There are few things that strike more fear into the average golfer than bunker shots.
We’ve all felt the dread come over us as we see the ball go sailing towards the sand, fearing that it may take a few swipes to get it out and blowing up any chance you had of posting a decent score.
I know this because bunkers used to scare the hell out of me when I first started playing golf and it wasn’t until I learned some crucial tips that I started to improve.
Fast forward to today and my bunker play is undoubtedly the strongest part of my game, and very rarely do I waste shots trying to get myself out of the sand.
So, if you’re sick of digging your way to China every time you find yourself in a trap, keep reading – in this article I’ll share the tips that helped me to transform my bunker game so that you can too can escape the sand every time.
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What is the best club to use out of a bunker?
The best club to use in bunkers are high-lofted wedges with low bounce, such as a 56 or 60-degree wedge. The higher loft will help elevate the ball quicker, while the low bounce – preferably no more than 8 degrees – will let the club’s leading edge cut through the sand easier and stop it from bumping into the back of the ball.
Before you even think about playing a bunker shot, you have to choose the right club as picking the wrong one can put you on the path to failure.
The reason I like using a 60-degree wedge with 8 degrees of bounce is because it’s suited to almost all bunker conditions – whether it’s fluffy, soft sand; firm, hard sand; or even damp, clay-like soil.
The extra loft allows me to lay the club wide open – giving me every chance of popping the ball out with ease – while the low bounce means the club can glide easier under the sand, rather than strike the firm surface and lead to a dreaded thinned shot.
If the sand is extra firm or wet, I’d suggest closing the clubface slightly more to limit the chances of the clubhead bouncing off the ground and into the back of the ball.
The only time I would consider using a wedge with less loft and more bounce – such as a 52 or 56 degree wedge with 12 degrees of bounce – would be in extra fluffy sand, or if I was attempting to play a longer bunker shot.
In these scenarios, the extra bounce would reduce the risk of the club gliding straight under the ball and leaving it in the trap, while the reduced loft will lower the flight trajectory and add distance.
It’s vitally important to assess the condition of the bunker sand, assess your lie and select the club that gives you the greatest chance of success.
Of course, this advice applies to greenside bunker shots or traps that are within 30 yards of the putting surface – if you want to know how to hit out of fairway bunkers, check out another article I wrote on how to do it.
How do you play a standard bunker shot in golf?
To play a bunker shot, open your clubface so it’s flat; widen your stance and open it to your target line; position the ball inside your lead foot; keep 80 percent of your weight on your lead leg; cock your wrists early in the takeaway; swing with plenty of speed while keeping the clubface skyward; slap the sand just behind the ball; and allow the club to exit left.
If you can do all these things, you will improve your bunker play dramatically and spend far less time in the sand.
Below, I’ll explain each of these steps in greater detail so that you are crystal clear on what you need to do next time you find yourself in a trap.
Step 1: Open up your clubface so it’s facing skyward
The biggest error I see other amateurs make when trying to hit bunker shots is they keep their clubface too square when addressing the ball.
You need to open your clubface to a point where it feels unnatural, and looks as though you’re going to strike the ball with the hosel – ideally, the clubface should be pointed straight at the sky and lie almost flat with the ground.
It’s important not to change your grip to counteract the open clubface – the only change I would recommend is choking down slightly on the handle as this will give you more control of the club and extra ‘feel’.
Step 2: Widen your stance and open it to your target line
When attempting a bunker shot, you want a wide, stable base – I’d also recommend digging your feet into the sand to reduce the chances of slipping mid-swing.
Your feet should be wider than shoulder width apart when hitting out of a trap, as this will help you get lower to the ground.
The last thing you need to do with your set-up position is open your feet and shoulders to your target line – ideally, around 45 degrees – to counteract your open clubface, which will help the ball fly straight.
Step 3: Keep the ball inside your lead foot
When addressing the ball, it’s important to position it around an inch or two inside your lead foot if you’re trying to hit a high, flop-like bunker blast.
The farther forward the ball is, the high trajectory you will create. Similarly, if you’re trying to reduce the height of your shot, move the ball to the middle of your stance.
However, I’ve found the optimal position to be inside your lead heel.
