How do you feel when you step down into the sand to play a greenside bunker shot?

Senior Greenside Bunker Distance Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro

Are you confident that you’ll be able to splash the ball out of the trap and up onto the green nicely? Or are you worried that you might not get your shot out of the sand at all? Many amateur golfers lack confidence in greenside bunkers, but this kind of shot isn’t actually as difficult as you may believe. In this article, we are going to offer some tips on one specific part of your greenside bunker play – distance control.

When you think about it, it makes sense to focus on distance control as your main objective on a greenside bunker shot. After all, it’s pretty easy to hit the ball on the correct line when playing out of a greenside trap. Since you are standing only a few yards from the green in most cases, there isn’t much distance for the ball to fly and stray off line. So, without much to worry about in the way of aim, you’ll want to focus your attention on learning how to control the distance of these shots. Most golfers would agree that controlling your distance from the bunkers is a bit harder than accomplishing the same feat from the grass, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With some practice and the right technique, you can become quite reliable when blasting out of 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.

A Number of Variables

A Number of Variables

For every greenside bunker shot you face, one of your biggest challenges will be sorting through the numerous variables at play each time. Every shot is a little bit different, which means you have to take a moment each time you step into a bunker to evaluate the situation before making a swing. As you gain experience, you’ll get better and better at figuring out how to read the situation and hit the ball the proper distance.

So, what are the variables that you need to consider? The list below is a great place to start.

  • Condition of the sand. This is where it all starts. The condition of the sand you find in bunkers can vary wildly from course to course – and even from day to day on the same course. Among the many factors that can influence how the sand plays include weather (rain tends to pack the sand down), maintenance practices, the type of sand used, and more. While the best way to learn how the ball is going to react in difficult types of sand conditions is to gain experience, you can operate by one general rule of thumb. Typically, the ball is going to come out faster from firm sand than it will from soft sand. So, when your ball is sitting on relatively hardpacked sand, you should anticipate that the shot will come out quickly somewhat low. It’s easier to hit the ball higher in the air when the sand is softer, but the shot usually won’t come out with very much speed. Again, it’s going to be important to gain experience to learn how to adjust for these conditions, but that general rule of thumb can help you get started.
  • Slope of the ground. One of the variables that is easy to overlook when playing from a greenside bunker is the slope of the ground beneath your feet. You probably take this into careful consideration when playing a shot from the grass, but it’s just as important when in a bunker. If the ground is sloping up toward the hole, as is often the case when near the front of a bunker, the shot should be expected to come out high and land softly. Conversely, if you are in the back of the bunker and the ground is sloped down toward the hole, you will probably get a low shot with plenty of run. In fact, if the slope is steep enough, you might struggle to get the ball high enough to escape the bunker at all. As you practice your bunker shots, remember to pay attention to the slope of the ground and place yourself in as many different situations as possible. With practice, you’ll get a better feel for how the slope of the ground impacts what kind of shot you can hit.
  • Speed of the greens. For the first part of your bunker shot, the ball is going to fly through the air toward the target. At some point, however, it is going to come down, and the rest of the shot will take place on the ground. Assuming your shot has landed on the green, you will need to account for the speed of the greens as you attempt to calculate how far the shot is going to travel before coming to rest. Obviously, playing a bunker shot to a fast green means you should expect the ball to roll out further than it would on a slow green.
  • Wind. Believe it or not, the wind can actually play a notable role in how far your greenside bunker shots will travel. That might be surprising for such a short shot, as you usually wouldn’t figure the wind into your equation when hitting a short chip or pitch. Out of the bunker, however, you’ll likely notice that some wind conditions can be rather impactful – especially when playing directly into the wind. If you hit a bunker shot straight into a strong breeze, expect the ball to ‘stand up’ a bit in the air and stop quickly when it lands. Going in the opposite direction, a shot you play downwind may fly flatter and have a little more roll out. The impact of the wind on your greenside bunker shots usually won’t be as significant as the role that the condition of the sand plays, but it is still something to keep in mind.

