One of the many skills you need to possess as a golfer is the ability to splash the ball successfully out of greenside bunkers.

Senior Greenside Bunker Setup Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

Even if you carefully plan your approach shots to avoid as many bunkers as possible, you are inevitably going to wind up in the sand from time to time. As is always the case in golf, the way you set up for your bunker shots is going to say a lot about the kinds of shots you produce. In this article, we’ll provide some tips that seniors golfers (and golfers of all ages, in fact) can use to improve their bunker performance.

If you have any level of experience at all on the links, you will already know that there are many different kinds of lies you can draw in the bunker. This is what makes building a good stance so challenging – your stance has to be flexible enough to adapt to the situation at hand for each shot. To be properly prepared for the greenside bunker challenges you will face, you need to know how to build a ‘standard’ stance for basic shots, and also how to alter that stance to deal with awkward lies. It’s great to start with a reliable standard bunker shot stance, but you’ll only reach your potential if you are able to adapt as the need arises.

Before we get into the instructional portion of this article, we want to make one important point that many golfers seem to miss – you need to practice your bunker shots! For some reason, this part of the game is overlooked by many players during practice, and the results on the course are predictable. If you hope to get better, you’ll have to practice. Find a golf facility near you that offers a practice bunker and spend some quality time working on both your stance and your swing. Investing this practice time now is going to pay off later when you face tough bunker shots on the course.

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.

The Basics of Greenside Bunker Shots

The Basics of Greenside Bunker Shots

Before we can get into the details of how you should stand in a greenside bunker, it’s first important to talk about how greenside bunker shots are played. These types of shots are an anomaly in the world of golf, as they are played differently than pretty much every other type of shot you will encounter.

So, what is it about a bunker shot that makes it so strange as compared to the shots you play off of grass? Let’s take a look –

  • You want to miss the ball. That’s right – when hitting a typical greenside bunker shot, you actually want to miss the ball as you swing through the sand. Rather than directing the clubhead into the back of the ball, as you would do on a typical golf shot, you are going to attempt to swing under the ball. By swinging under the ball, you allow the sand to carry the shot softly up out of the bunker and (hopefully) onto the green. Many golfers refer to this as an explosion shot because of the way the sand is blasted out of the bunker when you swing down. You won’t play all bunker shots this way – fairway bunker shots, for example, are played more like a regular shot from the grass – but it’s important to know that explosion shots involve swinging under the ball.
  • You need to make a big swing for a short shot. Generally, in golf, your swing gets smaller and smaller as you get closer to the hole. On the tee with your driver, you make a big swing and try to hit the ball as far down the fairway as possible. In the fairway, you also make a big swing, although it is a little smaller since your irons are shorter than your driver. Then, when chipping and putting, you make very small swings designed to only send the ball a short distance. That all makes sense, of course, since shorter shots generally require less swing speed to get the job done. But what about greenside bunker shots? Despite the fact that you are quite close to the hole, you will still need to make a big swing. The reason that greenside bunker shots break the mold in this way comes down to the resistance that is offered by the sand when you swing down. The sand is going to rob you of much of the speed that you build in the swing, so you need to start with plenty of extra power in order to be successful. Were you to swing down with a soft swing, you’d lose almost all of your swing speed as the club entered the sand, and the ball probably wouldn’t get out of the bunker. It’s going to take some time and practice to develop trust in this method, but you’ll come to find that the best greenside bunker shots tend to be played with big swings.
  • You want to swing across the ball from outside-in. Most of the time, the goal is to swing directly down the target line, or at least as close to that line as you can get. When you swing straight down the line, you’ll have a good chance of hitting your target, as long as the club face position is correct. With a bunker shot, yet again, the story is different. Since you are only hitting a short shot, and since you aren’t going to make contact with the ball, you don’t have to worry much about your swing path. In fact, you’ll typically be better off swinging across the ball from outside-in, as this is going to make it easier to get the ball up into the air quickly. Swinging across the ball with an open club face is a great way to get loft on your shots and lofting the ball high in the air will help you get out of even the deepest sand traps.

