Greenside and fairway bunkers feature the same surface, so they must require the same technique to escape, right?
Whereas hitting behind the golf ball is recommended for greenside sand shots, it's imperative to strike the golf ball first when playing from a fairway bunker. In fact, the general method is much the same as a shot from the actual fairway.
Follow these steps to strike the ball cleanly from fairway bunker:
1. Take at least one more club than usual based on the distance. (For example, if you'd hit an 8-iron from the same yardage in the fairway, hit a 7- or 6-iron from sand.)
2. Dig the feet into the sand, but only slightly – less than you would in a greenside bunker.
3. Stand a little wider than usual with good knee flex to ensure stability.
4. Swing at 80 percent of your normal pace and power, focusing on striking the back of ball with a descending blow. Trying to pick the ball cleanly often causes a thin shot.
That said, it's generally OK to hit the ball a bit thin from a fairway bunker. Using less club and an easier swing will prevent the ball from sailing far past the target.
If there's a large lip in your line, make sure to use a club with enough loft to clear it.
How to Hit from a Fairway Bunker
It is never any fun to find your ball at the bottom of the fairway bunker. You almost certainly weren't aiming for the bunker from the tee, so something went wrong either within your swing or your game plan to leave your ball in this position. While playing from a fairway bunker is better than having to take a drop from a water hazard – or having to re-tee after finding your ball out of bounds – you would still prefer to be playing from the short grass. However, there is nothing you can do to fix that problem now, so the only thing that matters is how you deal with the fairway bunker shot that is at hand. With a good swing and a good plan, you can get your ball quickly out of trouble and back into position to finish out the hole successfully.
The good news when you find your ball in a fairway bunker is that you shouldn't need to change your swing too significantly from the swing you usually make from the grass. It is true that you will have to make a couple of adjustments (highlighted later in the article), but the overall swing can be kept mostly the same. Since you don't have to learn a whole new technique, you should be able to elevate your ability on fairway bunker shots in a relatively short period of time. By learning the basics of how to play from a fairway bunker, and then spending a little bit of time practicing what you have learned, these shots may not scare you for long.
Course management is an often-overlooked part of getting out of a fairway bunker successfully. It is helpful to have good technique on these kinds of shots, but it is just as important to make smart decisions. Without good thinking on your side, you will have trouble putting your ball back into a good spot on the grass. Amateur golfers could benefit from improving their decision making just as much as they could benefit from improving their swing technique, yet most ignore this part of the game completely. Whether you are dealing with a fairway bunker or any other shot around the course, learn to respect the mental side of the game if you want to improve your scores.
The last introductory point that needs to be made regarding fairway bunkers is the fact that each one you enter is going to be a little bit different. Even between bunkers on the same course you are going to find variances in their design, the sand, the slope, and more. You have to read a fairway bunker carefully in order to determine what kind of shots are going to be possible from that trap. Some bunkers will make it possible to play aggressive shots up to the green, while others will permit nothing but a chip out. This topic will be covered later in the article as well, with more ideas on how to read fairway bunkers properly.
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.
Basic Technique Adjustments
As stated above, you don't need to overhaul your golf swing just because your ball has found its way into a fairway bunker. You should plan on using the same swing that you use anywhere else on the course, with just a few basic adjustments. Once you understand what these adjustments are and why you need to make them, a couple of short practice sessions will help you translate them from your mind to your actual swing. Thankfully, since they are basic adjustments, most golfers will adapt to these changes rather quickly.
Following are three key adjustments that you need to make when hitting a full shot from a fairway bunker –
- Choke down on the grip. When you get into a bunker, your feet will end up slightly lower than the level of the ball due to the fact that you need to wiggle your shoes down into the sand for grip. With that being the case, you want to choke down an inch or two on the grip of the club to compensate. By choking down, you will effectively make the club shorter and you should be able to make clean contact. If you were to use the entire length of the club even after digging in to the sand, you would be very likely to hit the shot fat and leave the ball short of your target.
