Playing a golf bunker shot from wet, compacted sand can be a daunting task. But in reality, wet sand sometimes offers a better chance of success.
When a bunker has been hardened by rain or irrigation, the golf ball will spin more coming off the clubface. That makes it stop quickly on the green.
You want to take less sand than usual when it’s wet. Dig in too far or too steeply behind the golf ball and the sand’s extra heaviness will stop the club dead.
Here’s how to approach a wet sand bunker shot:
• Taking your stance, dig the feet in just enough to provide stability. You don’t want to get too far below the level of the ball.
• Play the ball between mid-stance and your left heel (for righties).
• Stand slightly farther from the ball than normal to create a shallower swing.
• Aim for a spot about an inch behind the ball (rather than the standard two inches), then swing to hit that spot. Be sure to accelerate the club through impact.
• Plan for the ball to fly farther and stop more quickly than the same shot from dry sand.
If you use a sand wedge with a bounce angle of 12 degrees or more, firm sand could cause it to skid into the ball. Try a lob, gap or pitching wedge instead.
Mastering the Greenside Bunker Shot
One of the areas of the game where the average golfer could stand to improve the most is playing from a greenside bunker. When done correctly, playing greenside bunker shots is actually one of the easier challenges you can find on a golf course – but many amateur players are intimidated by the shot and will do anything they can to keep their ball out of the sand. Obviously you would rather find your ball on the green than in the bunker, but often the bunker is a preferable option to other places you could wind up. If the course has long rough, for example, you are frequently better off in the sand trap next to the green than you would be chipping from the deep grass.
The reason that hitting bunker shots remains such a mystery to many golfers is the fact that proper technique in the bunker is basically the opposite of goof technique when playing any other shot. Good bunker shots break a lot of golf ‘rules’ in terms of what you are trying to do with the club and your swing. In order to improve your greenside bunker shots and get the ball up and down from the sand more often, you will need to develop a technique that is specific to playing from the bunker.
Hitting bunker shots is something that most golfers skip when they head to the practice area to work on their games. Don’t make this mistake – if your local course has a practice bunker that you can use, you should take full advantage of the opportunity. The only way to improve at a skill in golf is to practice it, and that includes your bunker game. Even just setting a few minutes aside during every practice session to hit bunker shots can pay off big time in the long run.
Beyond not practicing, another cause of poor bunker play is a mental block that some golfers struggle to get over – the fact that you have to swing harder than you might think to get the ball to the hole from a greenside bunker. Since the club will be moving through the sand at the bottom of the swing, it will lose plenty of energy and not much of that energy will be transferred to the ball. A swing that would otherwise send the ball flying for 60 or 70 yards may only hit the ball 20 yards when coming from a bunker. This is another reason why practice is so important. It is the only way to learn your distance control and get the ball close to the hole on a consistent basis.
Note that the greenside bunker shot instruction below is written based on a right handed golfer. For you left handed golfers who are looking for greenside bunker tips, please be sure to reverse the directions as needed.
Three Basic Elements
To start solving the riddle of how to hit out of greenside bunker, you need to understand the three basic elements of a playing a bunker shot correctly. While there are certainly more greenside bunker tips and drills to come, just getting these three elements right in your technique will allow you to hit goods shots most of the time. Greenside bunker shot instruction isn’t necessarily complicated – it’s much simpler than the full swing – but you do need to pay attention to all of the little details in order to get it right.
Following are the three basic elements of good greenside bunker play –
- Open face, open stance. Even though your sand wedge already has plenty of loft – it should be at least 55* - you still want to open the face up to the target to increase the loft of the club at address. This accomplishes two goals. First, it adds loft so you can get the ball up into the air quickly and hopefully clear the lip of the bunker in front of you. Also, is exposes more of the ‘bounce’ of the club, which is the rounded angle on the sole. This gives you a better chance to skip the club through the sand instead of it digging in and getting stuck. Along with opening the club face, you need to open your stance so that your feet are aimed left of the target. This will encourage an outside-in swing path on your bunker shots, which is ideal (more on that later). It will also counteract the open club face position to hopefully leave you with a shot that flies directly at the hole.
