What is a Center-Line Bunker and How Do You Play It

So you arrive on the tee of a par 4 or par 5 and, much to your surprise, there's a bunker sitting smack in the center of the fairway. So much for aiming down the middle.

Some golfers view these so-called “center-line” bunkers with disdain, considering them course design gimmicks or randomness run amok. Wrong and wrong. Course architects place bunkers in the line of play for the specific purpose of forcing a strategic choice by the golfer. Typically, one side of the bunker will feature a wider strip of fairway than the other side. However, the narrower side will offer a shorter, more favorable approach to the green.

It's a classic risk-reward conundrum: Should you play toward the wider, safer side and face a more difficult second shot, or risk finding trees or rough off the tee in exchange for an easier approach?

Those are the primary factors to consider when you encounter a center-line bunker. In weighing your options, you should also consider these elements:

  • Can you hit the ball over the bunker? Before choosing a side, check the distance to the hazard using GPS or a course yardage book, if available. If the distance to carry the bunker is well within your range, a shot directly over it is easier than threading the needle between bunker and rough. Just make sure you've got plenty of firepower—if your average carry distance gives you 15 or 20 yards to spare beyond the bunker, that's a green light.
  • Which side of the bunker favors my natural shot shape? Let's say the hole doglegs to the right, but requires a very accurate drive to split the bunker and the right rough and gain the best angle to the green. If you reliably hit a fade, the more slender target might actually be easier to hit than the wider portion left of the trap.
  • Is laying up the prudent play? If you can't carry the bunker and fear trying to squeeze a drive into a tight landing zone, consider laying up short of trouble. On a par 4, subtract 10 yards from the distance to reach the bunker, then determine the distance to the green from that spot. If you can play short off the tee and still get home in two, it may be the way to go.

A center-line bunker is designed to make you think through several options, then execute the chosen shot. There's nothing gimmicky about that.

What is a Center Line Bunker and How Do You Play It?

What is a Center Line Bunker and How Do You Play It?

The positioning of bunkers is one of the most powerful tools a golf course designer has available when building a layout. Nearly every golf course in the world uses at least a few bunkers as part of the design, and some have hundreds of bunkers dotted all over the landscape. If you are an experienced golfer, you will know that a bunker does not have to be big, or even deep, in order to cause serious trouble. As long as the bunker is placed in a strategic location, it is going to demand your attention – regardless of its shape or size.

In this article, we are going to talk about 'center line' bunkers. What is a center line bunker? Simple – this is a bunker that is placed in the middle of the fairway, often within reach of your tee shot. Golfers usually think about the center of the fairway as a safe place, but that is not always the case. When a designer decides to add a bunker to the middle of the fairway, you'll need to make a choice as to whether you should play left, right, short, or over-the-top of the trap. This kind of bunker doesn't have to mean trouble, but it does mean that you'll need to make a good decision before hitting your shot.

You aren't going to find much, if any, discussion in this article about swing technique. That's because playing a hole with a center line bunker is all about strategy. You need to think about the strategic implications of the different shots you have available, so you can pick the best one based on the circumstances you face. In general, amateur golfers aren't great at thinking strategically, so many players fall short on this point. If you can teach yourself to think carefully about each of your shots before you swing the club, you are going to be a big step ahead of the competition.

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.

Gathering Some Information

Gathering Some Information

The first thing to do when playing a hole with a center line bunker is to gather some information. This process will start as soon as you step up onto the tee and realize that there is a trap located in the middle of the fairway. Once you see that this is not a hole where you can just 'grip it and rip it' with the driver, you'll need to start thinking strategically about where to place your ball.

The task of gathering information has mostly to do with finding yardages to various points out in the fairway. How far would you need to hit the ball in order to wind up in the bunker? How far would you need to carry the ball in the air to fly over the bunker with your tee shot? If you do layup short of the bunker, what will that mean for the distance of your next shot? Gather as much information as possible using whatever sources you have available. If you are using a GPS device or a laser rangefinder, it should be pretty easy to collect the yardages you need. If not, the task will be more difficult, but you should be able to get pretty good estimates based on markers on the course and any notes that might be found on the scorecard or in the yardage book.

It is important to remember that you can't use distances alone when making your decisions. Rather, you should think about distances as a starting point. There are a number of other elements to consider in addition to raw distance before you can select a club and a target line. The points below highlight three keys to watch for as you plan any shot involving a #center line bunker.