Hitting bunker shots the proper distance is not an easy task, in large part because of the sheer number of variables involved. The list above is a good start, and you’ll probably encounter even more variables when actually out on the course. Don’t let this challenge overwhelm you – instead, rise to the challenge and commit yourself to improving consistently as time goes by. A little bit at a time, you can get better and better and blasting the ball out of the sand with just the right speed and trajectory to settle the shot near the hole.

An Imperfect Science

An Imperfect Science

Golfers like to have as much control as possible while on the links. This is why golfers tend to love perfectly smooth greens – they don’t have to worry about an unexpected bump sending the ball off line. As long as you make a good stroke, and get a good read, the ball should fall into the bottom of the cup. While it’s possible to have quite a bit of control on the greens when the surface is smooth, you aren’t going to find nearly as much control when you step down into the sand.

The result of those many variables we listed in the previous section is that you aren’t going to have as much control as you would like on bunker shots. This is why bunkers are seen as a hazard – they present a challenge that can be difficult to overcome, even if you execute properly. You won’t be able to control the kind of lie you draw in the sand, for one thing, and the reality of blasting the ball out using an explosion shot is that some shots will come out quicker than others.

So, it’s important to know that you’ll never be perfect in terms of controlling the distance of your bunker shots. But how does that help you on the course? Simple – it should encourage you to pick smart targets for each greenside bunker shot. Knowing that you can’t control the ball with the same degree of precision that you can from the grass, you’d be wise to pick safer, more conservative targets. Giving yourself some margin for error is important, just in case the ball goes a little farther or shorter than expected.

A perfect example of this line of thinking can be seen when playing a greenside bunker shot from a short-sided position. If you only have a short distance between the bunker and the hole, meaning you need to stop the ball quickly, you might be tempted to land the ball just inches over the edge of the bunker. If you pull it off, the ball will have as much room as possible to bounce and roll before it stops, and you might get up and down as a result. But what if the ball comes out a bit soft and doesn’t carry over the lip? You’ll be forced to play another shot from the sand, and you might wind up taking a big number as a result.

In this kind of situation, the best plan is usually to build in some margin for error in your shot planning. So, instead of trying to carry the ball just over the lip, you’ll aim for a spot at least a couple of feet further. That means a shot that comes out softly may still get out of the trap, helping you to avoid that dreaded big number. Sure, a shot that flies a bit farther might leave you with a longer putt coming back, but at least you’ll have a chance to make your putt to save the up and down.

It’s great to build confidence in your greenside bunker game, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are fully in control. Playing from the sand introduces variables that don’t exist when hitting a shot from a clean lie on the grass. Be sure to practice your bunker game to gradually build your skills, but continue to pick smart targets even as your skills grow, just to avoid making the kinds of mistakes that can ruin your score for the day.

Some Practice Tips

Some Practice Tips

Progress in golf rarely, if ever, comes without practice. You are going to need to work on your game in order to get better, and that is certainly true with bunker shots. If you never spend any time in the sand during practice, how can you expect to perform well on the course? It’s only when you are prepared that you can expect to come away with the results you desire.

If you feel a bit lost when you head into the bunker to work on this part of your game, we hope the tips below will help.

