Hitting a shot into a bunker is bad enough. It's doubly frustrating when you find yourself in a position from which it's impossible to advance the ball toward the target. It's important to know how to recognize these situations in order to minimize the damage.“Taking your medicine,” as they say, is never fun. But it can be a huge stroke saver at day's end, preventing you from racking up those big, score-wrecking numbers. It's possible to spend two, three or more strokes in a bunker if you get greedy and try to do too much when faced with a tough situation.
Here are some prime examples of positions where your best play is toward the nearest safe spot – often sideways, sometimes backward -- rather than the target itself. Remember, the primary goal is escaping the sand:

when to take your medicine in the bunker

  • Your ball is close to a very high lip: This happens in both fairway and greenside bunkers. If you're uncertain whether you can get the ball up quickly enough to carry over the lip, your best bet is to avoid it altogether. Look for a lower edge, with safety lying on the other side, and play in that direction.
  • You've got a downhill stance and a long carry: Playing downhill produces a lower shot, so if there's a significant stretch of sand to cover between you and the flag, consider a shorter alternate route.
  • The landing area is extremely narrow from front to back: Let's say you're in a greenside bunker with a good lie and a low lip in front of you. But there's very little room to stop the ball once it hits the green, which could be running downhill, away from you, and be very firm and fast. Rather than trying the hero shot, find a wider spot and aim there. Who knows, you might just hole a long putt.

You've found a bad lie, such as a “fried egg”: A ball that's buried or sitting in the middle of its own crater (a “fried egg”) can be tough to extract and even harder to stop. You'll need plenty of room beyond the bunker, so find a route that provides space for the ball to run out.

It's a sinking feeling when you see your ball drop into a bunker.

When to Take Your Medicine in a Bunker

It doesn't matter if that bunker is located up near the green or back in the fairway, you never want to see your ball miss the grass and wind up in the sand. As you probably know from experience, you never really can be sure what to expect in a bunker. Sometimes, you'll be fortunate enough to draw a good lie with a clear path to the hole. On other occasions, you will be in a tough spot, and simply getting out in a single stroke could take serious effort. There are a lot of variables in play when you enter a bunker, and few of them work in your favor.

In this article, we are going to talk about how you know when the time is right to just 'take your medicine' in a bunker. What does that mean? Basically, we are talking about playing the safest possible shot to get out of the trap in as few strokes as possible. When you 'take your medicine', you are essentially forgetting about the target itself and instead you are just trying to get back on the grass. This is never a fun decision to make, as it usually results in a wasted stroke or two, but you are really just trying to minimize the damage at this point. Your score can get out of hand in a hurry when you make a poor decision in a bunker, so it is important that you learn how to avoid such decisions.

Of course, it should go without saying that one of the best things you can do for your bunker game is simply to avoid as many bunkers as possible. While planning any given shot, be sure to give the bunkers on the course the respect they deserve. A bunker might not look as intimidating as a water hazard, but it can actually be just as punishing. When you know there is a bunker in play on a given shot, do your best to pick a target that keeps your ball safely out of trouble. You are still going to find a bunker from time to time, but smart planning can reduce the percentage of your shots played from the sand.

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.

Warning Signs

Warning Signs

It shouldn't take long to realize that you are in some trouble when you wind up in a bad spot in a bunker. In fact, you probably won't even need to step down into the sand before you know something is wrong. As soon as you spot your ball while staying out on the grass, you will notice that you are in a tough spot, and the shot at hand is not going to be a typical bunker shot. It is important to assess the situation as accurately as possible right away, as you need to start crafting a plan to get out of the bunker in (hopefully) a single shot.

So, what kind of warning signs should you be watching for when you evaluate your lie in a bunker? The following points are a great place to start.