- Long back swing. This is where is starts to go wrong for most amateur players. Hitting a good greenside bunker shot requires a long backswing in most cases – much longer than you might think for such a short shot. In fact, the backswing you make in the bunker should be close to the same length as you use for your full swing. This long arc gives you time to build up momentum that can be used to ‘thump’ the club into the sand behind the ball. Without a long backswing, it will be difficult to move the club through the sand effectively and you will run the risk of leaving the ball in the bunker.
- Right hand through the sand. As you swing down into the ball, focus on using your right hand to ‘throw’ the club head into the sand behind the ball. This kind of a release is a bad idea on almost any other shot on the course, but it is exactly what is called for in this situation. An early release of the club head is perfect for getting the club into the sand a couple inches short of the ball so it can slide under the ball and lift it out gently. This is the part of the bunker shot technique that will likely take the most time to master because it is so different from what you should be doing with your regular swing.
Even if you were to only work on the three greenside bunker tips above, you should see quick and significant improvement in your sand play. Start with those tips during your next practice session to see how your swing from the greenside bunker changes almost immediately. Once that is done, try using the greenside bunker shot instruction below to work in order to sharpen your performance even further.
Reading the Lie Correctly
Reading the lie of your golf ball is important all throughout the course. It might be most important, however, when you are in the greenside bunker. How the ball is sitting in the sand has a lot to do with the shot that you are going to be able to hit. Instead of trying to play the shot you want to hit regardless of the lie, you need to let the lie dictate your strategy.
The first thing to determine is how much backspin you are likely to get on the shot. A well-struck bunker shot can have plenty of spin when it lands on the green, and the ball will often bounce just once or twice before stopping cold. Knowing how much spin you are going to get is crucial because that dictates how far you try to hit the ball in the air. When the ball is sitting up cleanly on top of the sand, you should expect to get maximum spin. As the ball gets down deeper and deeper into the sand, less spin will be transferred from your club face onto the ball. So, a ball that is half buried under the sand when you hit it shouldn’t be expected to have any backspin at all – it will simply land on the green and roll out like a putt. Only when you have a great lie up on top of the sand should you plan on getting a considerable amount of backspin onto the shot.
Another element of the lie that is important is the angle of the sand in the section of the bunker where your ball is located. Are you on an upslope near the front of the bunker? Are you on a downslope in the back? Those angles can have a lot to do with the kind of shots you are able to hit. When playing from an upslope, expect the ball to float higher into the air. This means that it will stop faster, but it also means that you need to hit it harder to cover the necessary distance. From a downslope, it is just the opposite. The ball will come out with a flatter trajectory and run more after landing on the green. If possible, find these kinds of slopes in a practice bunker so you can learn how they affect your trajectory and what you can and can’t do from this type of lie.
One more element of the lie that should be considered is the condition of the sand in the bunker. Firm, compact sand will play ‘fast’, meaning the ball will generally come out with more speed than usual. This leads to shots that spin more, but also can give you trouble when trying to get the distance just right. Alternatively, soft and fluffy sand will play slow and require you to apply more speed to the shot to get it up to the hole. You probably aren’t going to spin the ball much from soft sand, so plan on hitting a shot that lands short of the hole and rolls out.
Reading the lie in the bunker takes experience to do correctly, but the tips above should give you a good place to start from. There is no substitute for practice in this case, so find opportunities to hit as many practice bunker shots as you can. Over time, you will become more and more comfortable with reading the lie of your ball in the sand and then picking the right shot to give yourself the best chance at success.
Some Notes on Strategy
Learning how to hit out of greenside bunker is about more than just physical skills and reading the lie. There is also plenty of strategy that is involved in each shot, and choosing the right strategy for the situation in front of you is important if you are going to protect your score and complete the hole in the fewest number of strokes. If you just walk into the bunker and aim directly at the hole every time, you are going to be disappointed in your results.
The first step toward good bunker strategy is reading the green just like you would for a putt. Remember that after the ball lands, it is likely to roll across the green for some distance. That means that you need to know what the slope of the green is doing, and how it is going to influence the ball once it lands. Read the green before you step down into the bunker so you understand how it is going to change your aim.