  • As many lies as possible. One of the worst things you can do for your bunker game – other than not practicing it at all – is to only practice the same kind of bunker shot over and over again. Often, this means placing the ball in a perfect lie down in the middle of the bunker and flopping it out onto the green. There is nothing wrong with practicing that kind of shot, but you’ll only draw such a good lie from time to time. You also need to be practicing from a variety of other positions, such as downslopes and upslopes, buried lies, hardpacked lies, etc. Do your best to incorporate variety into each practice session so you are better prepared for whatever comes your way on the course.
  • Use your actual golf balls. If at all possible, use your regular golf balls when practicing bunker shots, instead of range balls. This is a big deal because a range ball is not going to react the same way as a regular golf ball when it lands on the green. Range balls are built for durability rather than performance, meaning they don’t spin the same as the kind of ball you would actually play during a round. Of course, regular golf balls are expensive, and you don’t want to beat up a new sleeve of balls by tossing them down into a practice bunker. The best plan here is to keep some of your used balls to use for practice purposes. Once a golf ball gets a few scuffs and is no longer suited for use on the course, don’t throw it out – just demote it to practice duty. It might not be pretty anymore, but it will still work just fine for the purposes of preparing your short game skills. You might want to use a small pocket on your golf bag specifically for storage of practice balls.
  • Pay attention to landing spot. To learn how to control the distance of your bunker shots, you will need to master the ability to hit your desired landing spot as often as possible. As mentioned earlier, you won’t be perfect in this regard, but you can improve significantly with some practice. Before each practice shot, identify a specific spot on the green where you want the ball to land, and then do your best to hit that spot. If you hit the spot, and have judged the spin and roll correctly, the ball should end up near to the hole when all is said and done.
  • Learn two different shots. Sometimes, you’ll want the ball to spin aggressively out of the bunker, so it can stop quickly after it lands. On other occasions, you’ll want less spin, so the ball can run out, such as when the hole is cut all the way on the other side of the green. Of course, if you are going to be able to hit both of these kinds of shots reliably, you’ll need to practice them. The way you manage spin out of a greenside bunker is by altering how close to the ball you allow the club to get when it enters the sand. The closer you are to the ball, the more spin you are likely to produce, while putting the club into the sand further back will lead to less spin and more roll. It takes some advanced skill to manage your spin on command, so plenty of practice time is going to be required if you are going to make progress on this part of the game.

Don’t stress too much about putting together a detailed practice plan for working on your bunker game. Simply stepping into a practice bunker and hitting a few shots is a good start and following the tips above will help you get even more out of your time.

Staying Away from Greenside Bunkers

Staying Away from Greenside Bunkers

All this talk about hitting the ball the right distance out of greenside bunkers should be helpful, but it’s better to just stay out of such bunkers entirely. When possible, keep your ball on the grass instead of down in the sand, and you will be better off as a result.

As you might be aware, keeping your ball out of the bunkers is easier said than done. Sand traps are strategically placed to add difficulty to the hole, so you might not need to hit a particularly bad shot to wind up in the sand. This is why strategy is so important. Good decision making won’t allow you to avoid bunkers each and every time, but it should help you limit the number of greenside traps you find.

The first rule of thumb to keep in mind here is that you want to use enough club to easily carry the bunker, when at all possible. If you pick a club that is only going to carry the bunker by a couple of yards when hit perfectly, and minor miss-hit is going to cause the ball to fall short and into the trap. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. As you get ready to hit a shot that will need to avoid a greenside bunker, be realistic about your distances and choose a club that gives you some margin for error. You might be amazed to find how much your game can improve just thanks to something as simple as smarter club selection.

Another useful piece of strategy is to teach yourself to ignore the hole location when it brings your target too close to a bunker – especially if that bunker is particularly deep or otherwise troublesome. There is no rule that says you have to aim your approach shots directly at the flag, yet some golfers seem to do so hole after hole. Sure, you’ll want to aim right at the hole on some of your approach shots, but sometimes the best plan of action is to play to the safe part of the green and trust your putter to do the rest of the work.

There is one more thing to think about here, and that is the type of shot you are hitting into the green. If you are hitting a high wedge shot, especially one that is flying into the wind, you need to be extra careful to avoid bunkers because the ball is so likely to plug. This kind of shot will be coming nearly straight down when it lands, so the likelihood of the ball plugging is increased. On the other hand, a long iron approach shot is a bit less likely to plug, so your odds of drawing a good lie may be improved a bit (although there are never any guarantees when your ball drops into the sand).

Controlling the distance of your bunker shots can be a challenge, but just like anything else in this game, you can improve with hard work and attention to detail. While you’d probably rather avoid greenside bunker shots altogether, they are sure to come up from time to time, so you better be prepared. With a little bit of work, you might be surprised how confident you feel the next time you face this situation during a round. Good luck!