Most golfers know they're supposed to hit behind the ball in a greenside bunker, causing the sand to toss the ball up, out and onto the green. Many get into trouble, however, by hitting the sand on too steep of an angle.
When you chop down sharply behind the ball, clubhead speed is lost and the ball goes only a short distance – often not far enough to escape the bunker. Instead, the clubhead should enter on a shallower angle and continue through to a normal finish position, rather than staying stuck in the sand.
The common swing fault is to use the arms and wrists exclusively, picking up the club abruptly and smacking straight down. It's important to remember that, just like a shot from grass, you must make an actual golf swing in the bunker.
If you have a tendency to chop down and come up short, try these tips to improve your bunker play:
- Stand farther from the ball: If you're right on top of the ball, your swing will be too upright (vertical). Moving back a few inches will flatten out your swing and the angle of approach.
- Open the clubface: Often, players will address the ball with the clubface square to the target line or even slightly closed. Instead, set up with the clubface pointing just right of your target in an open position, which will add loft and help you get the ball up.
- Take the club back low: As you hover the club behind the ball (remember, touching the sand, called “grounding” the club, invokes a two-stroke penalty), focus on keeping it close to the surface on the backswing. This will shallow out your motion and the clubhead's path.
- Turn your body through the shot: Probably the No. 1 fundamental golfers forget on bunker shots is that your body must turn all the way through to the finish. Choose the spot behind the ball you want to hit – about 2 inches is standard – then swing through the spot, not into it. Finish with your chest facing the target and your arms in front of your body.
Here's an easy reminder: Digging is for the beach. Proper bunker play is about throwing the sand, not chopping it.
Improve Sand Shots with Shallower Swing
Playing from the sand is a difficult task for many amateur golfers. One of the biggest challenges that comes along with bunker shots is the fact that the technique you use from the sand is dramatically different from the technique you use on the rest of the course. To be a successful bunker player, you need to spend time specifically learning how to make a swing that can loft your ball up out of the sand time after time. This technique isn't the most complicated thing you will learn on the golf course, but it does need to be learned nonetheless. If you take bunker shots for granted, they will always be a weakness of your game – and they will continue to cost you shots round after round.
In this article, we are going to talk about the proper technique to use for hitting sand shots. Specifically, we are going to be addressing greenside sand shots, as those are different from shots hit out of the fairway bunkers. Greenside bunker shots are an important skill to develop, as you need to be able to blast the ball out close to the hole to set up par saving putts after you have missed the green. Most courses feature greenside bunkers on nearly every hole, meaning this is a shot that you are going to have to call on frequently. Even the best players in the game miss greens from time to time, so playing from the sand is inevitable. Take some time to hone this part of your golf game and the rewards will soon show themselves on the scorecard.
One of the best ways to improve on your sand shot technique is to shallow out the path of your swing. Countless amateur players swing down into the ball on a path that is too steep – a mistake which causes a number of problems. A steep downswing when hitting a greenside bunker shot is going to cause the ball to come out low, it is going to make it difficult to judge the distance of your shot, and it is going to limit the amount of backspin you put on the ball. All of these issues can be solved simply by shallowing out the swing slightly as you move through the sand. A shallow path is the preferred approach by nearly every professional golfer, and you should be following that lead.
Before getting into the details of the proper technique for a greenside bunker shot, it should be stated that you are going to need to practice your technique regularly if you are going to have success. Greenside bunker shots require not only good technique, but also plenty of 'feel' in order to be hit properly. If you lack that feel, which can only be developed in practice, you will struggle to hit the ball the right distance – even if your technique is picture-perfect. Carve out at least a few minutes during each practice session to spend in a practice bunker and you will be well on your way to improved results from the sand.
All of the content 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.
Understanding Greenside Sand Shots
It would be fair to say that greenside bunker shots are almost completely opposite from any other shot you hit on the course. All of the fundamentals that you learn throughout the rest of the game – with the exception of keeping your head down – are going to go out the window when in a greenside bunker. For these kinds of short sand shots, you will need to learn a completely new technique that you can use in just this specific situation.
To get a clear overall picture of what you are going to be trying to accomplish while down in a greenside bunker, check out the following points –
- You aren't actually going to hit the ball. That's right – when you execute a greenside bunker shot swing correctly, you are going to miss the golf ball. The wedge you are using will slide right under the ball, and it will be the momentum of the sand between your club and the ball that carries the ball up and out of the hazard. This is a difficult concept for most amateurs to grasp at first, and it is why many players struggle with bunker shots for a long period of time. On the rest of the course, your number one objective is to hit the ball cleanly, but that changes in the sand. Work on moving your club under the ball cleanly and trust the sand to do its job in carrying the ball out and onto the green.
