wet sand

Like playing from rough, one of the main difficulties of bunker shots is their unpredictability. The sand's texture has a major effect on how the ball behaves coming out, so you need to know how to play under different conditions.

Here's a primer on handling various sand textures.

Wet/firm sand

This can be a good-news/bad-news situation. The good news is, compact sand allows you to put extra spin on the ball and stop it quickly on the green. The bad news is, your club may bounce or skid when it hits the sand, causing a thin shot that sails over everything.

What to do? First, check the bounce angle on your sand wedge. If it's more than 10°, consider using a different wedge. Too much bounce will cause the club to literally bounce off the surface.

soft sand

To play the shot, open your stance slightly and dig your feet in just enough for stability. If you dig in too much, you'll lower the swing arc in relation to the ball and hit too far behind it. Next, aim the clubface at the target.

An aggressive swing is called for in order to knife the clubhead into the sand and produce spin. Aim for a spot slightly closer to the ball than you would for a normal sand shot – about an inch or so behind it. Keep your eye on the spot and make a firm swing, making sure to follow through rather than stopping the club in the sand.

Loose/soft sand

This is where a high-bounce sand wedge (12-14°) is very handy. Regardless of your club's specs, proceed like this:

Dig the feet into the sand an inch or so to build a firm base, with an open stance and clubface. Choose a spot in the sand a couple of inches behind the ball and focus on the spot, not the ball. Swing to hit the spot and accelerate through to the finish. Otherwise, the soft sand will swallow the clubhead and cause your shot to fall short – perhaps into the bunker.

Bunker shots intimidate many amateur golfers.

Adjust Technique to Handle Varying Sand Conditions

For the average golfer, playing from the sand is something of a mystery – the technique seems complicated, yet somehow the professionals make it look so easy. How do they do it? What do the pros know that the regular weekend golfer does not? Unfortunately, rather than seeking out the answers and figuring out a way to solve this part of the game, many players just throw up their hands and work on other things. Don't run away from this challenge. If you can commit yourself to learning how to play proper bunker shots, your game will benefit greatly in the long run.

In this article, we are going to talk about one specific aspect of playing from greenside bunkers. As you are likely aware, the sand conditions that you face in bunkers at your local course will frequently change from round to round. In fact, depending on the weather, you might experience changing sand conditions within the same round. In order to produce consistent results from the bunkers you encounter, you'll need to know how to adapt to changing sand conditions on the fly. The technique you use when the sand is dry and fluffy may not work as well when the sand is wet and compact, so it's essential to have a plan in place.

As a golfer, you are always having to adjust. This is a game of adjustments, since each situation you encounter is unique. Even if you have played a given course countless times previously, you are likely to run into something during your next round that you've never faced before. Maybe it is a new wind direction that causes confusion, or maybe it is turf/sand conditions that are not usually present on the course. Whatever the case, it is the golfer who is able to adapt most successfully who will have the best chance to come out on top.

All of the content below is a based on a right-handed golfer. If you happen to play left-handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.

Starting with Standard Technique

Starting with Standard Technique

By definition, in order to adjust, you have to start from somewhere. You can't adjust a technique you don't yet have, since there would be nothing to base your adjustments on. With that in mind, the best place to start this article is by establishing some basics for a standard bunker shot. Only when we have laid out the fundamentals for a typical bunker shot can we then move on to discuss how you can adjust based on the conditions you face.

The list below outlines the key elements you should think about including in your standard bunker technique.

  • Make a big swing. This first point is one that tends to throw the average golfer off right from the start. Since you are already close to the hole when your ball is resting in a greenside bunker, you might be tempted to think that a small swing would do the job. That is not usually the case. Since you are going to send the clubhead down through the sand and under the ball, you are going to need a big swing. Getting over any reservations you have about making a big swing from close range is one of the biggest steps you can take in improving your bunker play. Once you get comfortable with this technique, it will quickly feel natural. You make a big swing, you send the club head down into the sand, and the ball moves easily up into the air and (hopefully) onto the green.
  • Use your hands aggressively. One of the many ways in which bunker play is different from playing shots on the grass is how you use your hands. It is generally good practice to keep your hands relatively quiet on most of your golf shots, but that is not the case when playing from the sand. In a greenside bunker, you want to use your hands and wrists actively to both set the club and propel it through the sand and under the ball. On the way back, hinge your wrists to set a good angle between the shaft of the club and your left arm. Then, on the way down, use your right hand to fire the club head aggressively into the sand, a couple inches behind the ball. This action will help the club head cut under the ball, and the shot should pop nicely up into the air as a result. It is going to take some practice to get used to this technique since it is so different from what you should be doing on the rest of your shots.
  • Play from a wide stance. Setting your feet outside shoulder width apart is one of the common fundamentals used by most players when hitting a greenside bunker shot. This is important for a couple of reasons, starting with the fact that you are making such a big swing. It can be slippery to stand on the loose sand while swinging the club, so setting your feet a significant distance apart will help to keep your stable and balanced. Also, a wide stance is going to flatten out the bottom of your swing slightly, which is a positive. A flatter swing is going to be less likely to dig deeply into the sand, which is one outcome you usually want to avoid.
  • Play from an open stance. In addition to setting your feet a significant distance apart, you should also stand with your feet open to the target line. You want to cut across the ball at impact in order to get it up into the air easily. To accomplish that outside-in swing path, standing open to the line is a great idea. Once setup correctly, you can just swing back and through along your foot line, which will result in the club cutting across the ball in relation to the target line. As long as you have your club face open sufficiently, you should find it easy to elevate your bunker shots while using an open stance.
  • Keep your knees flexed. Our last point in this list has to do again with your lower body. At address, you should make sure to have your knees flexed sufficiently in order to support the aggressive swing you are about to make. Of course, you should flex your knees prior to most of the shots you play on the golf course, so this point probably isn't that surprising. What you need to remember, however, is that it is extremely important to maintain that knee flex throughout the swing. You are trying to swing under the ball on this type of shot, and that is going to be hard to do if you stand up out of your stance as the swing develops. Straightening your knees will make you effectively taller, and you'll struggle to reach down as far as you need to as a result. For most golfers, if they are going to lose knee flex on this kind of swing, it is going to happen during the transition from backswing to downswing. Pay attention at the top and make sure you get through this phase of the swing in good shape.

