A downhill lie from the back of a bunker is one of the hardest shots you will face in golf.
Even if you are able to get a good stance, it's a shot that leaves little room for error and at times will even push you to make a more conservative play than you wanted.
If you are near the lip of the back of the bunker then you will have to manipulate your swing to be much steeper since the ground of the lip would be in the way of a traditional swing. To steepen your swing, you will need to pick the club up more abruptly with your wrists as opposed to creating the wide arc of a traditional swing.
As you may have learned from playing downhill and side hill lies, you will want to orient your body with the slope. Since you are likely playing from a downhill lie from the back of a bunker, do your best to set up as if the slope was flat. In this case, your body will be tilted towards the target some. Since the downhill lie will deliver the shot lower, you should allow for some extra roll after the ball lands.
Notice how much steeper this angle is compared to a standard swing. For a traditional bunker shot (also pictured), it is recommended to hit the sand about two inches behind the ball but since our swing from this situation must be so steep, it is better to make contact a bit closer to the ball.
If you find yourself in the back of a bunker remember that you don't always have to pull off the heroic shot. If the shot seems too risky with only a small chance for success then don't be afraid to play out sideways towards an area that you can actually play from. Even the best tour players at times have to take their medicine and play safe.
Since the back of a bunker is not a shot you will likely face often, you may not need to spend much time practicing it. If you're a competitor, though, it would be a good idea to get some experience with these tricky shots so that if the situation ever comes up, you'll have some amount of preparation.
How to Hit from the Back of the Bunker Shot
It should go without saying that you want to keep your ball out of the bunker when at all possible. You are almost always going to be better off hitting from the grass rather than the sand, unless the course you are playing has extremely deep rough. Sand bunkers are classified in the rules of golf as hazards for a reason – they are difficult to play from, and they will wind up adding a stroke to your score in many cases.
With that said, it is possible to get up and down to save your par when you draw a good lie in the bunker. If you find your ball sitting down in the flat bottom of the bunker with plenty of sand underneath it, you should have a fair chance at blasting the ball out of the trap and close to the hole. Professional golfers routinely make this shot look easy, as you have certainly seen on TV from time to time. While you might not ever reach the same level of proficiency as a pro golfer, you should be able to get to a point where you can save par at a decent rate – as long as you draw a good lie.
Of course, drawing a good lie is anything but guaranteed when you find your ball in a bunker. There are a number of variables which can influence the kind of lie you draw in the sand, such as the way your ball entered the trap, the condition of the sand, the shape of the bunker, and more. Part of the reason you want to avoid bunkers in the first place is the fact that you don't have any control over the lie you will be given – it all comes down to luck. Sometimes you will get lucky with a great lie, and other times you will be punished with a terrible situation.
In this article, we are going to address one very specific type of lie in the bunker. The lie in question is one where the ball is resting in the back of the bunker, on the downslope which is headed down toward the bottom of the trap. This might not be the worst possible lie you can wind up with in the sand – but it's close. It will be extremely difficult to play a quality shot from this position, and you should consider it a success if you are able to get the ball back onto the grass in a single swing. It isn't particularly common for the ball to wind up in this spot, but it will usually cost you a shot or more when it does. Our goal with this article is to help you minimize the damage to your scorecard when you find your ball in this unfortunate situation.
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.
A Couple of Problems
You are already familiar with the traditional problems presented by playing greenside by shots. It can be difficult to control your distance out of the sand, you might have trouble getting the ball over the lip of the bunker, and managing your spin can be tough as well. While those problems are still present when playing from the back of the bunker, you are going to run into a couple of new issues as well. Those issues are highlighted below.
- Low trajectory. Since your ball is on the downslope in the back of the bunker, it is likely to come out with a very low, flat trajectory. This is an issue for a couple of reasons. First, it could make it even more difficult to get the ball out of the bunker at all. Getting over the lip can be tough in a deep bunker when you have a good lie, so it can be nearly impossible when dealing with a downslope. Even if you do get out of the bunker, you will then run into the second problem – getting the ball to stop in time. The flat trajectory of the shot is going to make it difficult to stop the ball quickly, which you may need to do depending on the hole location. It is possible to hit a shot from this kind of lie with enough spin to make it stop after just a bounce or two, but such a shot will require plenty of practice and perfect execution.
