The untimely passing of Severiano “Seve” Ballesteros in 2011 unleashed an outpouring of adulation from fans and peers the world over. Nearly every description of the five-time major champion included two words not often associated with golfers: “artist” and “genius.”
Nowhere was Ballesteros’ brilliance more evident than the confines of a bunker. Ballesteros had a penchant for altering his setup and swing to tackle any situation, from a buried lie to a severe downhill stance.
While there’s no denying Ballesteros’ natural gifts – hands so large he could cradle 11 balls in each, for example – imagination was the true force behind his artistry. As a kid, Ballesteros learned to visualize different shots and adapt his technique using only a 3-iron to whack balls across the beaches of Pedreña, Spain. In fact, he once challenged Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw to a bunker contest in which his fellow greats used their sand wedges, Seve his 3-iron. Ballesteros won, of course.
According to witnesses, the Spaniard flicked his ball out of the sand to the edge of the cup. Nicklaus and Crenshaw were stunned, but they shouldn’t have been. Ballesteros was a once-in-a-lifetime virtuoso.
In a word, magic. Ballesteros concocted an array of jaw-dropping bunker shots from every conceivable position and lie.
How Ballesteros did it: While he epitomized the term “feel player,” there were certain constants to Seve’s bunker technique. He took a very wide stance and lifted the club abruptly by cocking the wrists almost immediately. He also utilized a “chicken-wing” action with his left elbow, folding it upward to hold the clubface open through impact.
Fundamentals aside, Ballesteros was defined by his improvisational skills. He would adjust his stance, posture, clubface alignment, weight distribution and swing length to produce the ball flight, spin and roll he visualized.
How you can do it: For all his talent, Seve wasn’t born with otherworldly bunker skills; he developed them on the beach and, later, the golf course. The real lesson is that technique can only take you so far, especially in the short game. Experience through trial and error is the best teacher.
If your local course or practice facility has a practice bunker, immerse yourself in it. Devote at least 30 minutes of each visit to blasting out of different lies, hitting the ball different distances, varying the height of your shots, playing shots that spin and others that bounce and roll. Use your sand wedge, of course, but try clubs with less loft, too. You’ll be forced to change your stance, hand position and the angle of the clubface in order to get the ball out of the sand – and you’ll develop a feel that translates into every aspect of golf.
Who knows, you may just tap into a genius you never knew was there.