  • Ball up against the side of the bunker. This is an obvious problem. When your ball is resting up against the side of a steep bunker, you may not have any chance at all to get the ball out in one swing. Or, if you do have an opportunity to get out in one stroke, it is going to require perfect execution. There are a couple of problems you can face when your ball is near the side of a bunker. For one thing, you might not have a path for the ball to travel safely out of the sand and back onto the grass. And, if you do have such a path available, you might not be able to take it due to the way the side of the bunker will interfere with your swing. Rarely, you will get the right combination of a free swing and a path out of the trap to escape this situation, but that will be the exception rather than the rule. As soon as you see that your ball is up near the side of the trap, you will want to start thinking about how you can minimize the damage.
  • A terrible lie. You aren't always going to draw a good lie when your ball winds up in the sand – that is just the nature of the game. If you have a bad lie in the sand, such as your ball coming to rest in an old footprint, you may not be able to hit much of a shot with your first swing. It is essential to get under the ball when you hit a standard bunker shot, but doing so when your lie is lousy just might not be possible. And, even if getting under the ball isn't too much of a problem, you may struggle to create enough power to get the ball all the way out of the trap. Drawing a good lie in a bunker comes down to nothing more than luck, so you always need to hope that fortune is on your side when a shot strays into the sand.
  • A difficult distance. This one is subtler than the first two, but it can still be a problem. For example, if you wind up in a bunker that leaves you 50 yards to the hole, hitting the shot successfully onto the green will be a serious challenge. Even a highly-skilled golfer is going to have trouble with this kind of shot. In some cases, you will be better off simply taking your medicine and playing to a better position, rather than trying to take on the whole distance in a single swing. These kinds of awkward bunker shots can go badly wrong, and you can waste a significant number of strokes when that happens. It will be tough to decide to take your medicine when the only thing making a bunker shot difficult is the distance you are facing, but it might be best to play it safe on some occasions.

Frequently, you will be dealing with more than one complicating factor when you wind up deciding to take your medicine in the sand. For example, you might find that your ball is up against the edge of the bunker, and you also have drawn a bad lie. Or, it may be that you have a difficult lie and a distance to the hole of 30 – 40 yards. Whatever the case, you will want to factor everything into the equation before deciding how to move forward.

Weighing Possible Outcomes

Weighing Possible Outcomes

In this section, we are going to talk about how to think about the decisions you are trying to make when in a bunker. What kind of shot are you going to play? Will you go directly for the target, or are you just going to play it safe? Not only do you have to think about these kinds of questions while playing from the sand, but you actually need to deal with them on many different shots during a round. There are countless choices to make each time you hit the links, and the quality of your decisions will go a long way toward determining your score.

The concept of risk and reward is a big one in the game of golf. When making any decision on an upcoming shot, you need to weigh the risks against the rewards. Without taking this step, you really can't come to a logical conclusion with regard to how you should proceed. Both sides of the equation are important, so never think about one without thinking about the other.

Let's walk through a quick bunker-related example to highlight how you should think about risk and reward in golf. Imagine for a moment that you have hit your ball into a bunker. This bunker is not quite a greenside bunker, but it isn't way back in the fairway, either. It is found at that awkward distance that golfers would prefer to avoid. When you reach your ball, you find that the distance to the hole is precisely 50 yards. As any experienced golfer knows, hitting a bunker shot 50 yards is no easy feat. In fact, it could be argued that this is one of the most difficult shots in the game. On the plus side, you have a good lie in the bunker and the lip of the trap is not going to be a factor.

So, what do you do? Do you go for the green, knowing that this is an extremely difficult shot? Or, do you just lay up, playing it safe into the fairway so you can pitch your next shot onto the green? To this point, we haven't given you enough information to make this decision properly. In order to weigh the relevant risk and reward factors, you need to know more about the surrounding terrain. What other obstacles or issues do you have to deal with? It's the other factors in play that will wind up making your decision for you.

If, for example, there is a big pond between your ball and the hole, laying up short of the water is a smart play. It would be quite easy to come up short and leave your ball in the drink if you attempted to go for the green. On the other hand, if there is nothing but fairway-length grass between you and the target, there really isn't a reason to lay up. Even if you don't hit the shot perfectly and you come up short, you will be in the same situation as if you had laid up intentionally. It is the added risk of the water that changes the whole equation.

Whenever you are getting ready to play a tough bunker shot, be sure to think about both risk and reward. Think about the strokes you could save if you pull off a great shot and think about the strokes you could lose if you make a mistake. Most of the time, it will be pretty obvious as to which direction you should go with the shot. Hopefully, as you improve at the skill of using risk and reward to help you make decisions, you will be able to transfer this line of thinking over to other parts of your game.

The Right Way to Play It Safe

The Right Way to Play It Safe

For the purposes of this section, we are going to assume that you have decided to 'take your medicine' and play a particular bunker shot as safe as possible. In other words, you have given up on the idea of going for the target, and instead you are thinking about nothing more than avoid a big mistake. You are trying to get through this hole without wasting so many strokes that the rest of your round is ruined.