- You will need to swing hard. This is another one of the tricky points that comes along with playing from the sand. Even though most of your sand shots will be played from within just a few yards of the putting surface, you will still need to swing quite hard on the average bunker shot. The resistance that is provided by the sand will dramatically slow your club down through the hitting area, meaning you are going to need to enter the sand with plenty of force in order to come out on the other side. Also, since you aren't hitting the ball directly, very little of the power from your swing is actually going to be passed on to the ball itself. This is one of the many reasons why practice is so important when it comes to bunker play. With practice, you will get comfortable with the kind of swing you need to make in order to splash the ball out cleanly onto the green.
- You will need to read the sand. Sand conditions can vary wildly from course to course, and even from day to day on the same course. When you play a shot from a bunker with firm, hard-packed sand, the ball is going to come out quick and you will need less swing speed to play the shot. On the other hand, dry and fluffy sand is going to soak up a lot of the energy of your swing, meaning you will have to swing quite hard to reach the target. Also, shots played from firm sand tend to spin more than those played from soft sand, so that is yet another variable to keep in mind. As you gain experience, you will get more and more comfortable with the task of reading your lie in greenside bunkers.
- You will need to dig in. One of the basic fundamentals of good greenside bunker play is a simple move that you will make with your feet prior to the swing. As you take your stance, be sure to wiggle both of your feet from side to side in order to set them down into the sand nicely. This move will give you stable footing for the swing to come.
The four points above should give you a good indication of the idea behind playing a greenside bunker shot. Below, we will get into more specific detail on the way you are going to swing your wedge on the typical greenside explosion shot.
Building a Good Stance
Before you make any swing in a bunker – or anywhere else on the course, for that matter – you need to build a good stance. We already touched on one of the points that you need to hit in your stance (wiggling your feet into the sand), but there are other fundamentals to watch for as well. Hit on the points listed below and you can be sure that your stance is going to promote a quality swing as you play from the sand.
- Deep flex in your knees. You should have more flex in your knees when playing a greenside bunker shot than you would when making a full swing anywhere else on the course. Why? It comes down to the way the club needs to move through the sand. Since you need to actually swing the club under the ball, you are going to want to lower the overall level of your body at address – and the best way to do that is through knee flex. Keep your back straight and your chin up while addressing the ball with plenty of bend in your knees and you will be in the perfect position for quality bunker shots.
- Forward ball position. If you are going to swing through your bunker shots on a shallow path, you are going to need to play these shots from a forward ball position. While the exact positioning of the ball should depend on the length of the shot at hand and the lie that you have in the sand, you should at least be playing the ball slightly forward of center. Moving the ball back in your stance will automatically cause your swing to be steeper, so avoid that ball position unless you have a terrible lie in the sand.
- Open to the target line. Another one of the key fundamentals for a greenside bunker shot is cutting across the ball at impact. You want to be swinging from outside-in through the hitting area, as this type of path will allow you to add both height and backspin to your shots. To make it as easy as possible to swing across the line, consider opening up your stance at address. When you want to hit a high and short bunker shot, it will be necessary to open your stance dramatically. Or, if you want to drive the ball lower to a target that is on the other side of the green, you can bring your stance back close to a square position.
- Chin up. This is one of those rare points that applies both in the bunker and throughout the rest of the course. When taking your stance over a greenside bunker shot, be sure to keep your chin up and away from your chest. This is important because you are going to need a big shoulder turn in order to generate the kind of speed necessary to carve the ball out of the bunker. If you were to play the shot with your chin down, your shoulder turn would be restricted and your swing would lack the speed it needs to be successful.
- Lay the face open. Perhaps the most important single key for your setup in a greenside bunker is opening up the face of your wedge dramatically at address. Even though you are likely using a wedge with around 55 degrees of loft, you should still open the face further – to the point where it is almost pointed directly up at the sky. Adding loft will not only help the ball get up into the air quickly, but it will also expose the bounce on the sole of the club to the sand. That bounce is going to help the wedge glide through the sand, which may not happen if you chose to keep the face square to the target line.
The stance you use when playing from a bunker is going to say a lot about the quality of the shots you are able to produce.
