How to Handle Different Lies in a Bunker, Golf Tip

Bunker shots aren't so tough when the ball is perched cleanly on nice, level sand.

Of course, there are often variables involved that require slight adjustments in technique. For instance, an uphill or downhill stance

First, let's review the method for playing a standard bunker shot from a flat lie:

• Stand slightly open to the target line (aiming left for a right-hander) and dig the feet an inch or two into the sand.

• Place the clubface square or slightly open (aiming right).

• Focus on a spot about two inches behind the ball.

• Make a smooth, accelerating swing, hitting the spot and sending the ball onto the green. Pretty simple, right? Here's how to adjust when the ball sits on an upslope:

Play the ball off your left heel, standing so that your knees, hips and shoulders are parallel to the sand. (In other words, don't lean into the hill.)

• Prepare for the ball to fly higher and land softer than from a flat lie, and make your normal bunker swing.

For the downhill bunker shot:

• Open the stance and clubface more than usual, with the ball positioned in the middle of your stance.

• Place your knees, hips and shoulders parallel to the sand.

• Prepare for the ball to fly lower and run farther than a typical bunker shot.

One of the many challenges golfers must face on the course is the many different lies which will come up over the duration of a round.

How to Handle Different Lies in a Bunker

Even on the nicest course, you are sure to draw a number of different lies as you make your way from the first hole to the last. While most of your lies in the fairway will be good ones (with some exceptions), things can really get dicey when you stray from the short grass. Specifically, you never really know what kind of lie you will find when your ball drops down into a bunker.

In this article, we are going to provide advice on how you can handle the different kinds of lies you will find in bunkers. Sand conditions can vary dramatically in the game, not only from course to course, but even from bunker to bunker on the same course. The type of sand used in the bunkers, the weather, the maintenance routine, and more can all play a role in the kinds of lies you wind up dealing with. If every lie in the bunker was a good one, playing from the sand actually wouldn't be that hard. That isn't the case, of course, so bunker shots will always remain a significant challenge for most golfers.

It should go without saying that avoiding bunkers is the best way to steer clear of bad lies in the sand. If your ball drops into a bunker, you are always going to run the risk of drawing a bad lie, and you may waste a stroke or two as a result. By keeping your ball on the grass, the bunker won't have a chance to punish you. Sure, it is still possible to wind up with a bad lie on the grass – especially if you are in the rough – but the grass is usually more predictable and consistent than the sand. As you plan each shot during your round, make sure to give bunkers the proper respect and do everything you can to stay away safely.

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

A Few Possibilities

A Few Possibilities

You never really know what to expect when you step into a bunker to look at the lie of your golf ball. Sometimes, it will be good news – in other cases, it will be ugly. Your fate is left up to the randomness of the game when you send your ball into the sand, so all you can do is hope for the best. With any luck, you'll draw a good lie more times than not.

To help you improve your ability to assess your lie in the sand, we have highlighted a few common types of bunker lies below.

A clean lie. Obviously, this is what you hope to find when you step down into a bunker. A clean lie can be classified as one where the ball is sitting up on top of the sand, with no sand built up around the edges. If you find a clean lie, you should have a variety of options at your disposal for playing the next shot. Of course, there are still other factors to consider – like the firmness of the sand, the slope of the lie, etc. – so you can't just see a clean lie and swing away. This is a good start, however, and it will improve your chances of getting out of the trap in a single swing.