- Lack of room to make a swing. The other big issue with playing from the back of a bunker is the lack of physical space to make a swing. Most likely, the back lip of the bunker is going to be in the way of your swing path, forcing you to alter your technique to some degree. In some cases, you will have enough room to make a decent swing, but sometimes you will have absolutely no swing at all. In those cases, you might need to aim away from the target in order to play in a direction that allows you a path to the ball. You need to make a big, wide golf swing in order to play a proper explosion shot from the sand, but that simply isn't going to be possible in many instances when your ball is in the back of a bunker.
It is important to understand that there is nothing you can do about these problems. Sure, you can make smart decisions and adjust your technique slightly to accommodate these issues, but you can't make them go away. The ball is going to come out lower from a downhill lie no matter how badly you want to hit it high in the air. Likewise, there is nothing you can do about the lack of physical space for your swing – unless you pick up a shovel and starting taking the bunker apart one scoop at a time. Playing good golf often means accepting and understanding the limitations of your lie on a given shot, and that skill is never more important than when playing from the back of a bunker.
When you do arrive at a bunker to find your ball sitting in the back, it is important that you have the right attitude about the upcoming shot. Right away, you should lower your expectations. It is unlikely that you will be able to blast the ball up to within a couple feet of the hole, so set that idea out of your mind. Instead, make your goal to get the ball out of the bunker and onto the grass. As long as the ball leaves the sand in a single stroke, you should be able to limit the damage and move on to the next hole without too much trouble.
One other attitude point that needs to be made has to do with your frustration. You aren't going to be happy about the lie you find in the bunker, and that's okay. However, you can't let your frustration impact the decision you make on this next shot. If you try to pull off a 'miracle' shot because you are angry about being in this situation in the first place, you are just going to find more trouble. Take a deep breath, set aside your frustration, and make a smart decision to move on with the hole.
The Technical Side
In order to give yourself the best possible chance at success when playing from the back of a greenside bunker, there are a few technical adjustments you should make. These adjustments aren't going to eliminate the problems we mentioned above, but they will help. As always, you should work on these adjustments in a practice bunker before you put them to use on the course.
- Match your shoulders to the slope. Assuming you are standing on sand which is sloped down from right to left, you should tilt your shoulders to make that slope. In other words, you are going to lean to the left at address. By leaning left, you will match up your swing path to the slope under your feet, and you will have a better chance of putting the club into the sand at the right point. If you were to stand with your shoulders level as you would for a normal bunker shot, the club would hit too far behind the ball and the shot would come up well short of the target.
- Choke down on the club. Again, this is another point which is focused on helping you avoid hitting the shot fat. If you were to use the entire length of the club for this swing, the slope of the ground would make a fat shot likely. To give yourself a better chance of success, choke down on the grip by an inch or two before you start the swing. The amount you choke down should be related to the severity of the slope. Move down just barely off the end of the club when dealing with a minor slope, and take your hands all the way down near the end of the grip if on a steep section of sand.
- Keep your speed up through the shot. Okay – so this is a point which can apply to pretty much any shot you hit on the golf course. However, it is particularly important here because many golfers give up on their swing in this situation. Knowing the ball is going to come out low, it is common for players to ease up on the swing while trying not to hit the ball too far. Unfortunately, decelerating through the hitting area often leads to shots that never get out of the sand at all. Commit yourself to swinging aggressively all the way to a full finish and your odds of a positive outcome will improve.
As you can see, there is nothing particularly crazy about any of the three suggestions above. You are going to tilt your shoulders to match the slope, you are going to choke down a bit on the club, and you are going to swing through to a full finish. If you can hit on those three basic points, you will be doing all you can do to deal with this tough situation. From there, it will be down to making the right decisions, which we are going to cover in the following section.
The Mental Side
Anytime you find your golf ball in a tough spot, as is the case when you are in the back of a bunker, it is your mental game which needs to be at its best. Sure, you have to execute a good swing to hit the shot, but the decisions you make leading up to that swing are going to be critical. Smart decisions can get you out of trouble in short order – bad decisions, on the other hand, can cause this hole to quickly get out of hand.
As you are trying to decide what do to with the shot you are facing, keep the following points in mind.
