While you are on the grass portion of the golf course, you generally know what to expect from your lie.

Senior Greenside Bunker Lies Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

Sure, you can draw a variety of different types of lies, but you are probably used to most of them. You should have a nice clean lie when you are in the fairway, unless you are in a divot. In the rough, the ball will be a little harder to get to, depending on the depth and density of the grass. With some practice, you will get familiar with how to deal with shots from the rough, even if you never have as much control as you do from the fairway.

But what about when your ball ends up in a bunker? Leaving the grass and finding your way into the sand brings into play a whole new set of possible lies. Just like when on the grass, you need to get familiar with the various types of lies you can draw in the bunkers. The condition of the bunkers you face will vary from course to course, and even from day to day. While there are many different kinds of lies possible in the sand, you’ll wind up with one of a few options more times than not. In this article, we’ll discuss the various kinds of greenside bunker lies and how you can handle them successfully.

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.

Types of Greenside Bunker Lies

Senior Greenside Bunker Lies Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

As golfers, we like to be in control. When you keep the ball on the predictable parts of the course, you tend to get better results – and you have more fun in general. From the tee, you want to find the fairway, where you are likely to draw a good lie. On your approach shot, you want the find the putting surface, so you can roll your next shot toward the cup. The more you stray from the predictable parts of the course, the more difficult it becomes to record a good score.

Perhaps nowhere on the course is quite as unpredictable as the bunkers. When your ball drops out of the sky and lands in a fairway bunker, or runs into one after a few bounces, you never quite know what you are going to find. Sure, you might draw a good lie, but you may also be in a spot which is virtually impossible to escape. When you allow your ball to head into a bunker, you give up control over the situation and are simply let to hope for a good lie.

Since there are so many possibilities, we won’t be able to cover everything in this section. However, we’ll touch on a few of the most common lies that you will see in greenside bunkers. We will also briefly discuss how you should handle each of these kinds of situations, and we will also get further into the technique discussion later in the article.

  • A clean lie. This is obviously what you are hoping for when you see your ball drop into a bunker. If you draw a clean lie, you should have a good chance to escape the bunker in a single swing, and you might even be able to place the ball close to the hole for a makeable putt. What does a clean lie look like in the bunker? Basically, you want the ball to be sitting up on top of the sand in a relatively flat part of the trap. If your ball is sitting down with sand around its sides, or if you are on a steep side slope within the bunker, you’ll have a much harder time producing a good shot. When you do draw a good lie, you won’t have to worry much about factoring the lie of the ball into your planning. You will be able to play whatever type of bunker shot you feel is best for the situation, knowing the lie shouldn’t stand in your way.
  • A buried lie. When the ball buries itself down in the sand as it lands, you will face a difficult situation for your next shot. Typically, the ball will bury down in the sand when it comes in from a high trajectory while carrying a significant amount of backspin. That combination allows the ball to dig in without hopping out of its own mark. Playing approach shots into the wind is a particularly dangerous situation with regard to plugging the ball in a bunker, because the shot will be falling almost straight down when it runs out of steam. On those occasions when your ball is buried in the sand, your options will be limited. For the most part, all you will be able to do is swing hard with a steep downswing and hope to dig the ball out. With any luck, you’ll be able to at least get the ball out of the sand and back onto the grass somewhere. Unfortunately, if the lie is bad enough, you might not have a realistic chance to escape the bunker in a single swing. In that case, you might choose to go ahead with the shot, hoping to draw a better lie for your next stroke. Or, you may elect to declare your ball unplayable, following the appropriate procedures under the rules of golf for that situation.
  • A hardpan lie. This one is tricky. At first, you will look down into the bunker and think you have gotten lucky. The ball will be sitting on the top of the sand, so you’ll assume that you’ve drawn a good lie and you can go ahead and play whatever kind of shot you choose. However, once you walk down into the bunker, you’ll quickly realize the situation is not as good as it appeared at first. Instead, you will notice that the sand is packed down firmly, and there is little to no loose sand under the ball to use for your explosion shot. This is a difficult situation, as trying to use your normal greenside bunker technique is likely to lead to a thin shot and an ugly result. When you draw a hard-packed lie, you may be able to use your chipping technique to clip the ball cleanly and escape the trap. Or, if you happen to have a path out where there is a low lip on the bunker, you might even be able to putt your way out of the sand. If you know in advance that the bunkers on the course are hard-packed – either due to weather or just poor sand conditions – make an extra effort to stay away, as these kinds of bunkers make for extremely difficult up and downs.
  • Under the lip. The last type of bunker lie we will discuss here is the one where the ball comes to rest up under the lip of the bunker. You don’t need to be an experienced or accomplished golfer to know this is bad news. When your ball is all the way up under the lip, you will have only one option – try to blast it out and hope for the best (unless you decide to declare the ball unplayable). If you have enough space between the ball and the lip, you might be able to sneak it over and get it onto the grass. If not, you can hope that the ball will roll back down into the bunker, leaving you with better prospects for your next swing.

