For players of all skill levels, the fairway bunker shot is a particularly daunting challenge.

Senior Fairway Bunker Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

It’s rarely easy to hit a long shot from the sand, as you need to make near-perfect contact with the ball in order to get it up out of the trap successfully. There are a variety of variables to consider on this type of shot, and you need your technique to be spot-on. In this article, we are going to offer some tips designed to help senior players perform better in this situation.

When you find yourself in a fairway bunker, you don’t need to expect perfection as you make your way out. In fact, the first goal is simply to get the ball out in a single stroke, even if you aren’t able to knock the ball up to the green. Many players attempt to pull off more of a shot than is realistic given the situation, and that usually leads to more trouble – and a big number at the end of the hole. So, not only do you need to have excellent technique when trying to play out of a fairway bunker, but you also need to make smart decisions. We’ll be sure to offer some advice later in the article on how to choose wisely when making a plan to escape a fairway sand trap.

While there are specific points that you need to keep in mind when making a swing in a fairway bunker, it’s also important to simply have good swing technique overall. If you are making fundamentally-sound swings all over the course, it will be far easier to step down into a bunker and strike the ball solidly. The time you spend working on your swing fundamentals on the driving range is not only going to pay off when you are on the grass, but it will pay off when you are in the sand, as well.

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.

Three Goals

Three Goals

When you walk down into a fairway bunker to play a shot, you need to know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. And no, saying that you want to ‘hit a good shot’ does not count as a goal. You need to be more specific than that, thinking carefully about what it is that will lead you to a positive outcome. It’s helpful to think this way all around the course, including when you are in the bunkers. The three points below are key goals that you should keep in mind for those pesky fairway sand shots that you encounter.

  • Make solid contact. This is a goal that you could apply to virtually every golf shot you hit, all day long. When you swing your club, you want to make solid contact at the moment of impact. Why is solid contact so important? It matters both in terms of distance and direction. When you strike the ball cleanly, you can expect that it will carry a distance that is fairway close to what you were planning on covering. Also, shots that are hit cleanly should do a pretty good job of flying toward the target. A clean strike is particularly important in the sand because even a slight mishit is going to be badly punished. Should you happen to hit the ball a bit heavy, the sand you grab before impact is going to rob you of significant speed and your shot is almost certainly going to come up short. Or, if you hit the ball thin, it’s going to come off the club very low, and may not exit the bunker at all. One of the biggest keys to success in fairway bunkers is to keep yourself focused on this basic fundamental.
  • Maintain your balance. Again, it isn’t exactly breaking news that balance is important in golf. When making a golf swing, you need to keep yourself as balanced as possible from start to finish. It’s harder to stay balanced in the sand than it is on the grass for a couple of reasons. First, sand can be slippery – depending on conditions – so you may find that one of your feet slips a bit at some point during the swing. Also, the bottom of a bunker is likely to be uneven, so you probably won’t have a platform of level ground on which to swing. Between those two issues, you may find that holding your balance during a fairway bunker swing can be a great challenge. The first thing to do if you want to improve your balance in the bunker is to swing a little softer. If you are trying to hit the ball as hard as you can when in the sand, it’s far more likely that your balance will be an issue. Stay within yourself from an effort perspective and your balance is likely to come around. Also, make sure to wiggle your feet down into the sand just a bit at address to reduce your chances of slipping.
  • Get the ball out. It would be great to hit a shot from a fairway bunker than settled just a few feet from the hole for a short putt. In reality, those kinds of shots aren’t going to happen very often. Fairway bunker shots are hard, so you should set your sights a little lower in most cases. On a basic level, your main goal when playing any kind of bunker shot – fairway or otherwise – is to just get the ball out of the sand. You don’t want to blow up your score all at one time by having to swing the club several times in order to get out of the trap. Make it a top priority to get out with that first swing and do what you can to limit the damage.

