Golf Tip: What is a “Pot Bunker” – and How Do You Play It?

Technically speaking, a “pot bunker” is a circular sand trap which may feature steep walls and a deep bottom. Put another way, a pot bunker is a mean, nasty critter that you want to avoid at all costs.

The legendary links of Scotland, Ireland and England are riddled with pot bunkers. Most infamous of all is the “Road Hole Bunker” on the 17th hole (aka the “Road Hole”) on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Guarding the front left side of a kidney-shaped green, the Road Hole Bunker causes nightmares for anyone who enters – even the pros. David Duval and Tommy Nakajima are among the many who have taken four, five or more strokes to escape its clutches.

Of course, not every pot bunker is as diabolical as that one. But none are what you'd call friendly.Even shallow pot bunkers can make life miserable due to their cramped space – it's often difficult to make a full swing – and concave bottoms, which create awkward lies.

You needn't visit the British Isles to find a pot bunker. Plenty of American courses have them. Architect Pete Dye is especially fond of the dastardly traps, famously placing one at the front of the green on No. 17 at the TPC Players Stadium Course, home to the Players Championship.

So what do you do if you end up in a pot bunker? Hit and hope? Maybe say a little prayer?

Sometimes, that's all you can do. But first and foremost, resolve to take your medicine. And don't get greedy. Often, the only way out is to aim away from the target. Find the safest escape route based on your skills, then:

1. Dig your feet in to create a stable base.

2. Open the face on your sand or lob wedge so you've got plenty of loft to get the ball over the lip.

3. Pick the club up steeply with an early wrist hinge.

4. Hit the sand sharply, a couple of inches behind the ball, and hold the clubface open as you swing through.

Trying to be a hero in a pot bunker is a fool's errand. Accept your punishment, get the ball out and vow to never, ever hit into one again.

What is a Pot Bunker and How Do You Play It?

What is a Pot Bunker and How Do You Play It?

There are all kinds of various hazards used by golf course designers to get in the way of your quest to shoot the lowest score possible over 18 holes. You are familiar with most – or all – of these hazards by this point in your golfing life. Water hazards, out of bounds markers, bunkers, trees, creeks, and more can all be used in order to make a course more difficult. While nobody likes running into these hazards during the course of play, the fact is that they make the game more enjoyable. After all, a course with no hazards to speak of would get boring rather quickly.

One specific type of hazard that can cause you serious trouble during a round is the pot bunker. This hazard is a standard sand bunker that has been shaped in a way that makes it very difficult to escape in a single shot. Even more, if you do manage to escape in one shot, there is a good chance that you will have had to hit that shot in a direction away from the hole just to get out. While pot bunkers are famous for dotting the classic links courses across England and Scotland, they can actually be found on courses all over the world.

Generally speaking, pot bunkers are deeper and narrower than what you would consider to be a 'regular' sand bunker. There is no formal designation for this type of hazard, of course, and the rules for playing from a pot bunker are the same as they are for any other bunker that you encounter. In other words, what one player would consider to be a pot bunker, another could see as just a traditional bunker. Regardless of what title it is assigned, a pot bunker is somewhere you don't want to be – and if you are in one, you need a plan to get out as quickly as possible.

When you step up onto the first tee of any golf course, one of the first things you should do is take a look at what kind of hazards you are going to face. If you are playing a course that does feature a number of pot bunkers throughout the property, you can keep that fact in the back of your mind and give them the respect they deserve. It isn't necessary to play completely scared of the pot bunkers, but you certainly don't want to ignore the damage they could potentially do to your score. As long as you identify where they are on the course while playing each hole, you can pick smart target lines that will maximize your chances of steering clear of the trouble.

All of the instruction contained 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.

Understanding Pot Bunkers

Understanding Pot Bunkers

Often, the best way to learn how to get around the golf course is to think from the perspective of the course designer. There is thought and planning that goes into each element that is placed around the course – if you can understand the purpose behind all of the hazards, you can then see the best way to navigate around them. Most amateur golfers fail to think critically in this way, and they walk right into the traps that have been set by the course designer as a result. By paying more attention to what is in front of you on the course, you can build a better plan and shoot a better score.

To get a better understanding of the purpose of pot bunkers, please take a quick look at the list below.