To be sure, there are more possibilities in the sand than the four we have listed above. As you continue to pick up experience on the course, you’ll find that you draw all kinds of different lies in the sand – some will be relatively easy to handle, and some will be downright impossible. That brings us back to an earlier point regarding control over the ball. When you venture down into the bunker, you give up a measure of control, so you have to be ready to deal with whatever comes your way.

Three Swing Options

Senior Greenside Bunker Lies Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

It should be obvious by now that you are going to need some different swing options to handle the many types of lies you can draw in a greenside bunker. After all, if there are so many different lies possible, it wouldn’t make sense to try dealing with them all with the same kind of swing. So, with that in mind, we’d like to discuss three basic types of greenside bunker techniques in this section. Mastering your bunker swing will take plenty of time and effort, but we hope the information below can help point you in the right direction.

  • The explosion shot. This shot will form the foundation of your greenside bunker game. When you draw a good lie, and there are no other extenuating circumstances to consider, you’ll almost certainly opt for an explosion shot. To play this kind of shot, you’ll need to open both your stance and the club face at address. The idea is to make a big swing which puts the clubhead into the sand at least an inch or two before it reaches the ball. You’ll actually be hitting the sand, and it will be the sand that propels the ball out of the trap. Put another way, you will be intentionally hitting these shots fat. As long as you have the face somewhat open, and you use plenty of speed, you should be able to splash the ball nicely out of the trap and up onto the green. For most golfers, the biggest challenge with this kind of shot is to keep the speed of the swing up all the way through the hitting area. You won’t be very far from the target when playing this kind of shot, yet you’ll need to make a big swing. That means you have to trust the fact that the sand will slow your club down sufficiently to leave you with a shot that travels the right distance. How do you build the trust needed to make a big swing from so close to the green? Simple – practice. The most explosion shots you hit in practice, the easier it will be to trust the swing you need to make out on the course.
  • Digging it out. Basically, this is a variation of the standard explosion shot, yet in this case you are going to go down deeper in the sand to get the ball out of a bad lie. When the ball is plugged in the sand and your normal explosion swing isn’t going to allow you to get under it properly, trying to dig it out may be your only option. You’ll still need a big swing, but some of the basics of your technique are going to need to change. For one thing, you will want to move the ball back in your stance a bit to create a steeper angle of attack. Also, keep the face square rather than rotating it open at address. With the face square, the leading edge of the club will be better able to cut through the sand, which is exactly what you need in this situation. Lastly, don’t worry about a follow through – plan on swinging the club down into the sand and using all of its energy to get down under the ball. You might wind up following through a little, or not at all, but don’t worry about that part of the swing.
  • A chip shot. In some situations, you will need to resort to a basic chipping technique even when in the bunker. This is often going to be the case when you draw a hard-packed lie in a bunker which doesn’t offer much sand below the ball. Since you won’t have enough sand to get under the ball and blast it out, you will need to make clean contact with the ball to chip or pitch it out of the trap and up onto the green. While you are probably comfortable with your chipping technique since you use it so often from round to round, you’ll still want to specifically practice chipping out of bunkers, since this shot presents its own challenges. You won’t be able to hit down as aggressively as you can when chipping from grass, and you can’t afford to hit the shot even slightly fat. Hold your head still and focus on making the best possible contact in order to get the ball safely out in a single swing.