Focus can be hard to come by on the golf course, as it is easy to lose your direction and get distracted by a variety of factors. When you are in a bunker, it is helpful to have something that can focus your mind on the task at hand, and we hope the three points listed above will serve you well. Paying attention to the goals of making clean contact, maintaining your balance, and getting the ball out in one swing is a good start.

Technical Adjustments

Technical Adjustments

At this point, we are going to get down to the business of explaining the technical adjustments you should consider when hitting fairway bunker shots. As a senior golfer, you likely have a fair amount of experience in this game, and you are probably pretty comfortable with your swing. It may not work as you would like on a consistent basis, but you at least know what you are trying to do with the club. But do you know what you are trying to do in a fairway bunker? If not, this section should help.

  • Adjust your ball position. Perhaps the first thing to do from a technical perspective is to change the position of the ball in your stance. You might not be able to use the same ball position in the sand as you use on the grass, depending on the dynamics of your swing. If you are a golfer who usually hits down aggressively through impact and takes a big divot when on the grass, you’ll need to make some changes in the sand. That steep downswing is only going to cause you to take too much sand, leading to a loss of distance in the process. The average golfer will probably need to move the ball up in their stance just slightly in order to shallow out the bottom of the swing and clip the ball cleanly off the top of the sand. Unfortunately, we can’t really tell you exactly where to place the ball in your stance, as the precise spot you should use is going to vary based on the specifics of your technique. Do your best to spend some time practicing your fairway bunker shots so you can go through the trial and error necessary in order to find the right ball positions for you.
  • Flatten it out. Keeping with the theme of not taking too much sand at the bottom of the swing, you’ll want to work toward a relatively flat swing plane. While it isn’t necessary – or even possible – to totally rework your swing on the fly just to hit a bunker shot, you can slightly flatten out your plane in order clip the ball more effectively. If you decide to work toward a flatter swing plane, try standing farther from the ball, and also add a bit of flex to your knees. That is going to force you to swing flatter, and you should be less inclined to catch too much sand at impact. Once you have made the pre-swing adjustments of standing further from the ball and adding flex to your knees, you will want to make sure that you’re getting great shoulder rotation in order to prevent the club from getting too steep. A healthy shoulder turn will help you keep the club on the flat plane that you need, and suddenly your ball striking in fairway bunkers may take a big step forward.
  • Keep your lower body quiet. A good golf swing involved an aggressive turn of the lower body toward the target in the downswing. That works great on grass, but it might give you trouble in the sand. If you attempt to use your lower body the same way in the sand as you do on the grass, the chances of losing your footing will go way up. To stay securely in place while your swing, try lessening the role that your lower body plays in the swing. You still want to maintain knee flex and use your legs as a strong platform for your swing, but don’t use them so much for rotational power. This is another adjustment that is going to take some time to get used to, so be sure to practice it regularly.

The idea when you find yourself in a fairway bunker is not to totally change your swing. Instead, the idea is to make minor tweaks, so you can strike solid shots without taking a bunch of sand at impact. In addition to the three tips listed above, feel free to experiment and find your own adjustments that seem to lead you to the results you desire.

Making the Right Choice

Making the Right Choice

Successful golfers make good decisions all day long. Playing golf at a high level requires the player to make a series of smart decisions, such as choosing the proper club to use and selecting the right target. You need to make good swings, of course, but you also need to make wise choices.

When you are in a fairway bunker, the importance of your decisions is magnified. A bad decision in the bunker can lead to a big number, and big numbers are hard to recover from on the course. If you are going to avoid the kind of damage that a tough fairway bunker can inflict, it will be necessary to think your way through the shot before actually making a swing.

