What is a Center-Line Bunker and How Do You Play It

So you arrive on the tee of a par 4 or par 5 and, much to your surprise, there’s a bunker sitting smack in the center of the fairway. So much for aiming down the middle.

Some golfers view these so-called “center-line” bunkers with disdain, considering them course design gimmicks or randomness run amok. Wrong and wrong. Course architects place bunkers in the line of play for the specific purpose of forcing a strategic choice by the golfer. Typically, one side of the bunker will feature a wider strip of fairway than the other side. However, the narrower side will offer a shorter, more favorable approach to the green.

It’s a classic risk-reward conundrum: Should you play toward the wider, safer side and face a more difficult second shot, or risk finding trees or rough off the tee in exchange for an easier approach?

Those are the primary factors to consider when you encounter a center-line bunker. In weighing your options, you should also consider these elements:

  • Can you hit the ball over the bunker? Before choosing a side, check the distance to the hazard using GPS or a course yardage book, if available. If the distance to carry the bunker is well within your range, a shot directly over it is easier than threading the needle between bunker and rough. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of firepower—if your average carry distance gives you 15 or 20 yards to spare beyond the bunker, that’s a green light.
  • Which side of the bunker favors my natural shot shape? Let’s say the hole doglegs to the right, but requires a very accurate drive to split the bunker and the right rough and gain the best angle to the green. If you reliably hit a fade, the more slender target might actually be easier to hit than the wider portion left of the trap.
  • Is laying up the prudent play? If you can’t carry the bunker and fear trying to squeeze a drive into a tight landing zone, consider laying up short of trouble. On a par 4, subtract 10 yards from the distance to reach the bunker, then determine the distance to the green from that spot. If you can play short off the tee and still get home in two, it may be the way to go.

A center-line bunker is designed to make you think through several options, then execute the chosen shot. There’s nothing gimmicky about that.