The nature of greenside bunker shots is such that you will always need to be ready to ‘invent’ a swing on the fly. Depending on the lie you find yourself with, you might need to figure out a creative way to get the ball out of the bunker from time to time. Generally speaking, however, one of the three types of swings above is going to serve you well in most cases. Make it a point to work on these three shots regularly and you’ll suddenly feel more comfortable in the traps.

Strategy in the Bunkers

Senior Greenside Bunker Lies Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

Even armed with the right swings to deal with various bunker lies, you will still need to have the ability to make good decisions in the sand. The choices you make in a bunker are important because this is a situation that can get out of hand quickly if you don’t make the right choice. You don’t want your trip into the sand to turn into a big number on the scorecard, so opting for a relatively safe shot while still trying to get close to the hole is the line you will need to walk.

For starters, your strategy in a greenside bunker should be predicated on getting out in just one swing. You don’t want to be playing your next shot while still in the bunker, so plan the first shot with the goal of getting back onto the grass. Sometimes, you’ll be able to aim right at the hole, knowing it should be easy to escape the sand. On other occasions, it might be necessary to aim away from the hole to make sure you can get out. Often, it is a high lip on the bunker that will cause you to aim in another direction. Or, the lie may be such that you don’t feel like you can get out if you take an aggressive line. Take all of the variables into account when making your plan and go with the shot that gives you the most confidence in a positive outcome.

Another strategy element comes into play when you have a good lie in the sand and feel confident in your ability to hit a good shot. When faced with a relatively easy bunker shot, your thoughts should shift to what will be needed to complete your up and down save. You’ll need to hit a good bunker shot, of course, but you will also need to leave yourself with the easiest possible putt. Most of the time, that means putting the ball below the hole, so you can putt uphill. It’s easier to be aggressive with your putts when going uphill, so think about that fact when planning your bunker shot. If you can blast the ball out just on the low side of the hole, you’ll have a great chance to roll your putt in and finish off a great up and down.

Getting Ready

Senior Greenside Bunker Lies Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

Hitting a greenside bunker shot is just like hitting any other shot during a round of golf in that you will need to have a process in place that you follow time after time. First, you will evaluate the lie and make a plan for how you are going to get out of the trap. What line are you going to use? Where would you like to land the ball? What kind of swing will be required to hit the shot you have in mind? Once all of those questions are answered, you will then be able to get down to work on actually hitting the shot.

When the time comes to play the shot, step up to the ball and wiggle your feet slightly in the sand to create a stable stance. The top layer of the sand can be slippery, and you don’t want to slip while making the swing, so wiggling down just a bit is a good idea. With your stance set, it’s a good idea to look down at the sand behind the ball and determine exactly where you would like the club to enter the bunker (when playing a standard explosion shot). Since you aren’t trying to hit the ball directly, as you would usually do on the grass, it’s important to look at a spot in the sand behind the ball to focus your swing.

As the last step before making a swing, look up at the green and focus on your landing spot. Visualize how the ball is going to look flying through the air and landing precisely where you would like it to land before bouncing and rolling to the hole. Once you’ve taken one final look at your landing spot, look back down at the spot in the sand where you want the club to enter, and make your swing. With all the planning done, there is no point in second guessing yourself now, so pull together as much confidence as you can find and do your best.

It’s never fun to look down into a bunker and see your ball sitting in a nasty lie. And, even when you look down and see a good lie, you still know you are in for a challenge in order to escape successfully and save a par. We hope the information in this article will help you have a positive attitude about your greenside bunker shots. With the right knowledge and plenty of preparation, bunker play doesn’t have to be a weakness in your game. Good luck!