  • Elevation change. If you are playing a downhill tee shot, you might not need as much club as you think to reach the center line bunker. On the other hand, an uphill tee shot will mean that the bunker will effectively play farther away. This is an especially important point if you are thinking about trying to carry the bunker on the fly. When the hole plays uphill, carrying the bunker is going to take more than you expect, and a yardage that seems reasonable might suddenly be quite the task to carry without a problem.
  • Turf conditions. You will also need to think about turf conditions when trying to decide how to approach this kind of hole. When the turf is firm and fast, your ball is likely going to take some big bounces after it lands, and it will keep rolling for a while, as well. This means that a bunker you thought might be out of reach could suddenly be a problem if your drive gains a lot of distance along the ground. Of course, if the ground is soft, your drive will stop quickly after it lands, meaning you can probably be more aggressive without much risk of your ball bouncing into the trap.
  • Wind. It should be no surprise that you'll also need to consider wind in this equation. When the wind is coming in toward the tee, it will take more to reach – or carry – the bunker. If you have a tailwind, you might be able to hit your tee shot surprisingly far, meaning you'll need to be extra cautious with regard to reaching the trap. Of course, when on the course, playing into the wind or playing downwind are not the only two options. You can also deal with a crosswind, and you'll need to think about that possibility as well. Playing in a crosswind is going to reduce your ability to control the line of your tee shots, so you should give yourself some extra margin when picking a target line.
  • Terrain around the bunker. Some bunkers are designed to collect shots, even if those shots don't actually land in the trap. The ground around the bunker may be sloped in a way that is going to cause any shot which lands nearby to be funneled into the sand. In this way, a relatively small bunker can actually play quite large when the terrain around the trap has been shaped to collect shots. With that said, some bunkers are just the opposite. You will occasionally find a bunker that slopes away from the sides, allowing you to play more aggressively with minimal risk or your ball being caught by the trap.

It might seem like you'll be standing on the tee all day thinking about these factors, but they are actually pretty easy to process with just a little practice. Pretty soon, getting the necessary yardages and evaluating the other variables will be second nature, and it will only take moments to complete.

Three Big Questions

Three Big Questions

Now that you have gathered the information you need it will be time to ask yourself some important questions about the upcoming tee shot. Specifically, there are three questions that you should ask yourself before deciding on the club and line that you'll use. Let's look at those questions now.

  • Is it worth trying to carry the bunker? If you are considering carrying the bunker with your tee shot – meaning, you have determined that it is possible for you to cover the necessary yardage – you still need to decide whether such a shot is worth the risk. There is going to be some inherent risk in trying to hit the ball over a far-off bunker, as you usually need to make a big swing and supply plenty of power. Even if you hit a pretty good shot, anything less than your full carry distance might not be enough to get the job done. If you do happen to find the sand, it is possible – maybe even likely – that you'll draw a bad lie thanks to the way the ball is going to come into the trap. So, with all that in mind, you need to make sure that going over the bunker is going to be worth the risk. In other words, what do you stand to gain? If you are going to wind up with an easy approach shot thanks to your bold play, it just may be worth it to take the chance. However, if you are still going to have a tricky approach where you'll have to play for the center of the green, there probably isn't much point in being so aggressive. Most of the time, you'll be able to lay up short and still have a viable approach shot to play.
  • What will your approach shot look like if you layup? This is just the opposite of the question above. If you are leaning towards laying up short of the trap, how easy or difficult will your approach shot be? Of course, if you will still have an easy approach shot after laying up from the tee, that is exactly what you should do. On the other hand, if a layup is going to leave you with a rather difficult approach – either in terms of angle or distance – you may need to be more aggressive to give yourself a realistic chance at finding the green in regulation. In most cases that you encounter, it will be better to layup, as golf tends to be a game which favors the cautious and patient. That is not true, however, in all circumstances. Sometimes, it is better to play the aggressive role, hoping to pull off an excellent shot.
  • Is there room to either side? The last question you need to ask yourself is whether or not there is enough room on either side of the bunker to play out to the side rather than going over or staying short. If there is plenty of fairway to work with, you might be able to opt for this path. While you will always run the risk of finding the bunker when you play up even with it from a distance perspective, you may deem that risk to be appropriate in some cases. Often, you'll have more room to work with on one side than the other, so you will need to decide if you are comfortable playing in that direction. A player with a draw will usually be more comfortable working the ball to the left of the trap, while a player with a fade will naturally like to play to the right. Take a moment to check out how much room is available on the sides before making your final choice.

Fortunately, the decision of where to hit your tee shot when a center line bunker is in play will actually be quite easy most of the time. Usually, the location of the bunker will make the choice for you. It will either be too far away to even consider hitting the ball over, or it will be so far away that you can hit your driver without any worry. Only when the location of the bunker happens to match up with your usual distances will you need to think twice. When that does happen, ask yourself the questions listed above and the right plan of attack will usually become clear.