What's the most feared shot in golf? No contest: the long greenside bunker shot.
Golfers shudder whenever their bunkered ball must carry at least 15 yards of sand before safely reaching grass. Make it 25 yards or more and you're talking sheer terror.
These shots are scary in part because normal bunker-play methods don't apply. For a standard greenside bunker shot, the club should enter the sand about two inches behind the ball. That gives the player a measure of comfort, knowing he's unlikely to blade it over the green.
Longer sand shots, on the other hand, require a bit more bravery. Hitting the ball far enough means taking less sand, increasing the risk of a thin shot.
Take these steps whenever you're confronted with this scenario:
- Use a gap or pitching wedge instead of a sand wedge. For especially long shots (30-plus yards), consider an 8- or 9-iron.
- Place the clubface and feet square or slightly open to your target.
- With a narrower stance than normal, dig your feet into the sand just enough to provide stability.
- Aim about an inch behind the ball and swing the golf club firmly to a full finish.
Top Tips Master Long Greenside Bunker Shots
There may be no challenge in all of golf that rises to the level of the long greenside bunker shot. Hitting a long explosion shot from the sand is always a challenge, as controlling the distance just right is a task that is tough for even the most-experienced player. While short greenside bunker shots can actually become rather easy after a bit of practice, long bunker shots are feared on the professional tours just as they are by the average amateur. This shot might not come up very often during a round of golf, but it can be a major problem when it does present itself.
Of course, the best way to conquer the long bunker shot is to simply avoid having to hit one in the first place. If you can make good decisions and pick smart targets during your round, you should be able to avoid having to play long bunker shots at all. Even with good technique this is always going to be a challenging shot, so play your rounds using a course management strategy that minimizes the chance of running into a long greenside bunker shot. You aren't going to be able to avoid facing this shot for the rest of your golf career, but limiting how often you need to play it will always be in your best interest.
When the shot does come up, the best thing you can do is have a solid technique in place that you can lean on to get you out of trouble. There is a specific technique that will be used for long greenside bunker shots (which we will cover below), and you need to have practiced this technique before you ever have to put it to use on the course. Just as with anything else in golf, the quality of your practice is going to be directly reflected in the results you can achieve when playing a round. If you fail to prepare for the long greenside bunker shot, you can be sure that the results you get on the course are going to be disappointing.
It should be noted before getting into the instruction related to this shot that you need to have the right equipment in your bag if you are going to handle this difficult shot successfully. Playing a short greenside bunker shot almost always requires the most-lofted club in your bag, but you may wind up needing less loft on a longer shot in some situations. With that in mind, you should have at least two (but ideally three) different wedges that you can pick from while preparing for a long bunker shot. With options at hand, you will stand a better chance of dealing with your long bunker shots properly.
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.
Evaluating the Shot
As is the case with any golf shot that you face, the first thing you need to do when coming up to a long bunker shot is evaluate the situation in front of you. There are an endless number of variables involved in any golf shot, and you need to look closely at the important ones before you decide exactly how you are going to get the ball close to the hole. If you just walk up and swing away, the chances of being successful are going to be somewhere between slim and none.
So, when you see that you are going to face a long bunker shot, what parts of the shot need to be evaluated? Check out the helpful list below.
- Condition of the sand. Nothing is going to influence this shot more than the condition of the sand in the bunker. Is the sand hard or soft? Is it dry or wet? How much sand is there under the ball? All of these questions need to be answered before you can know how you should hit the shot. Of course, you can't reach down and touch the sand to test it out, nor can you place your club head into the sand, so you have to do your evaluation visually, and also by feeling the sand under your feet as you walk. Generally speaking, wet and firm sand is going to be better for long bunker shots than dry, fluffy sand, as firm conditions will help the ball to jump out of the bunker.
- Height of the lip. You also need to look at the lip of the bunker in front of you to decide how high the ball needs to be hit in order to get out safely. Hopefully, you will see a low lip - a high lip means that you need to get the ball up quickly, which will make it more difficult to carry the full distance to the hole. It is important that you always error on the side of caution when it comes to hitting your ball high enough to get out of the sand. Even if you aren't able to hit this shot close to the hole for an up-and-down save, you need to at least make sure your next shot is played from grass.
