play an explosion shot, although you will be more likely to find a buried lie. On the other hand, you will almost always have a good lie in a bunker with firm, wet sand, but you will have to work hard in that situation to get the club under the ball properly. To make the right kind of swing, you need to read the condition of the sand prior to hitting your shot.
It is important to find a practice bunker (if one is available) prior to starting your round so you can check on conditions. Even hitting just a handful of practice bunker shots before heading to the first tee can be a big help when you do find a bunker out on the course. You won't be able to make any practice swings down into the sand during your round to test conditions, so get that job out of the way ahead of time. In fact, taking a moment to warm up in a bunker can take much of the fear out of these shots when they do arise. Already having experienced the sand that you are going to face, it will be easier to be confident as you attempt an explosion shot during the round.
It will be difficult for any golfer to post a good score when they are spending several shots just to get out of a bunker. You need to be able to get out on the first try, which is why the information in this article is so important. Take time to review all of the advice offered above, and then set aside some practice time to work specifically on your greenside bunker shots. With good technique and solid decision making on your side, the fear that you once had with regard to these shots will quickly disappear.