As you might expect, even playing it safe in this kind of situation is not always easy. Once you've decided to opt for the safe route, keep the following points in mind to give yourself a better chance at a positive outcome.

  • Just get it out. Once you've decided that going for the target is not a realistic possibility, your main priority for the shot becomes simply getting out in one swing. You want to get the ball out of the sand and back onto the grass. Of course, you'd prefer to find a good lie on some short grass – more on that in a minute – but you need to at least get out of the trap (if possible). To put the odds in your favor, don't do anything that will unnecessarily make the shot harder. Your goal when planning this kind of shot is to make it as easy as possible. Pick the safest line you can find out of the trap and give yourself maximum margin for error. We aren't saying that you will always be able to make this kind of shot easy, but you should strive to make it as easy as you can.
  • Commit. You shouldn't decide to take your medicine while still thinking in the back of your mind about going for the target. If you aren't 100% committed to the shot that you have decided to play, take another moment and think things over again. Golf is a hard enough game as it is – you don't need to make it harder by failing to commit yourself to a certain shot. Try to separate your pre-shot process into two distinct sections. First, you are going to figure out which type of shot makes the most sense given all of the information you have available. Then, once you have made that decision, you move on to executing the shot you have selected. There should not be a blurry line between these two phases. Complete the first, then move on to the second. You'll be far more successful in golf – both in the bunkers and on the grass – when you fully commit to each shot you play.
  • Think one shot ahead. When you are taking your medicine by playing it safe out of a bunker, you are really planning for the next shot. You've acknowledged that you aren't going to be able to play the shot you would like with this current swing, since you are in such a tough spot. That means you'll want to give yourself the best possible chance to play a great shot with your next stroke, hopefully when you are back on the grass. To shift the odds in your favor, think about that upcoming shot and do your best to put your ball in a favorable position. Try to place the ball on a flat, fairway lie, with a comfortable distance remaining to the hole. Remember, getting as close to the hole as possible is not always the best way to go. If you can leave yourself a comfortable yardage for the next swing, your odds of success will go up.

Just because you are taking the easiest possible path out of the bunker does not mean this is going to be an easy shot. In fact, this will very often remain quite a difficult shot, even when you are just playing out into the fairway. You should never take any golf shots for granted, and you especially shouldn't take a shot for granted when you are in the sand. Focus your mind on the task at hand, commit to the shot you've chosen to play, and make a great swing.

Getting Creative

Getting Creative

Creativity is an underrated skill in golf. While many players just go around the course playing 'by the book', there is plenty of room in this game to let your creative juices flow. As long as you stay within the rules of the game, there are countless paths you can decide to take from tee to green. Not only can being creative help you to lower your scores, it can also help you have more fun on the course.

Before we wrap up our talk on taking your medicine in bunkers, we wanted to highlight a couple of ways in which creativity might help you get the ball out of the sand. These tips are primarily designed for use when you really don't have any other options. You don't think you can get the ball out of the sand with conventional methods, and you are at a loss for how to proceed. Of course, the tips listed below are not going to work in all situations, so keep them somewhere in the back of your mind and only pull them out when the time is right.

  • Putt your way out. Admittedly, this is not going to work very often. Most of the time, your putter will be completely useless in the bunker, and you won't even think about taking it from your bag. However, on a rare occasion, it just might be your ticket out of the sand. If you are in a bunker with hard-packed sand, it may be easier to putt the ball out rather than trying to dig your wedge under the ball. Of course, this is only going to work if the bunker has a low lip which will let the ball pop up out of the bunker and onto the grass. You may only find an opportunity to use this kind of shot once or twice during an entire golf season – if that – but it could save you a valuable stroke or two when the situation comes up.
  • The bank shot. This is another one that won't be used very often. With that said, it can work given the right set of circumstances. The idea is relatively simple – you are going to play a low shot into one of the sides of the bunker, with the plan of bouncing the ball off of the bunker wall and up onto the grass. The key here is to have the right angle to play the shot, and the right lie as well. You will need to have a relatively firm lie on the sand, so you can pitch a low shot into the side of the trap with plenty of speed. Then, you'll need to judge the bounce correctly to get the ball out. This should obviously be left as a last-ditch idea, as your success rate is sure to be pretty low.

Taking your medicine when your ball comes to rest in a bunker is not fun or exciting. No one would consider this to be their favorite part of the game of golf. With that said, playing it safe is often the right decision. When the time comes to play a smart shot and protect against making a big number, we hope the advice in this article will help. Good luck!