Playing the Shot Properly
Setting up properly over the ball is a big part of the job, but you still have work to do before you can find your ball resting within a few feet of the cup. After completing your setup, you need to have a clear picture of the kind of swing you are going to make. First, you are going to need to be patient as you allow this swing to develop naturally from start to finish. You can't rush your bunker shots, as you have to give the swing the time it needs to generate speed. If you cut your backswing short while in a hurry to hit the shot, you will struggle to produce the necessary power and the ball might not get out of the bunker at all. Rhythm and tempo are important fundamentals throughout the game of golf, and that certainly applies when playing from the sand.
In addition to giving your swing plenty of time to develop, you also need to make a great shoulder turn going back. This is a point that was touched on previously, but it needs to be highlighted again due to its importance. As the swing goes back, you want to do your best to turn your back to the target by the time you reach the top of the swing. If you are only swinging back with your arms, it will be hard to develop the necessary power, and you also won't have as much control over the path of the swing coming back down. During the backswing, think about moving your left shoulder under your chin by the time you reach the top – if you manage that point, you will have done well with your turn.
As the backswing finishes and the downswing begins, we start to see where the concept of a shallow path through the ball really comes into play. During the downswing, you should be using your right hand aggressively to fire the club head under the ball. This is something that you would never want to do when making a swing from the grass, but it is exactly the right move to make in the sand. With your right hand taking over the downswing, the club will be quickly accelerating and you should be able to slip the wedge under the ball with no trouble at all. Many amateur golfers struggle with this point because they have learned to keep their right hand out of the action on all of their other swings. By practicing this important key, however, you can learn how to employ the use of your right hand while playing sand shots.
The final key that you need to keep in mind with regard to your greenside bunker swing is the fact that you only want to move into an abbreviated follow through. Rather than a full finish with your right heel off the ground and your hands above your head, you want to cut off the follow through in order to maintain loft on the club. Hold the face open to the target, cut your finish off at about waist high, and keep your eyes down on the sand until the ball is up and out of the bunker.
When a Shallow Swing Won't Work
Most of the time, you are going to be well-served by using a shallow swing through the hitting area in a greenside bunker. However, that is not always going to be the case. Sometimes, you are going to have to attack the ball on a steeper angle in order to achieve the desired result. The points below highlight some occasions when you should opt for a steeper swing through the sand.
- A buried lie. When your golf ball is buried deep down in the sand, you are going to have no choice but to make a steep swing which can gouge the ball out of the bunker. These lies are most likely to occur when you are playing a course with soft sand, but they can also happen when your ball comes down into a bunker from a high trajectory. You aren't going to have much control over the ball when playing from a buried lie, so your goal should be to simply get the ball out of the bunker and back onto the grass. Even if you aren't able to get onto the putting surface, placing your ball on the grass will be progress and it will let you limit the damage on a given hole.
- A long greenside bunker shot. Most greenside bunker shots are rather short, but you will face long greenside bunker shots from time to time. If you find yourself facing a greenside bunker shot of 30 yards or more, shift to a steeper swing in order to cover the distance in front of you more easily. It is hard to hit the ball far enough in this instance with a shallow swing, so give yourself a better chance of success by swinging down steeply into the sand. Of course, you need to have a low bunker lip in front of you in order to use this strategy, as you have to make sure to hit the ball high enough to get out of the sand in the first place.
- Extremely firm/wet sand. To play an explosion shot with a shallow swing, you need to have at least a few inches of relatively soft sand under the ball. When that is the case, you can proceed as usual with your shallow swing from a forward ball position. However, if the sand is firm and hard packed – such as it can be after a rain storm – you won't be able to take that path. Instead of digging into the sand and under the ball, your wedge will bounce off of the sand and you will likely blade the shot. To avoid that outcome, forget about swinging shallow and instead hit a pitch shot with a steep downswing. You aren't going to blast this shot as usual from the sand, as the conditions simply won't allow it. Play this shot from the back of your stance, swing down as you would when pitching from the grass, and keep your head perfectly still. You need great nerves to execute this shot, but it can save the day when a regular explosion just won't work.
Bunker shots will always be tricky and a little bit unpredictable, but they can be made far easier with good technique and some practice. Use the information provided throughout this article to guide your upcoming practice sessions and your bunker game should improve in short order. With increased confidence from the sand, you should find that you are able to get up and down more frequently, and your scores should come down as a result. Good luck!