  • Ball sitting down slightly. This is one of the most common types of lies that you will draw in a bunker. If the course you are playing has relatively soft sand, there is a good chance that the ball will be sitting down at least slightly. That means there is some sand up around the sides of the ball, and you are going to have trouble getting the club to the ball cleanly. If you are in a greenside bunker playing an explosion shot, this type of lie isn't that bad in most cases. You should still be able to get out (as long as the lip isn't too high), and you may even be able to get the ball close to the hole. However, if you are back in a fairway bunker with the ball sitting down, the news is less encouraging. Without the ability to put the club cleanly on the back of the ball, it is probably going to be necessary to layup.
  • Ball buried in the sand. As you guess, this is one of the worst possible outcomes. If the ball is buried deep down in the sand – to the point where you can only see the top of the ball from address – you are in big trouble. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to get the ball out of the bunker on the first shot. When the ball is buried particularly deep, your thinking should shift to simply finding a way to get the ball into a better position in the trap. Also, you need to be careful when playing this kind of shot, as the impact of slamming your club down deep into the sand can send vibrations up into your hands, wrists, and arms. You'll usually need an aggressive swing to gouge the ball out of a buried lie, but be careful and proceed with caution.
  • Ball up against the lip. Here, we aren't talking about the way the ball is sitting in the sand, but rather we are talking about the location of the ball within the bunker (which is still part of the overall 'lie'). If the ball is close up to the lip of the bunker, you are going to have trouble playing a normal shot. You might be able to make a decent swing, but your ball probably won't have a path to get out. And, even if you are able to get the ball out, it is unlikely that you'll be able to play directly at the hole. When you encounter this situation, consider all of your options and think first and foremost about just getting the ball out of the trap.
  • Ball on a severe slope. There is one last situation we want to address in this section, and it has to do with the ball resting on a steep slope. Often, this will occur in the back of a bunker, but it can happen anywhere around the bunker, depending on the design of the trap and the trajectory of your ball as it comes down. For example, you can find this circumstance when your ball rolls into a bunker and fails to get all the way down to the bottom. Then, you'll be stuck on the downslope, trying to play a shot that is high enough to carry the lip at the front of the trap. Even if you have a good lie in terms of how the ball is sitting on the sand, you are still going to struggle to produce a good result here.

We have listed five possible bunker lies above, but there are even more options on the board when your ball lands in a sand trap. As we stated earlier, you never really know what you are going to find in a bunker, so you have to be ready for just about anything. As you continue to gain experience on the links, you will see more and more of these lies, and you will get more comfortable with handling them properly.

Greenside Bunker Shots

Greenside Bunker Shots

At this point, we are going to divide the discussion between greenside bunker shots and fairway bunker shots. These two types of shots are quite different, so it doesn't make sense to talk about them together. We'll handle greenside bunker shots in this section, and the advice on fairway bunker shots will follow.

For most greenside bunker shots, you are going to be using what is known as an 'explosion' shot. That means you are going to put the club into the sand behind the ball, blasting the ball out toward the hole. You aren't even trying to make direct contact with the ball – you are using the club head to move the sand, and the sand will move the ball. This is an effective way to send the ball up onto the green and toward the hole. But only when you have the right kind of lie. If you have the wrong type of lie, an explosion shot will be difficult – or maybe even impossible.

The ideal situation for an explosion shot is a clean lie with plenty of fluffy sand under the ball. When you have this type of lie, you will be able to swing under the ball with ease, and there is plenty of sand available to help propel the ball out of the trap. With a little bit of practice, hitting an explosion shot from this type of lie actually becomes pretty easy. Professional golfers make this shot look routine, commonly stopping the ball within just a couple feet of the hole – if they don't knock it in. Amateur golfers tend to think of bunker shots as being difficult, but an explosion shot played from a great lie is not much of a challenge at all.

Of course, this story changes quickly when you get the wrong kind of lie for the shot at hand. If a fluffy lie with the ball sitting on top of the sand is the best case, the worst case is likely a bare lie with very little sand under the ball. In that case, you won't really be able to play the explosion shot, since there isn't the sand available to do the job. Or, if the sand is there, it is too tightly packed to help you out. Most of the time, when your ball is in a greenside bunker sitting on a bare lie, you'll be forced to basically chip the ball out. Chipping from the sand – in other words, making clean contact with the ball rather than hitting an explosion – is a tough task, but it is really your only choice when there isn't much sand to use.

The discussion above doesn't say anything about the position of the ball in the bunker, which we touched on earlier. Needless to say, you need to make sure that you are able to get the ball out of the bunker in whatever direction you decide to play. It would be ideal to play right at the hole, but that might not be possible. Be honest in your evaluation and pick a target line that lets you get out safely, even if that means playing away from the hole. Remember, while an up-and-down would be the ideal result, simply getting out of the trap on the first swing should be your main objective.