Step 4: Put 80 percent of your weight on your lead leg
Now that you’ve created a wide stance and positioned yourself so that the ball is inside your lead heel, it’s important to get 80 percent of your weight going through your lead leg.
This is one of the most crucial parts to playing bunker shots well – I cannot overstate how important it is.
With the ball forward in your stance, if you keep your weight too far on your trail side it will make it extremely difficult to control the low-point of your swing and likely lead to fat shots (with the ball more often than not staying in the trap).
Keeping most of your weight on your lead leg helps you stay low in the shot and gives you far greater control, which is what you need when playing out of the sand.
Step 5: Set your hands low and cock your wrists early
These are two tips that really changed the way I approached hitting bunker shots and led to far better and more consistent results.
If you watch some of the best bunker players in the world – like Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods – you’ll notice how low they keep their hands at address and throughout the entire swing.
Doing this allows them to keep their clubface open and avoid coming in too steep into the ball, which lets the club slice away a thin layer of sand under the ball for more spin, loft and added control (rather than making a big, deep divot).
Similarly, it’s very important to hinge your wrists early in the swing as doing so helps you keep the clubface pointed skyward and deliver a nice, flat blade behind the ball (which is key to popping it up into the air quickly).
Step 6: Use plenty of speed and keep your clubface open
Hinging your wrists early, as mentioned above, also allows you to generate plenty of speed without losing your shape in the swing, which is key to good bunker play.
Another big mistake amateurs make – especially players who struggle to generate much clubhead speed – is swinging too slowly when attempting a bunker shot.
Whether it’s caused by anxiety or fear of hitting a poor shot, bad bunker players tend to decelerate into the ball, which is the worst thing you can do as it will often cause the club to dig into the sand.
More often than not, this will result in the ball barely getting airborne, hitting the lip of the bunker and remaining in the trap.
Instead, you should aim to hit your bunker shots with plenty of speed: the wide-open clubface will elevate the ball without adding excessive distance, and the faster clubhead speed will help the leading edge cut through the sand without it getting stuck.
A great swing thought to remember is to envisage keeping the clubface pointed skyward throughout the entire swing, without letting your wrists rolling over and closing the club down, and maintain your speed.
When done correctly, this will produce a high-lofted bunker shot that climbs quickly into the air, with plenty of spin, and lands softly on the green.
Step 7: Slap the sand behind the ball
The best thing about hitting the perfect bunker shot is the ‘thump’ the club makes when striking the sand behind the ball – this is the sound you should always be striving for.
How much sand you should take behind the ball depends on what shot you’re trying to hit.
If you need to hit a longer bunker shot, with a lower flight, you should aim to get as close to the back of the ball as possible and swing with less speed.
If you need to hit a higher but shorter bunker shot, with more loft, you should aim to take more sand but swing with more speed to ensure the leading edge of the club cuts through and imparts enough force onto the ball.
Step 8: Allow the club to exit left during follow-through
This is a much-overlooked element to becoming a good player, but is something many amateurs do incorrectly.
In their attempt to lift the ball out of the bunker, many mid-to-high handicappers will swing their club along their target line right throughout the shot.
What this actually does, in many cases, is steepen the club shaft and cause the toe of the clubhead to dig into the sand, making it virtually impossible to maintain any loft.
The result is often a topped or fatted shot that cannons into the lip of the bunker.
Instead, you should feel as though the club exits left after you make contact with the ball as this will maintain a shallower path into impact, make it easier to keep the clubface pointed skyward and help the leading edge slice through the sand.
How do you hit out of hard bunker sand?
Hitting out of hard bunker sand is the same as a regular bunker shot, however you should close the clubface more and move the ball to the middle of your stance. Changing these set-up conditions will produce a more downward strike into the sand, preventing the club from bouncing into the back of the ball.
One of the worst, but most common, things to happen when hitting out of hard bunker sand is thinned shots as they tend to fly right across the green and into terrible positions.
The reason they happen so regularly is because many players treat hard sand like regular sand and think they can lay the clubface wide open and pop the ball out.
However, using a wide-open clubface – with either a 56 or 60-degree wedge – in a firm bunker can cause the back of the blade to bounce off the surface and into the ball, creating a dreaded thinned shot.