- Get out, get out, get out. Above all else, your goal for this bunker shot should be to get the ball out of the trap in a single shot. That's it. Even if you don't put the ball anywhere close to the hold, or even on the green, you just need to get out. Leaving this shot in the bunker is going to have a serious impact on your scorecard, as it will quickly become likely that you are going to card a double bogey or worse. When you walk up to the ball, take a look around the bunker and determine which path is going to provide you with the easiest escape. Can you aim at the hole and comfortably get the ball out of the trap, or do you need to play off to the side? Be conservative when making this decision, as you don't want to have to pull off a great shot just to leave the sand. It takes patience to aim away from the hole, but it is often the patient golfers who come out on top at the end of the day.
- Use the slopes. If you are able to aim your shot toward the green, think about using the slopes of the putting surface to bring the ball closer to the hole. Since you are likely to produce a low, flat trajectory on this shot, it may not be possible to drop the ball right next to the cup as you would from a good lie. So, instead of going directly at the hole, think about using the slopes of the putting surface to find a creative route to the target. If there is a backstop behind the hole, for instance, you could intentionally hit the shot long to allow it to come back down. Creativity is an important piece of the golf puzzle, and rarely is your creativity tested more than it will be in the back of a bunker.
- Fully commit to your decision. Most likely, you are going to have a few different options to consider when trying to get out of this tough spot. Just as likely, you won't love any of these choices. However, there is a choice to make, and you need to decide on how you are going to proceed. Once you make that choice, it is crucial that you commit to the decision completely. There is no room for second-guessing yourself in this spot, as your mind has to be totally focused on executing the swing to the best of your ability. Once your choice is made, forget about the other options and do everything you can to pull off the shot at hand.
The mental side of the game of golf is important all around the course. Most amateur golfers underestimate just how important this piece of the puzzle can be, and they waste shots as a result. To take your game to a higher level in the months and years ahead, you need to be willing to focus just as much effort on your mental game as you do on your swing itself. In the case of a bunker shot from the back of the trap, you need to think clearly while setting aside any feelings of frustration or disappointment over your previous shot. With a clear mind and a positive attitude, make a good decision and move forward with confidence.
How to Avoid Greenside Bunkers
The content above has provided you with some good advice as to how you can deal with a tough lie in the back of a bunker. However, nothing we can say here will change the fact that this is an extremely difficult shot to play. So, to finish up this article, we are going to shift directions and talk about how you can stay out of the traps in the first place. By steering clear of the sand, you won't have to worry about facing the many challenges that bunkers can present.
- Use enough club. One of the most common ways for amateur golfers to find their way into a greenside bunker is by not using enough club for the approach shot at hand. Most amateurs pick clubs based on their best-case distance, not on the distance they are most likely to hit the shot. For example, you might be able to hit your eight iron 150 yards when it is struck perfectly, but that doesn't mean you should use an eight iron on the course from that distance. Instead, you should probably use a seven iron to provide yourself with some margin for error. Using this strategy is particularly smart when there is a bunker guarding the front of the green, as you will be able to miss the sweet spot slightly while still clearing the sand safely.
- Pick smart target lines. If you faced an approach shot where the flag was cut only a few steps from a water hazard, you would likely aim to the wide side of the green in order to steer clear of the water. However, when faced with the same situation involving sand instead of water, you would likely take dead aim – ignoring the threat of putting your ball in the bunker. Golfers tend to underestimate the importance of staying out of the sand, and they pay the price as a result. To improve on your course management skills, respect what bunkers can do to your score and aim safely away from them on some of your approach shots.
- Think carefully on the tee. The process of avoiding greenside bunkers can actually start on the tee. Before you hit your tee shot, think carefully about the kind of second shot you would like to face. If the green is guarded by a number of bunkers, for example, you might want to be aggressive with your driver off the tee in order to set up a shorter approach. The angle of your approach is important as well, so look at the layout of the green to determine which side of the fairway you would rather play from on your next shot. Thinking one shot ahead can go a long way toward helping you steer clear of the traps.
It is never fun to find yourself in the back of a greenside bunker. If your ball comes to rest in this kind of position, you will have a lot of work in front of you just to get out of the sand in a single shot. There are plenty of tough lies to find around any golf course, but this one ranks among the most difficult. Use the advice provided above to do your best to get out of the sand successfully. Even if you can't manage an up and down for par from this spot, even saving a bogey can be considered a positive result. Good luck!