- Lie of the ball. Is your ball sitting nicely on top of the sand, or is it partially buried? A ball that is sitting up will be your best opportunity to handle this shot successfully. A good lie means you should be able to get a lot of the club on the ball, so you will be able to get good height on the shot and plenty of spin as well. When the ball is sitting down, however, your only real option will be to blast it out and hope it runs far enough after it lands. You have very little control over the ball when playing it from a partially buried lie, so keep your expectations low and play a safe shot in that case.
- Slope of the ground. You will often, but not always, be playing from an upslope when you find your ball in a greenside bunker. If you are playing from an upslope, the ball is going to come out higher than usual, and it should stop quickly as well. Be sure to take note of the slope under your feet before making a swing so you can take its influence into account.
There is a lot to think about before you even get ready to hit this shot. It might seem like it would take a long time to think about all of the factors above, but an experienced golfer can review them in just moments. As you gain more and more experience in the game - and you face more and more long bunker shots - you will get comfortable with the process of evaluating the shot quickly. Once the shot has been reviewed and you are confident in what you see, you can move on to actually hitting the shot.
Making the Swing
With the pre-shot evaluations taken care of, it will now be time to walk up to your ball and hit the shot. Most likely, you are going to be a bit nervous over this kind of a shot, as you will know just how difficult it can be to pull off perfectly. However, there is no room for nerves when playing from the sand, so push those feelings to the side and focus on executing to the best of your ability.
The following points will highlight the important parts of your swing when hitting a long greenside bunker shot. If you can hit on all of these points within your technique, you should be able to succeed more often than not.
- A big swing. There is no way around it - you are going to have to make a big swing when playing a long bunker shot. The sand is going to take some of the speed out of your swing right at the last moment, so you need to be carrying plenty of momentum on the way down. This is a swing that should be almost as long as your driver swing, even though you are only going to be hitting the ball 30 or 40 yards. It will take a strong nerve to make this big of a swing within close range of the green, so make sure you are committed to the shot before putting the club in motion.
- Contact the sand close to the ball. This is the scary part of this shot. When playing a short greenside bunker shot, you can stick the club into the sand a few inches behind the ball and the shot will still come off nicely. That isn't going to work on a long bunker shot. In this case, you have to get much closer to the ball in order to get the distance out of the shot that you need. Usually, you will need to put your club into the sand less than an inch behind the ball - which doesn't give you much margin for error. Hitting too far behind the ball will cause you to come up short, while catching too much of the ball could send it shooting across the green. At address, focus your eyes on a spot slightly behind the ball that you want to use as your entry point into the sand, and keep staring at that spot until the shot has been hit.
- Keep the face squared up. Short bunker shots usually call for an open club face, but you don't want to open the face much when there is a significant distance that needs to be covered. Keep the face of the wedge squared up (as long as you can still clear the lip of the bunker) to give yourself a good chance to get the carry and roll out that you need. It might feel weird at first to play a bunker shot with a square clubface, so practice this technique before you put it into use on the course.
- Middle of your stance. Your ball position for a long greenside bunker shot should be roughly in the middle of your stance. Playing the ball forward in your stance could lead to hitting it thin, while moving it back will make your swing plane too steep to get the distance required. When you have a decent lie, the best option is going to be to play the ball out of the middle of your stance. However, if your lie is not great, you may want to move the ball back slightly just to make it easier to get it out of the bunker. You probably won't knock it close to the hole this way, but at least you will be able to get onto the grass.
- Flex in the knees throughout. You probably know that you should flex your knees slightly when you set up over the ball in the bunker, but you also need to make sure that you hold this flex all the way through the swing. If you allow yourself to stand up at some point during the swing, you will change the level of your swing and you will be likely to make poor contact at the bottom. Set a comfortable amount of flex right from the start and hold it firmly throughout the swinging motion until the shot is on its way to the target.