- Flatten your plane. A steep angle of attack for a fairway bunker shot simply isn't going to work most of the time. Swinging down into impact from a steep angle as you would from the fairway is another way to hit the ball fat out of the sand. Instead, you want to swing on a shallow plane and 'pick' the ball off the top of the sand as cleanly as possible. To do so, work on flattening out your swing plane overall by taking the club back around your body instead of up by your head. If you already swing on a flat plane, this point might not require much of an adjustment. However, if you are a steep swinger who usually takes a deep divot, you will want to learn how to make a shallow swing for all of your fairway bunker shots.
- Eliminate lateral movement. A good golf swing won't include much lateral movement even when playing from the grass, but your swing from the bunker should eliminate lateral movement altogether in the backswing. You will still want to move toward the target slightly in the downswing, but you need to stay perfectly balanced in the backswing. Set up over the ball with your weight evenly distributed between your two feet and keep it there as you turn away from the target. Overly aggressive swings can quickly ruin balance, so be sure that you avoid trying to swing too hard from a fairway bunker. Going for too much will throw you off balance more often than not, and the contact that you are able to make at impact will suffer as a result.
Hitting good shots from a fairway bunker is all about making clean contact. Of course you want to make good contact on every shot you hit throughout a round, but this point is of specific importance when dealing with a lie in a fairway bunker. Make each of the three adjustments above – choke down on the grip, flatten your swing, and stay centered – and you should be able to come up with a clean strike more times than not.
Making Smart Decisions
With the information above, you should be on the right track in terms of your golf swing when it come to dealing with fairway bunkers. However, that is only half of the battle. In addition to making a good swing that clips the ball cleanly from the sand, you also need to make smart decisions. There are a number of decisions that have to be made in a fairway bunker, including which club to hit, what line to take, how far you will try to carry the ball, and more. Believe it or not, bad decisions are to blame for just as many poor bunker shots as bad swings, if not more. Make smart choices when you find your ball in a fairway bunker and you will be surprised at how many times you can deal with the situation successfully.
To make the best decision possible when you are faced with a fairway bunker lie, take yourself through the following steps –
- The first thing you need to do is read the lie of the ball, as this will tell you a lot about what kind of shots you can consider. If the ball is sitting down in the sand to the point where you won't be able strike it cleanly, you aren't going to have many options available. Most likely, you will just need to pitch the ball back out to the fairway and move on with the hole. It is only when you have a good lie that you will need to move on with these steps to settle on what kind of shot to hit.
- Assuming you have a good lie, the next step is to review the status of the lip of the bunker between you and the ideal target. Is there is a high edge on the bunker, or will a low shot be able to get out with little trouble? Obviously, the last thing you want to do is leave the ball in the bunker, so making sure you use enough loft to get out is a key part of the decision making process. Take a look at the lip while standing near your ball and decide which club you will need to use in order to get out safely. Even if the club you choose isn't going to be enough to get your ball all the way to the green, you have to make escaping the bunker your top priority.
- Now that you know what club you can hit, pick out a target that is realistic for the club you have in your hand. Depending on the layout of the hole, you may even need to take less club in order to find a safe spot on the fairway to land. For instance, if there is water short of the green, you might need to lay up short of that to have a chance to hit a good third shot up close to the hole. You don't want to compound your errors at this point in the game, so be smart and pick the safest target possible.
- Execute the shot. After all of the planning that you need to do before hitting the shot, it is easy to get down into the bunker and just quickly swing away with little thought. That would be a mistake. Take your time and be sure to execute a quality swing in order to send the ball to the spot that you had picked out as a target. Many golfers make the mistake of getting lazy on shots that aren't intended to go all the way to the green, but every shot you hit throughout a round has the same importance. Focus on making a good swing so you can clip the ball cleanly and get back onto the grass.
Focusing on the mental side of the game is not usually popular among amateur golfers, but it is essential if you are going to hit good shots from a fairway bunker. You can't just walk into the sand and expect to hit a great shot without first thinking about what you are trying to do with the ball. Take a couple of moments to work through the steps above and you can minimize the damage that the fairway bunker does to your scorecard.
Taking Your Stance
There is a little more work to be done when taking a stance in a fairway bunker as compared to taking your stance out on the grass somewhere. Since the sand surface can be slippery even in golf shoes, you have to make sure your free are secure before you try to make an aggressive swing. With that said, you don't want to make the mistake of digging in too far, either. If you bury your feet several inches down into the sand, you will be effectively putting the ball above the level of your feet, and it will be harder to make clean contact. To take a good stance, you will want to wiggle your feet down into the sand just an inch or two – you should feel secure in the fact that you won't slip, but you also need to be able to move as you normally would when making a full swing.