As you can plainly see, hitting greenside bunker shots is not like anything else you will encounter in golf. With the possible exception of blasting the ball out of a deep lie in some greenside rough – a topic for another article – the technique you use in the sand is only useful in this specific situation. And yet you have no choice but to develop your skills in this area, at least if you wish to reach your goals as a golfer. You will inevitably find at least a few greenside bunkers as the rounds add up, so you need to know how to get out successfully.

Getting into Position

Getting into Position

From the discussion above, you probably have some idea already of what you are going to need to do in order to hit a good bunker shot. Before we get ahead of ourselves and put the club in motion, however, it’s important to talk about the way you are going to stand next to the ball. This subject is the main focus of our article, and it is an important one – many players, seniors and younger golfers alike, fail to build a good stance before hitting a bunker shot. Without the right foundation, this type of shot goes from tricky to downright tough. Don’t make bunker shots any harder than they need to be – take time to build a good stance now and let it pay off for you for years to come.

As you practice your greenside bunker stance, do your best to incorporate the points listed below.

  • Stand open to the target line. This is a key point, as it is going to make it much easier to swing across the ball as described in the previous section. If you were to keep your stance square to the line, you’d have to make an awkward move to cut across the ball at the bottom of the swing. Go ahead and take your stance with your right foot significantly closer to the target line than your left and set your shoulders to match your feet. This position might feel a bit awkward at first, however it is going to serve you well if you stick with it long enough to get comfortable. In addition to the benefit of making it easier to swing across the ball, standing with your feet open to the line will help you get a clear view of the target at address.
  • Ample knee flex. Sufficiently flexing your knees to get down to the ball is one of the keys of good bunker play. Think about it this way – with your normal stance, you are trying to hit the back of the ball, so you flex your knees a certain amount before the swing begins. In this case, however, you are trying to swing below the ball – so it only stands to reason that adding knee flex is the way to go. Flexing your knees significantly is going to take your whole body down closer to the sand, and you should have an easier time swinging under the ball as a result. Of course, some players will have physical limitations when it comes to knee flex, so do your best and find a position that is comfortable and makes it easy for you to hit the desired shot.
  • Give yourself space. You don’t want to get caught standing too close to the ball when hitting a greenside bunker shot. When hitting a chip from the grass, it’s okay to stand close to the ball, since you will be making a pretty small swing. On bunker shots, however, you need a bigger swing – which means you need more space. You should feel like you are just slightly reaching out away from you in order to address the ball. With this space available, it will be easier to make a big turn and get into position for an aggressive move through the sand.
  • Keep the ball forward in your stance. Ball position is always an important topic in golf, but it is one that doesn’t necessarily get the attention it deserves. For the typical greenside bunker shot where you are trying to blast the ball out of the sand, play the ball well forward of center to shallow out your angle of attack. If the ball gets too far back in your stance, your downswing will get steep and you may dig up too much sand in the end. With the ball played forward, you can swing through the sand on a shallow plane, lofting the ball nicely up out of the trap and onto the putting surface. It is worth noting that you may need to change this approach if you happen to draw a poor lie in the bunker, but that is a topic for another time.
  • Keep your chin up. As we’ve been mentioning throughout this article, hitting good greenside bunker shots requires making a big swing. In order to make that big swing, you need to make sure that your chin is out of the way of your shoulders. At address, pay attention to the position of your head, keeping your chin up to maintain good posture and to provide a clear path for your left shoulder to turn away from the target. Many players tuck their head down and impede the progress of their shoulder turn as a result. Don’t worry – even with your chin up, you should still be able to keep your eyes down to get a good look at the ball as you swing.

A good stance in the bunker is not going to happen by accident. If you want to get your body into the right position, you need to pay attention to detail. And you need to practice! Spend some time working on building a solid stance and you might be surprised to find how much easier it will become to blast your ball out of the sand time after time.