  • Meant to gather. One of the deceptive elements of pot bunkers is the actual size they take up on the course. Many pot bunkers have a small opening at the top, making you think that they will be relatively easy to avoid. However, that size is often something of a trick. A large percentage of the pot bunkers that you will come across have the ground sloped in toward them from all directions, meaning a ball anywhere in the vicinity of the bunker will actually roll in. Therefore, the bunker 'plays' much larger than it actually is. Even if a bunker is only ten or fifteen feet wide, it could easy play two or three times that large simply due to the contouring of the ground around it.
  • The swing can be a problem. It isn't just the chore of getting your ball up over the lip of the bunker that can be a problem when trying to get out of a pot bunker – it can be a challenge to even make a swing at all. If your ball happens to be near the back of the pot bunker, you are going to have a hard time finding enough space to swing the club properly. Trying to play from a pot bunker is a decidedly claustrophobic experience, as it never seems like there is enough room to do what you need to do.
  • Takes options away. The best thing that you can have as a golfer for any particular shot is options. When you have options, you can pick the best choice to match your skills and you will stand a great chance at success. When those options disappear, however, you are left to do what the course wants you to do – and that often doesn't end well. If your ball is sitting in the bottom of a pot bunker, you aren't going to have much choice as to the type of shot you play. Most likely, you will just have to blast it out and move on to the next shot. If you want to keep your options open as you make your way through a hole, be sure to steer clear of any pot bunkers that are in play.
  • May not be the worst option. While there are plenty of bad things to say about pot bunkers, the one 'positive' thing you can say is this – they might not be the worst thing you could encounter on a particular hole. For instance, if your option is a pot bunker to the left of the green or a water hazard to the right, you would prefer to error on the left. This is why it is important to take in the whole picture when you are preparing to play a shot. Look over the entire landing area and decide which target line will maximize your chance at success while reducing the chances of a big mistake.

Make no mistake – if you find yourself in a pot bunker, you are going to need to hit a great shot to escape that hole with a par. In some cases, you won't really even have a chance to do so, as you will be presented with a situation that makes it impossible to play toward the hole. To get out of a pot bunker safely in just one shot, you need to have a combination of skill and a little bit of luck.

Using the Right Technique

Using the Right Technique

The technique that is needed to get your ball out of a pot bunker is not dramatically different from the technique you would use from any other greenside bunker. You still want to lay the face of your wedge open at address to add as much loft to the club as possible, and you still want to hit behind the ball in order to allow the sand to do the work for you. These are called explosion shots for a reason – your job is to 'explode' the sand, which will then (hopefully) carry the ball up and out of the trap.

With that said, there are some minor adjustments that you can make in order to deal with a pot bunker to the best of your ability. Give these adjustments a test drive in the practice area before putting them to work on the course.

  • Plenty of wrist action. You need to get as much loft as possible on the shots that you hit from a pot bunker, and that process starts by setting your wrists aggressively in the backswing. Use your right hand to load the club up into the air during the takeaway, and hold that set until you are swinging down toward impact. Of course, you are going to have to undo that set at some point in order to hit a great shot, so be sure to use your hands aggressively to propel the club head into the sand. The combination of using hand action both in the backswing and the downswing will help you to slide the club under the ball effectively. This doesn't mean that you will get out of the pot bunker on your first try every time – but it will give you the best possible chance to do so.
  • Plenty of speed. You can't afford to get tentative when you are trying to move your ball out of a pot bunker. Lifting the ball up out of the sand and onto the green is going to require plenty of swing speed, even if you only have a short distance to travel. Once you have decided on the shot you are going to hit, you need to commit to that shot with 100% confidence. Make a good turn with your shoulders, make sure the club gets up over your head, and thump it down into the sand with authority.
  • Stable stance. It is important to have a stable stance when hitting any bunker shot, but this point is especially key when you are trying to big your way out of a big pot bunker. It is going to take an aggressive swing to get out of the sand, meaning you will need good footing to avoid any slippage at the wrong moment. Wiggle your feet down into the sand prior to starting your swing, and keep each foot flat on the ground and you swing back and through.

None of the three points above are particularly radical, and each of them can apply to a regular bunker shot just as they apply to a shot played from pot bunkers. However, there is less room for error when in a nasty pot bunker, so you have to make sure your technique is right on track. Work on all of these tips in the short game practice area at your local course and you will be ready to make a quick escape the next time you find yourself in a pot bunker during a round.

How to Pick a Target

How to Pick a Target

One of the most challenging parts of playing from pot bunkers is simply knowing how to pick the right target. Ideally, your target would be the flag itself, but that isn't always possible. Unless you have a great lie and plenty of room to clear the lip in front of you, there is a good chance you are going to need to play out sideways. Remember, the main objective should always be to get your ball out in just a single shot, even if that means you aren't able to aim directly at the hole.