  • Margin for error. If at all possible, you should pick a club which is going to give you a little margin for error in terms of getting out of the trap. In other words, you shouldn’t need to hit a perfect shot in order for the ball to get high enough to get out of the bunker. If you think, for instance, that a six iron would be able to get out of the bunker, consider using no less than a seven iron to make it easier to escape cleanly. That may mean coming up a bit short of the target, but that’s a trade you should consider making. A shot that comes up short of the green might still leave you with an up and down save opportunity, but a shot that stays in the bunker could lead to a big number. Evaluate the terrain short of the green and decide if there is a good spot to land the ball that will position you for a comfortable chip or pitch.
  • Judge the lie. When your ball lands in a bunker, there is a decent chance that you are going to wind up with a poor lie. Or, even if the lie doesn’t fall into the ‘poor’ category, it might be a little less than perfect – which could be enough of a problem to impact your shot selection. The key point you’ll want to pay attention to is the situation behind the ball. If there is sand built up behind the ball, you aren’t going to be able to make clean contact, and you won’t get full distance out of the shot. As you assess the lie, be sure to make an honest decision, and not an optimistic one based on what you want to see. If the lie is a bad one, accept that reality and choose a shot that is going to be possible based on the lie. Amateur golfers often get into trouble as a result of not respecting the lie of the ball, whether in the sand or on the grass. The lie of the ball is a huge piece of the puzzle on each shot, so always give that variable sufficient respect.
  • Trust your instincts. There should always be room in golf for the gut feeling that you have about any given shot. Sometimes, you will just feel that a certain type of shot is going to be the best option in the situation – even if a logical breakdown of the shot might tell you otherwise. You need to feel confident as you swing the club, but that confidence is going to be hard to find if you aren’t totally convinced that you are doing the right thing. The best decision making on the golf course involves a blend of logical thinking based on the situation at hand and gut instinct based on what you do best and what you are feeling at the moment. It can take some time to develop your own brand of decision making in golf. Some players are more risk averse than others, so don’t force yourself to play one certain way – instead, go with what feels right and build your own playing style as time goes by.

It’s one thing to lose strokes on the course because you make a poor swing – that is going to happen from time to time, to golfers of all skill levels. It is another thing to lose strokes because you make a poor decision, as there is no reason such a mistake has to occur. Take your time when making choices on the course, thinking through your various options before settling on plan and getting down to work.

Staying Out of the Sand

Staying Out of the Sand

It’s great to have the skill to both make a great swing and make great decisions when you are in fairway bunkers. What’s even better is to avoid those bunkers in the first place. One of the goals of this game is to keep your ball in the short grass as often as possible off the tee. Playing from the fairway is generally much easier than playing from the rough or playing from the fairway bunkers. With that in mind, we’d like to finish this article by offering some quick tips on how you can avoid fairway bunkers more frequently.

  • Stay short. You aren’t going to get into a fairway bunker if you don’t use enough club off the tee to reach that bunker in the first place. This isn’t going to be a viable strategy in all situations – you don’t want to leave yourself an impossibly long approach shot, after all – but you can play short of fairway bunkers in many cases. Often, it will be better to hit one or two more clubs in for your approach as a trade for being able to stay away from the sand traps. This is a decision which can only be made on a hole-by-hole basis, so evaluate what is in front of you while standing on the tee and proceed in a manner that you feel comfortable with.
  • Turn away. If you are able to control the shape of your tee shots, at least to some degree, try turning the ball away from particularly daunting fairway bunkers. For instance, if there is a deep fairway bunker down the right side of the hole, play a draw so you can curve your shot away from that trouble spot. This obviously isn’t a guarantee that your ball will find the short grass, but it should improve your chances.
  • Understand the speed of the fairways. You need to take the speed of the fairways into account when deciding whether or not you can reach a given sand trap. Sure, you might not be able to carry the full distance to a fairway bunker, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach it eventually after the ball is done bouncing and rolling. Just like the speed of the greens, the speed of the fairways is a key piece of information to keep in mind as you play.

No golfer likes to face fairway bunker shots, but you can’t just hide from the challenges that this game presents. Instead of ignoring this part of the game and just hoping you can manage to hit a good shot when the situation arises, work on your skill in this area and commit yourself to developing the right technique. Also, think about your strategy when in fairway bunkers, and make sure you aren’t playing too risky in these situations. With any luck, you’ll avoid most of the fairway bunkers in your upcoming rounds, and the ones you do find will be dealt with successfully. Play well!