This might seem like a small detail, but it another point which needs to be mentioned – when taking your stance, you want to wiggle your feet from side to side as opposed to digging in by scraping sand out with your toes and moving it behind you. Not only will the 'wiggle' method give you a better stance, but it will also be easier to rake up when you are done. You have an obligation to the other golfers on the course to leave the fairway bunker in good condition, and part of that task is raking up your stance and divot nicely. Wiggling your way into a shallow stance will make it easy to clean up with just a few swipes of the rake before you leave.
As far as the ball positioning within your stance is concerned, try to position your feet so that the ball is roughly in the middle of your stance, or just slightly forward. You definitely don't want to have the ball back in your stance, as that position will make it difficult to achieve clean contact. Remember, you are trying to pick the ball off the top of the sand, so you want to have it at least in the middle if not a little closer to your left foot. Many golfers put the ball back in their stance thinking they want to hit down, but that is a strategy that is only going to lead to fat shots and ball flights that come up well short of the target.
Once you have your feet in the right position in relation to the ball, and they are set down into the sand properly, the last part of building your stance is getting your body into the proper address position. On this point, you should be trying to build the same stance as you do out in the fairway, with the exception of keeping your upper body a little taller over the ball. Since you are trying to make a flatter-than-usual swing, you should stand with your upper body taller than you would otherwise. Bending over from the waist leads to a steeper backswing, which will turn into a steep angle of attack into the ball. Stand up nice and tall, maintain some degree of flex in your knees, and make a confident swing to launch the ball up and out of the sand.
Avoiding the Trap
The best way to hit a great shot from a fairway bunker is to not get into a fairway bunker in the first place – golf is much easier when played from the grass. So while it is great to have a strategy for getting out of the sand when you are faced with this kind of shot, it is far better to make good swings and good decisions which steer you safely away from the trouble. There isn't much you can do about making the occasional poor swing, but there is plenty that you can do to avoid fairway bunkers from a strategy standpoint.
If you would like to work on your course management skills in order to keep your ball out of the bunker as often as possible, consider the tips below.
- Club down. The best way to avoid fairway bunkers is to choose a club off the tee that is simply incapable of reaching them. Most fairway bunkers are placed strategically by course designers to catch errant tee shots – meaning they are placed at the usual landing zone distances. If you club down to something like a three wood or even a long iron, you may be able to keep your ball short of the trouble. While it might not be quite as exciting to hit a three iron as it is to hit a driver, there is nothing to complain about while in the middle of the fairway.
- Turn the ball away. When you face a fairway that is guarded on one side by bunkers and the other side only features some rough, you can improve your chances of staying out of the bunker by using a ball flight that turns away from the traps. So, for example, if there are fairway bunkers down the right side, consider hitting a draw to turn the ball from right to left and safely away from the sand. Even if you overcook the draw and it winds up in the left rough, you still will be better off (in most cases). Obviously, if the course you are playing has particularly long rough, the fairway bunker might actually be the better result, so think carefully before settling on a plan.
- Flight the ball down. Shots that are hit lower in the air are less likely to turn dramatically off line, so consider hitting a low tee shot when you want to emphasize control over distance. Even if you are still hitting a driver, you can move the ball back slightly in your stance and shorten up your swing to lower the ball flight. This adjustment is going to take a bit of distance off of your shots, but it is also going to give you a great chance to hit the ball straighter than you would if you decided to launch it way up into the air. Before deploying this strategy on the course, be sure to practice it on the driving range to work out the rough edges and build up your confidence sufficiently.
Playing shots from a fairway bunker certainly isn't as fun as being able to play from the middle of the fairway. With that said, hitting your ball into a fairway bunker or two doesn't need to ruin your round as long as you have a solid plan for getting out and back onto the grass in a single stroke. With the right mechanics and smart decision making, you can conquer all but the nastiest of fairway bunkers. Use the content above to sharpen up your approach to this part of the game and you will be a better player for the effort.