Once in the bunker, analyze the lip of the bunker that is in between you and the hole. Are you sure you can get the ball over it? The number one goal of any greenside bunker shot is always to make sure the ball at least gets out of the sand and back onto the grass. Even if you don’t get close to the hole – or even on the putting surface – you need to get the ball out of the sand at the very minimum. If you are unsure that you will be able to clear the lip of the bunker by aiming right at the hole, consider other angles to get out safely. Even if that means aiming away from the hole and leaving yourself a longer shot after you get out of the sand, that is still a better proposition than not getting out at all.
The room you have to swing the club is another strategic consideration to make. Some bunkers are deep and narrow, meaning there isn’t a great deal of room to swing the club once down inside. If you don’t have room to make your normal swing and still aim at the hole, this could be another scenario in which you need to aim away from the target. You don’t want to take chances when in the bunker unless you absolutely have to – so pick the safest possible target line that gives you the best chance at getting out.
Another note on strategy that you might not expect is deciding when it is best to actually aim for the bunker and try to get you ball into the sand on purpose. This isn’t a strategy that you are going to use very often, but from time to time it might be your best bet. Imagine that you have hit a poor drive on a par four and your ball is next to some trees off to the side of the fairway. You don’t have any angle to actually get the ball on the green – the best you can hope for is either the bunker next to the green, or the deep rough. Depending on the position of the hole on the green, you might be better off inside the bunker than stuck in the deep grass. For that reason, you could choose to aim at the bunker and hope to play your next shot from there. This is a strategy that pros use from time to time, and it just might help you get out of a bad hole with your best possible score.
Good strategy in the bunker is all about considering your options and taking the safest one with the best odds of success. Sure it is fun to stick your bunker shot to within a foot of the hole – or even make it – but those are the exception rather than the rule. Instead of expecting that outcome every time, think clearly and be realistic based on the lie and the angle to the hole. Choose a path out of the sand that gives you a chance to get up and down, but at least gets you out of the bunker if nothing else.
Other Varieties of Bunker Shots
The bunker is one of the places on the golf course that calls for the most creativity and variety from your game. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ situation when your ball ends up in a bunker – rather, you must assess the situation and do your best to handle it correctly. Beyond the standard explosion shot that we have reviewed above, there are some other various shots that you should know how to use when the time comes. Consider the following –
- Chipping out of the sand. When you encounter a bunker that has tightly compacted sand (possibly from rain), you might not be able to get your club under the ball well enough to hit a normal explosion shot. In this case, you can consider using your regular chipping technique to hit the shot as if it was sitting on the grass. You have to be precise with this technique as hitting the ball just a little bit fat will mean it stays in the bunker. Also, make sure you have enough room to get over the lip of the bunker and onto the green, since a chipping-style shot is going to usually come out lower than a regular bunker shot.
- The plugged lie. The worst possible scenario when your ball lands in the bunker is for it to plug below the level of the sand to where you can only see part of the ball. In this case, your options are very limited. All you can do is open up the face of the club, swing hard, and hope for the best. So much is dictated by the condition of the sand and the position of the ball in the bunker that you will have little control over the outcome. Pick a target line that gives you the best chance of escaping the bunker and take your swing. The results of this kind of shot are usually more about luck than skill.
- Hitting it lefty. In a rare circumstance, you might find your ball against the edge of a bunker in such a position that makes it impossible to hit the shot right handed. When this happens, your only real choice is to turn the club over and hit the shot as a lefty. Should you encounter this challenge, make it your goal to get the ball into a better position within the bunker so you can play your next shot normally. It is unlikely that you will actually get out of the sand – let alone close to the hole – so lower your expectations accordingly.
- Standing out of the bunker. This one happens more frequently than the previous scenario. If your ball is near the edge of the bunker, you might have to stand outside the sand to hit the shot. Should this be the case, make sure to get as much flex in your knees as possible to build a comfortable stance, and then make your swing as usual. Again, don’t try to pull off too much in terms of where you aim the shot – take the easy way out and don’t do too much damage to your scorecard.
The bunker doesn’t have to be the scary place that many amateur golfers make it out to be. Sure, you can end up with a tough lie that limits your options, but you can also hit some great shots from the sand if you draw a good lie. As with any other aspect of golf, practice is the key. Put in your time in the practice bunker whenever possible and the dividends will pay off on the course. As long as you have quality technique, good strategy, and put in your practice time, better bunker play is certainly within reach.