As you can see, hitting a good greenside bunker shot from long range is not easy, as it requires a perfect blend of a powerful swing with an accurate contact point in the sand. If you fail to put your club into the sand at just the right point, or if you fail to swing hard enough, the shot will not come off correctly. Spend as much practice time as possible working on the points included in the list above and your success rate should improve steadily over time.
Being Smart with Your Targets
Every golf shot needs a target. One of the common mistakes that is made by amateur golfers is assuming that the hole itself is the target for every shot. That is not true. You will want to occasionally take dead aim, but more often you are going to be aiming somewhat away from the hole in order to position your ball nicely for the next shot. Golf is a sequential game, and the player who positions their shots the best will be the one with the lowest score at the end of the day.
When hitting a long greenside bunker shot, you do not want to necessarily aim right at the hole. There are a lot of variables in play on this kind of shot, and aiming at the hole might bring other trouble into play if you don't pull the shot off perfectly. For instance, does aiming at the hole require you to carry some rough, or maybe part of another bunker? If so, that risk might not be worth it. In that case, you should consider playing to the wide side of the green in order to at least set up a putt for your next shot. Most likely you aren't going to get up and down when you take this conservative approach, but this is the best way to keep yourself out of further trouble. Compounding mistakes is the fastest way to ruin your score, so show some patience and be smart with shot selection.
You also want to think about the slope of the green when deciding where you are going to aim this bunker shot. It would be best if your next shot could be played uphill, so pick out the low side of the green and favor it with your play from the bunker. In fact, you will occasionally be better off chipping uphill as compared to putting downhill, so think carefully about what path is going to get your ball into the hole the quickest. Playing from below the hole with your short game shots is always an advantage, but this is a point that is especially important when playing on a firm, fast course.
From time to time, you are going to have to abandon all sense of strategy in favor of just getting the ball out of the bunker and back onto the green part of the course. Some bunker shots are to difficult to take near the target, whether it is because of a bad lie, an awkward slope, or some other condition. Remember, bunkers are considered hazards under the rules of golf, and they should be treated as such. You have already made a mistake by hitting the ball into the bunker in the first place - don't make another mistake by trying for more than you can realistically accomplish out of the sand. When necessary, play out sideways (or backwards) and move on.
The Chip Shot
For most of your long greenside bunker shots, you are going to want to use the technique that was outlined above. However, for some shots, you might be able to use a chipping-style motion to get the ball out of the sand and near the hole. Using the option to chip the ball up to the hole from the sand isn't necessarily going to make this shot easy, but it will make it a bit easier.
The first thing you need to look for when thinking about chipping out of the sand is firm conditions. The sand needs to be hard-packed if this is going to work, so you can rule it out right away if fluffy sand is resting in the bottom of the bunker. You will usually only find firm sand after it has rained, but some bunkers have such little sand in them that you might encounter this kind of lie even when it is dry. Of course you are only going to be able to chip when you have a good lie, so make sure the ball is sitting clean on top of the sand before proceeding.
Another point you will need to check is the size of the lip in front of you. A chip shot played from the sand is going to come out quite low, even when played with a lofted wedge. To get the ball out with this chipping method you will have to have a situation where the bunker is shallow and the lip is low. Also, the ball isn't going to carry very far before it lands, so make sure you don't need to carry a significant amount of rough (or anything else) before the ball can land and run out.
If you do decide that a chip shot from the bunker is going to be a viable option, you will set up to the ball just like you would for any other chip shot. Stand with your feet open to the target, your weight on your left side, and your hand slightly in front of the ball. Unlike a normal bunker shot, you are going to try to catch the ball first on your way through impact. By picking the ball cleanly, you can get it up and out of the sand with little trouble, and you should be able to control the distance of the shot rather easily. It takes a steady nerve to play this shot, especially under pressure, but it can pay off in a big way.
There is nothing you can do to make the long greenside bunker shot anything less than a major challenge. With that said, by working on your technique and understanding the basic idea behind the shot, you can improve your odds of coming out of this position with a decent result. The best option will always be to avoid this shot if at all possible, but some practice and some smart thinking can help to get you out of trouble when faced with the dreaded long bunker shot.