Some Swing Tips

Some Swing Tips

If you do manage to build a nice bunker stance, you will find that this part of the game gets easier right away. To go a step further, however, we’d like to offer you to basic greenside bunker swing tips. During your next practice session, try implementing some or all of these tips to see how much progress you can make.

  • Start it slow. Knowing that you need to make a pretty powerful swing in order to splash the ball out of the bunker, you might be tempted to rush through the start of the swing and ramp up the speed and soon as possible. Resist that temptation and slow down in the early phase of the swing. Give yourself an easy start and gradually pick up the pace as the swing builds. Don’t worry – you should have plenty of time to ramp up your speed and propel the club through the sand nicely.
  • Right hand through the sand. Speaking of propelling the club through the sand, you will want to use your right hand to do the job. It’s normally a good idea to keep your right hand out of the action in the downswing – at least until the moment of impact – but you can do things a bit differently in the sand. To play a greenside bunker shot that pops up out of the sand with ease, let your right hand work hard to move through the hitting area. This is going to be an aggressive release, and the end result will hopefully be a shot that not only comes up out of the sand easily, but also one that has plenty of spin.
  • Use your shoulders. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using nothing more than your arms and hands to hit your bunker shots. This is common, but it is not the right way to go. You need speed on these shots, which means you need to use your shoulders to turn back and through effectively. You might not make quite as much of a shoulder turn as you do with a driver swing, but it’s still important to get your shoulders involved to a significant degree.
  • All the way into the finish. The swing you make in a bunker is not over when the club touches the sand. When playing a standard greenside bunker shot, be sure to swing all the way through the sand and up to a full finish. The point of swinging to a full finish is to make sure that you carry plenty of speed through the hitting area. If you give up on the swing before it is finished, you’ll lose a little speed and the result of the shot might not be what you had in mind.

It is helpful to have some swing tips in mind as you practice, but nothing that you read is going to make up for actually getting down in a bunker and experimenting for yourself. Work on your technique and take note of what works for you – and what doesn’t. With practice, and experience on the course, you should gradually get better and better at this part of the game.

Strategy in the Sand

Strategy in the Sand

There is a mental component to every golf shot you hit on the course. You need to have good technique to play well, of course, but you also need to make good decisions. To wrap up our article, we are going to cover a few mental game tips that should help you make the right choice more often than not in the sand.

  • The green is the goal. It would be great to knock the ball up to within a couple feet of the hole, of course. That isn’t always going to be possible, however, so make it your primary goal to simply get the ball up onto the green. Doing so will be easy in some cases, and it will be extremely difficult on other occasions. As you are planning your shot, keep in mind that you want to be playing your next stroke with the putter, at the very least.
  • Stay on the low side. If you have a good lie and feel like the odds are good that you will hit a good shot, you can start to think about where you would like to putt from to finish your up and down. Most of the time, you’ll want to putt uphill to improve your odds of success. Evaluate the slope of the green and figure out where you need to play the ball to leave yourself with a comfortable uphill putt.
  • Respect the lie. From time to time, you are going to come away with a poor lie in the bunker. Try not to get too frustrated when it happens – it’s just part of the game. When you do get a bad lie, be smart and attempt to play a shot that is most likely to get you out of the sand. Note – that might not be the same thing as a shot that can get the ball close to the hole. Sometimes, hitting the ball close to the hole just isn’t a possibility when the lie is bad. It won’t be much fun to accept that fact and play away from the hole, but avoiding the big number is the goal once you have a bad lie.

In the best case scenario, you will be able to keep your ball out of the sand traps as often as possible. Of course, things don’t always work out that way on the course, and you’ll need to play bunker shots from time to time. We hope the tips in this article will help you deal with greenside bunker shots more successfully moving forward. As long as you put in some practice time to hone your skills, there is no reason you can’t improve in this area. Good luck!