There are few things that strike as much fear into the heart of amateur golfers than the dreaded fairway bunker shot.
As soon as you see your ball trickle off the fairway and into the awaiting sand trap, you immediately begin to worry about the big score it could lead to.
The thought of failure is overwhelming, the task in front of you daunting, and when it comes time to hit the shot, the pressure gets too much and results in you taking a few swipes at the ball to remove it from the bunker – often with little success.
I’ve done it. You’ve done it. As golfers, we’ve all done it.
But the fairway bunker shot, as I’ve learned in recent years through my own research, lessons and practice, doesn’t have to be so daunting and, when applying the right swing thoughts and technique, can actually be rather easy.
No longer does it need to be a score-destroying moment in your round.
So, what is the secret, you ask? How do you hit your ball out of a fairway bunker with repeated success?
Playing out of fairway bunkers requires you to use a shallower angle of attack, not steep, to stop your club digging into the sand. Golfers should feel like they are ‘casting’ the club with their wrists, rather than maintaining angle, as this will help sweep the ball off the soft surface. You still should aim to strike the ball first, before the sand, to achieve the perfect shot.
Sounds simple, right? While using this technique will help improve your fairway bunker play dramatically, it still remains one of the most difficult shots in golf.
And, the closer you get to the green when hitting out of fairway bunkers, the harder it gets – as it’s a lot easier to hit a wedge fat, and have it dig into the sand, than it is when using a 7-iron or even a 5-iron.
If you want to learn how to hit your long irons, mid-irons and wedges consistently well from fairway bunkers, keep reading – I’ve compiled all the best tips and tricks from some of the best teachers online and created this complete guide for you to follow.
Table of contents
First step: Assess your lie in the bunker
How your ball is sitting in a fairway bunker is arguably the biggest single influencing factor on how you approach the shot, and what club you select to play it.
There are three questions you should answer in regards to your lie before even pulling out a club.
- Is my ball sitting nicely on the surface?
- Is my ball plugged? If yes, how badly?
- How close is my ball to the lip of the bunker?
Depending on how you answer these questions will determine what shot you play. Let’s answer each of them in more detail.
Is my ball sitting nicely on the surface?
If you arrive at the fairway bunker and see your ball sitting softly on top of the sand, and not partially embedded (otherwise known as the dreaded ‘fried egg’), then count yourself lucky because you’re already halfway to playing a good shot.
A good lie means you’ll be able to make good contact with the ball when you take your swing, and that its flight won’t be impacted by it being half-stuck in the sand.
If your ball is sitting nicely on the surface it gives you a lot more options in terms of club selection, and you can move on to deciding how much loft you’ll need to get it up over the lip.
Is my ball plugged? If yes, how badly?
A plugged ball – whether it’s fully plugged or partially plugged – is a nightmare when attempting to play out of a fairway bunker.
Unlike a plugged ball in the fairway or rough (which allows you to take relief without penalty), embedded bunker balls must be played as they lie.
In order to get the ball up and out of a fairway bunker from a plugged lie, you’ll likely need to take a club with more loft as this will give you greater margin for error in case you strike it slightly fat or thin.
How close is my ball to the lip of the bunker?
One of the greatest downfalls of the mid-to-high handicap golfer is biting off more they can chew, and compounding their errors as a result.
Too many amateurs have watched videos of Tiger Woods blazing 200-yard five irons out of fairway bunkers – landing them six feet from the flag – and think they can do the same when they step out onto the course.
Reality check: you are not Tiger Woods.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when hitting a fairway bunker shot is miscalculating how close your ball is to the lip, and how much loft is required to get it out.
Often, amateur players will try for as much distance as possible, select a club with not enough loft, and as a result whack their ball straight into the lip – only for it to trickle back down and stop at their feet, leaving them to attempt the same shot again.
To avoid this, be realistic with your expectations and pick a club with more than enough loft to get the ball out in one shot.
Sure, you’ll sacrifice distance and may not hit the green in regulation like Tiger, but you’ll give yourself a chance to make par and avoid wasting multiple strokes getting out of the trap.
Second step: Choose the right club to hit
Once you’ve assessed your lie, the next – and most crucial – decision you have to make is which club to hit.
There are a number of factors that will influence this. Let’s go through them in detail.
What is the distance to the pin/target?
The best way to determine how far you are from your target is using a rangefinder, but failing that you can use the distance markers located on the edge of the fairway.
Once you’ve established the distance, that will go a long way to influencing which club you select.
How much loft will I need to safely get over the lip of the bunker?
The number one objective of hitting out of a fairway bunker – especially for amateur players – should be getting your ball safely back in play.
More advanced players, with better ball striking abilities, can take more risk, but for the majority of weekend warriors the main goal is to not leave your ball in the trap.
Make sure you take enough club to clear the lip – you don’t want to be forced to play the same shot twice – even if that means landing short of the green.
If I can’t reach the green, where is the best place to lay-up?