To prevent this happening when hitting out of hard bunker sand, you should address the ball with a squarer clubface and play it from the middle of your stance.
While you won’t get as much loft using this technique, you will help the leading edge did into the sand easier and stop it bouncing into the back of the ball.
How do you stop thinning bunker shots?
The best way to stop thinning bunker shots is to take plenty of sand before striking the ball. It’s important to swing with plenty of speed to avoid the club getting stuck, and keep your hands low throughout the shot to help the blade glide through the surface.
Thinned bunker shots are often the result of: poor club selection, poor set-up position, or poor execution.
Many amateurs will thin the ball simply by trying to pick it off the ground, or lift it up and out of the bunker – rather than letting the club, with its inbuilt loft, do all the work.
To avoid hitting your bunker shots thin, choose the right club (as described earlier), follow the steps mentioned in this article, and hit the shot with plenty of conviction.
Most bad shots that happen on the golf course occur because we have doubt, or are worried about the result.
Believing you are a good bunker player is the first step to becoming one.
Why are bunker shots in golf so hard?
Bunker shots are hard because they require vastly different skills to a normal golf swing, including a wider stance and very open clubface. The added anxiety of hitting off sand rather than grass can also create doubt for amateur players, leading to poor results.
Many mid-to-high handicappers talk themselves into hitting a bad bunker shot before they even attempt it.
How many times have you played with someone who drops their head at the sight of their ball rolling into the trap? Their disappointment is often accompanied by a remark like ‘well, there goes my round, I suck at hitting out of bunkers’.
This is the completely wrong attitude to have.
Hitting out of bunkers is actually extremely easy if you follow the steps I’ve outlined earlier in this article, and believe you can do it.
How do I improve my bunker shots in golf?
To improve your bunker skills, try hitting different clubs out of the sand during practice – such as your pitching wedge, or 52 to 64-degree wedges. This will help you better understand the flight and distance each club produces, which is knowledge you can then take onto the course.
Knowing the height each wedge creates from different length swings – whether it be a half or full swing – can give you more confidence when it comes to club selection, which can translate to better results.
When it all boils down to it, the only way to get better at bunker shots is to practice them regularly.
Below are a couple of drills I like to use, which have improved by bunker game considerably.
Drill #1: Draw lines and hone your distance
One of the easiest ways to develop better control over your bunker shots is to draw lines in the sand behind your ball.
This gives you a visual indicator for where you need to be striking the sand in order to get the ball airborne.
Start by drawing a line an inch behind your ball and aim to contact it each time you make a swing – try varying how open or closed you keep the clubface too, as doing so will change the ball’s flight trajectory and produce higher or lower shots.
Once you’ve hit a few balls, clean the sand and draw another fresh line – this time two inches behind the ball.
Because you’ll be taking more sand with this shot, it will require you to swing harder in order to get the ball out of the bunker and is a great way for you to develop feel for the length of swing required to get the ball airborne in this scenario.
Practice hitting these shots from both the middle of the bunker and also closer to the lip, as it will teach you to figure out how open or closed you need the clubface to be in order to produce the result you’re after.
Drill #2: Rapid fire bunker shots
One of the biggest barriers stopping amateur players being good bunker players is anxiety – they worry about the result which leads to tension and, ironically, the poor shot they were dreading in the first place.
A great way to remove this tension is with a simple drill that eliminates rigidity from your arms and hands and allows you to play with freedom.
Simply line-up 10 golf balls in the middle of the bunker roughly two inches apart from each other, and draw a straight line around one inch behind them.
The aim is to strike all 10 balls (hitting the line first), one after the other, within 10 seconds – and without a pause in your swing.
Swinging freely in this manner – while still applying the fundamental steps detailed earlier in this article – will get rid of unwanted tension and help you develop a fluent, easy action that will go a long way to improving your bunker play.
Bunkers may seem like a daunting prospect for many mid-to-high handicappers but they needn’t be.
Simply by tweaking a few things in your set-up position, opening or closing the clubface enough based on the density of the sand, and ensuring you select the right club are three simple things that will go a long way to making you a better bunker player.
You’ll find yourself spending less time stranded on the beach, and more time getting up-and-down – which is the first step to lowering your scores and seeing your handicap drop.
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