When you are in a pot bunker and you can't play directly at the hole, your thought process needs to shift toward that of a chess player. When playing chess, you aren't supposed to think about the move you are making currently – you need to think into the future in order to position yourself to defeat the opponent. In golf, the opponent is the course, and you should be thinking about your next shot before you have even played from the bunker. Where would you like to position your ball in order to set up the easiest possible shot for your next one? Sometimes that will mean playing out of the pot bunker sideways, while other times it will mean playing entirely backwards to set up a nice pitch onto the green. By thinking about your next move before this one, the proper plan for your pot bunker shot should quickly come into focus.

Of course, there isn't always going to be a good option available to you. In that case, it is important to maintain your cool and not allow yourself to get too caught up in the emotion of the situation. Allowing your temper to get the best of you is only going to lead to bad decisions. Take a deep breath, look at the situation objectively, and make the best choice possible based on the hand that you have been dealt. There might not be a great solution available, but there is almost always one that will allow you to get off of the hole without too much damage having been suffered.

Another element that needs to be considered when you are picking a target is the kind of lie that you have in the bunker. If your ball is sitting up nicely on top of the sand, it should be relatively easy to get it up into the air quickly. On the other hand, a lie that is sitting down in the sand will make achieving a high ball flight extremely difficult. Take this into consideration while choosing your target. Trying to clear a steep lip in front of you to take an aggressive line to the hole? You better have a good lie, or you might wind up with the ball coming to rest right back at your feet.

In the end, the goal of getting the ball out of the bunker with your first swing should always remain at the front of your mind. If there is any doubt that the combination of club and target line that you are using is going to be able to get the ball out of the bunker, you should pick another path. The reward of getting the ball a little close to the hole simply isn't worth the risk of leaving it in the sand. As long as you are able to get out with your first swing, even if that means hitting the ball backward, you shouldn't wind up suffering too much damage to your score. However, if you are in the bunker for two or three swings (or more), you will pretty much wipe out your chance of shooting a good score for the round.

Strategy on Approach Shots

Strategy on Approach Shots

The best way to get out of a pot bunker is to never hit your ball into it in the first place. There is nothing scary about walking past a pot bunker when your ball is resting safely on the grass somewhere on or around the green. If you can make decisions that keep your ball on the grass and out of those dreaded sand pits, your score will be better for it – and you will probably have more fun at the same time.

Obviously, the first step in putting together a smart strategy to avoid pot bunkers is simply to play away from them whenever possible. For instance, if there are a couple of pot bunkers guarding the right side of the green, aim for the left half of the putting surface regardless of where the hole happens to be located. This strategy will take some patience to employ, but it is your best bet for staying on track toward a good round. You can afford to be more aggressive when you have a short club in your hands and you are confident that the bunkers aren't going to come into play – however, with any longer club or when you have a bad lie, pick the safe line and move on.

The same type of thinking can apply when you are picking the club that you are going to use for an approach. If you need to clear pot bunkers short of the green, make sure you are holding plenty of club to clear them even if you don't completely flush the shot. Forget about trying to get close to a front hole location and pick a club that can carry the ball to the center of the green with ease. You have to be able to trust your putter to pick up the slack by two putting from long range so that you can pick safe lines and still walk away with pars.

There is another potential strategy that very few golfers will have the patience to execute, but it can be a great way to save strokes over the course of a full round. When you face a long approach shot in the range of 180 – 200 yards or more, and there are pot bunkers guarding the target, consider laying up and pitching the ball onto the green with your next shot. It might seem crazy to lay up when you have enough club in the bag to get to the green, but you are risking putting yourself in a penalizing situation if you don't pull off the shot. Hitting a three iron into a pot bunker in an effort to reach the green will leave you vulnerable to potentially making a double bogey or worse – on the other hand, laying up could have allowed you to set up a reasonable par putt with a bogey waiting as the likely worst case scenario.

You aren't going to be able to find much good to say about finding your ball at the bottom of a pot bunker. It is difficult to get out of a deep pot bunker, and it is even harder to get the ball up and down. A good percentage of your fortune in the pot bunker comes down to good old fashioned luck – sometimes you will have a good lie and a chance at a save, while other times you will be fortunate to get out at all. Use the information provided in this article to make smart decisions and hopefully you can minimize the damage that pot bunkers do to your scorecard during your next round.