If you’ve decided that you can’t reach the green with the club you intend to use, it’s crucial to pick a landing area for your ball that gives you the best chance at making par.
There’s no point hitting the ball as far as you can, without any thought, if it means you end up in a greenside bunker or hazard.
Instead, decide the distance you wish to have into the green for your third shot (whether it’s 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100 metres or yards) and choose a club that will get you to within that range.
Which club am I most comfortable hitting?
Every golfer has their favourite clubs and you should play to those strengths on the course, especially when it comes to fairway bunkers.
For me, I feel far more comfortable hitting 7-iron rather than 5-iron and would choose to use it out of a fairway bunker if I was concerned about the height of the lip – even if it meant landing well short of the green.
Being in a positive frame of mind, and using a club you are confident with, will go a long way to producing a good result.
Third step: How to make solid contact in the bunker
Once you’ve assessed your lie and chosen your club, now comes the hard part – executing the shot.
Thankfully, despite what your friends or playing partners may lead you to believe, hitting out of fairway bunkers is actually very similar to playing off the fairway, with only some minor differences.
I’ve scoured the internet and watched YouTube tips from many professionals and instructors – from Phil Mickelson to Rick Shiels – and compiled this easy-to-follow checklist when attempting to play a fairway bunker shot.
Aim square to the flag
Unlike a greenside bunker shot, where you open your stance (and club face) to help elevate the ball quickly, a fairway bunker shot requires you to align your feet and shoulders square with the flag (or target).
Doing so will help you stay as neutral as possible, and give you the best chance of producing a clean strike by helping your swing stay on plane.
Don’t dig yourself into the sand too much
When playing out of greenside bunkers, it’s ideal to dig your feet into the sand – and take a wider stance – to help stabilise your legs and core.
However, this is something you don’t want to do when playing out of a fairway bunker as it will restrict your hip turn and also position the ball above your feet, which hinders good ball striking.
Instead, you should try and remain as tall as possible in your stance as this will, ideally, promote a shallower divot (and avoid you digging into the sand with the leading edge of your club) and help you sweep the ball cleanly out of the bunker.
Grip down slightly on the club
Choking down on the grip gives you more control and feel of the club, and can be extremely helpful when playing out of fairway bunkers.
Because these shots require extra feel and touch, gripping down slightly can help with controlling the club face far better – leading to a more favourable result.
Get your weight moving forward through the shot
The biggest mistake amateur golfers make when hitting out of fairway bunkers is forgetting to keep their weight moving forward through the ball at impact.
In order to get the ball up and out of the sand, they think they should hang back on their trail leg and scoop it with their hands – when, in fact, they should be doing the opposite.
When playing out of fairway bunkers, be sure to transfer your weight into your lead side as you strike the ball and let the loft of the club take care of the elevation.
Try to strike the ball first
Another key difference between hitting out of a greenside and fairway bunker is the low-point of your swing.
When playing out of a greenside bunker, the idea is to hit sand first – whereas it should be the opposite when you’re in a fairway trap.
Striking the ball first will help you better control flight and distance, leading to a far better result.
Swing easy (don’t try and smash it)
Overswinging is the biggest killer in the golf swing, and can be even more devastating when hitting out of fairway bunkers.
Swinging too hard can make it extremely difficult to control the low-point of your swing, often leading to you catching the ball thin or fat – both of which can have disastrous consequences when hitting out of the sand.
Instead, focus on making a smooth, controlled swing – while keeping your lower body still – and you’ll find that making consistent, clean contact becomes far easier.
Don’t ground your club
This is the number one rule when it comes to playing out of bunkers – whether they’re in the fairway, or located next to the green.
Grounding your club in a trap is against the rules of golf and will result in a penalty.
You should instead hover your club just above the surface, and then begin your swing from there.
Extra tip: Hitting mid-range bunker shots
While hitting out of fairway bunkers may seem tough, most players will agree that the mid-range bunker shot (often anywhere from 30-60 yards) is the hardest shot in golf to play.
But, have no fear because multiple major-winner and golf legend Tom Watson has an easy remedy.
According to Watson, there are just three simple steps players should follow when playing a mid-range bunker shot:
- Use a club with less loft: instead of pulling out your sand wedge, take a 52-degree gap wedge, or even a pitching wedge
- Take your normal bunker stance (slightly open) and dig your feet into the sand for added stability
- When taking your swing, make sure your hands rotate a little faster through impact as this will deloft the club face and see the ball come out flatter, lower and roll farther
And that’s it! It’s no surprise the American legend won eight major championships over the course of his career – he kept things simple.
Hitting out of fairway bunkers isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be as scary as you think.
Following the steps above, and practicing them regularly at your local course, will help you become more and more comfortable playing out of the sand, and in time lead to greatly improved results and consistency.
Remember to be positive, swing easy and treat it like a normal shot from the fairway – you’ll be amazed just how well you start hitting it.
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