There is a lot of content above to work through, but none of it is particularly complicated. Playing good greenside bunker shots requires that you make a big swing, use your hands aggressively, and play from a wide stance. You should also set that stance open to the target line and watch that your knees remain flexed throughout the swing. During your practice sessions, work on these points one at a time until you get comfortable with each of them. Once you have established solid bunker technique in your game, you'll then be able to work on adapting your technique based on the sand conditions you encounter.

Some Potential Adjustments

Some Potential Adjustments

It's always difficult to discuss adjustments in the game of golf, simply because there are so many possible situations that you can encounter. If you already play this game, you know that previous statement to be true. Golf is such a popular game in large part because of the variety it presents. Conditions are constantly changing, whether in the bunkers or around the rest of the course.

With that said, we can offer some advice on how to deal with some common bunker conditions. Please review the tips below and keep them in mind on the course.

  • Wet and firm sand. This is perhaps the most common condition that you will find, outside of what would be considered 'normal' sand conditions. After a heavy rain, or in the winter months in an area where rain is common, you are likely to find that the bunker sand has been beaten down into a firm layer. Rather than the ball coming to rest nestled down in the sand slightly, it may stay up on top. At first, you might think this is a good thing – it looks like a great lie! However, once you try to play the ball from this type of situation, you'll see that this is actually not so desirable. The typical explosion shot is pretty much impossible when the sand is wet and firm, so you'll have to resort to using your chipping/pitching technique. Instead of hitting well behind the ball to blast it out, you are going to try to hit the shot cleanly just as you would from the grass. This is not an easy way to play a bunker shot, but it is pretty much your only option when the sand is hard. So, as far as technique changes, you are going to toss out your normal bunker approach and instead use your chipping mechanics. Most golfers find these kinds of shots to be extremely difficult, so you may want to consider altering your course management strategy on a day when you know the bunkers are hard-packed. Give the bunkers more respect than normal when they are wet so you can avoid having to attempt this tricky style of shot.
  • Dry and fluffy sand. Believe it or not, the other end of the sand spectrum can be almost as difficult to handle. When the sand in the bunkers is extremely dry, and there is a large volume of sand present, you will again struggle to play a good shot. In this case, it is because the ball will likely settle down well into the sand upon arriving in the bunker. When the ball sits down deep, it's hard to get it up and out cleanly – and putting spin on the shot is nearly impossible. Assuming you draw a lie where the ball has settled down, your best bet is to make a steeper swing. Move the ball slightly back in your stance, don't open the face of the club as much at address as you would normally, and hinge your wrists aggressively in the backswing. The shot that results from this kind of technique is not going to come out as high as it would with a better lie, but there really isn't anything you can do about that. Opting for a steeper swing will give you a better chance of at least getting out of the trap, which should always be your number one goal in this situation.
  • Poorly maintained bunker. On this last point, we are talking about bunkers which simply aren't being maintained to a high standard. Maybe the groups that are playing the course in front of you haven't been raking them properly, or maybe the course is just neglecting the task of cleaning up the bunkers regularly. Whatever the case, you are likely to wind up with a bad lie when maintenance has not been a top priority. When you draw a bad lie in an ugly bunker, you will need to assess the situation on a case-by-case basis before deciding how to proceed. If the ball is sitting down in the sand, opting for a steeper swing may be the way to go. On the other hand, if you have a bare lie and can get the club cleanly on the ball, using a chipping-style shot might be your best option.

When it comes to making adjustments in golf, experience is your best friend. As you continue to build on your experience in this game, you will inevitably face more and more challenges on the course. Each time you deal with something new, a memory will be made, and you'll have that experience to draw on during a future round. Slowly but surely, this accumulation of experience is likely to make you a much better player – both in the sand and around the rest of the course.