Short Game Mastery Series: How to Improve Your Greenside Sand Play
Curated expert Bill S. deep dives into greenside bunker shots, overviewing key setup, stance, and swing techniques for becoming a consistent sand player.
It seems that there’s no shot in golf that high handicappers dread more than the bunker shot. After years of seeing poor results from sand traps, too many of these amateurs have come to simply anticipate and accept that any trip that they make into the bunker is going to end up costing them a lot of wasted shots.
When you think about it, though, the bunker shot should be one of the easiest. After all, it’s the only shot in golf where you don’t actually have to hit the ball! So why is it that, for a shot where no actual club-to-ball contact is needed, so many amateurs struggle so much?
Well, as with most parts of the golf game, the answer lies in the technique that is used. While it’s true that you don’t actually make contact with the ball on a greenside bunker shot, it nonetheless requires that you make several key setup, stance, and swing changes to become a consistent sand player. And if these changes aren’t made, it’s likely that you’ll probably continue to struggle with these shots.
In this article, we’ll discuss in detail those changes that you should incorporate into your bunker shot technique. But before we do that, let’s start by describing why many amateurs aren’t as successful from sand traps as they could be.
The set up and swing flaws that amateurs tend to make on sand shots are so commonplace among high handicappers that it’s a good place to start, and it will begin to answer your questions as to how you can become a better bunker player.
What Not to Do in a Bunker
The simple fact is that most high handicappers don’t really understand the mechanics of how to execute the basic greenside bunker shot. Without an appreciation of how the club and the sand interact, they repeatedly make the same mistakes that doom them to failure. So let’s start our lesson on how to improve by observing the basic flaws and misconceptions that many amateurs have:
- The problems start right from the setup. Many amateurs assume that they should align their feet parallel to the target line, just as they do on a normal shot from the fairway.
- They then compound the problem by similarly aiming their clubface square to the target, again mimicking the way that they aim the clubface on every other shot.
- And finally, because their stance and clubface are aimed directly at the flagstick, there is a natural tendency for the leading edge of their wedge to dig into the sand behind the ball. When the clubface digs into the sand like this behind the ball, usually descending a couple of inches under the ball as well, it creates an awful lot of sand that needs to be moved during the swing to “push” the ball out of the trap. With this much sand between the clubface and the ball, you can imagine how much energy it takes to get the ball out of the trap, and it explains why many amateurs have to swing so hard to propel the ball just a short distance. And, with all that sand needing to be displaced, you can also appreciate that there won’t be a lot of backspin on the ball when it lands.
Does that sound familiar to you? Unfortunately, that swing description applies to many (if not most) higher handicappers. It begins with both a stance and clubface alignment that are aimed directly at the pin, and ends with the club’s leading edge digging sharply into the sand behind the ball, which creates a large amount of sand between the club and the ball that can only be moved by a disproportionately forceful swing. The end result? Inconsistency. There’s no telling where on the green the ball will end up and, in some cases, it ends up right back in the bunker.
Sand Wedge Design
Before we turn our attention to what stance and swing changes are needed to improve your technique, there’s one very important aspect of sand wedge design that you simply must understand if you want to become a better sand player. All sand wedges have one very unique design feature that is built into the sole of the club, which has been put there specifically to make bunker shots easier for you. Turn your sand wedge over and look at the bottom of the club head. You’ll see a pronounced “flange” on the sole of the club. How does that unusual flange help to make sand shots easier? In a word: bounce. Huh?
What “Bounce” is All About
You may have heard the term “bounce” or “bounce angle” used when sand wedges are discussed, but you may not have fully understood what it means and, more importantly, how it can make you a better bunker player when used properly.
That unique flange on the sole of the sand wedge serves a specific purpose. You’ll notice that when the clubhead is set on the ground, that protruding flange serves to raise the leading edge of the club so that it is actually several degrees above the surface. With the leading edge of the club raised up like this, and with the rounded flange on the sole, it makes it much less likely that the club head will dig into the sand too deeply. It enables the club head to glide more smoothly through the sand rather than digging down into it.
An analogy might help. Think of a small bowl filled with a mound of sugar. Then imagine taking a knife and swiping it through that mound. Obviously, the edge of the knife would cut sharply into the mound. Then imagine taking a spoon and doing the same thing. It’s easy to see how the rounded bottom of the spoon would allow it to glide through the sugar without digging. This, in a way, is how a sand wedge should function, as a “spoon” gliding through the sand, as opposed to a “knife” digging into it. The raised leading edge, due to the protruding flange, allows this to happen. When done properly, the bottom of the flange will impact the ground first, keeping the leading edge from digging into the sand.
The angle that is created between where the flange contacts the ground and where the leading edge is raised above the surface is referred to as the “bounce angle.” Typically, sand wedges have pretty significant bounce angles in the range of 10-14 degrees. Using golf lingo, a sand wedge like this will be described as having a lot of “bounce.”
So What’s the Right Way to Do It?
Having a little better understanding of what not to do in a trap, and understanding the role of bounce in sand wedge design, let’s take a look at how to properly execute a greenside sand shot:
- Unlike in a normal golf shot, where golfers typically align themselves square to their target, you should set up and aim a little left of the flagstick on a bunker shot (approximately 20 degrees or so, which would equate to about 6 or 8 yards left of the target). This leftward orientation should include your entire body – feet, hips, and shoulders.
- Then set your clubface extremely open, probably more open than you’ll initially feel comfortable with. The clubface should be open enough so that you could rest a coin on the face at address without it sliding off. Having the clubface open in this way will have the effect of aiming the face about 45° to the right of your swing line. This open clubface also allows the flange on the sole of the club to make ground impact first -- not the leading edge -- so that you’ll avoid digging into the sand.
Note: There is a wrong way and a right way to open your clubface at address. The wrong way is to grip the club as you always do and then merely turn your hands to the right so that the clubface “appears” to be open. The problem with doing it this way is that, since you really haven’t “re-gripped” the club after opening the face, and have simply turned your hands to the right, your hands will tend to return to their normal position at impact, which brings the face back to a square position (and brings the leading edge of the club back into play). The correct way is to rotate the grip of the club without your hands in their final grip position and then, with the clubface now truly open, take your normal grip.
- The ball position should be forward in your stance, approximately opposite to the heel of your lead foot.
- Your swing should follow a path parallel to your foot and body line (i.e., to the left of the target). This is important. Avoid the tendency to swing back on the line directly toward the flag. By aligning yourself left of the target, and having the clubface open about 45° to that line, a swing that is parallel to your body line will produce a shot that will go toward the pin.
- There is a fairly large margin of error when it comes to where the club should make contact in the sand behind the ball. That’s the benefit of opening the club face at address and employing the bounce on the wedge. You don’t need to be too precise with your entry point. Aim for a point several inches behind the ball, and as long as you don’t dig too deeply into the sand, the ball will pop out nicely and fly onto the green.
- Try to maintain that open clubface through and well after impact. This is another difference from normal golf shots in which the clubface rotates and squares through impact. If you were to improperly rotate the wedge in that manner on a sand shot, you would be defeating the purpose of the flange and eliminating the helpful bounce angle that was established at address. A good mental image is that, just as you imagined at address, you should be able to balance a coin on the club face after impact.
Don’t let sand traps intimidate you anymore. Now that you understand why your previous sand technique was causing inconsistency, and how the changes we’ve described will produce better and more predictable results, you can enter those traps with a lot more confidence.
But, as with any swing changes, it will benefit you to find the practice bunker at your course and spend some time implementing and practicing these new techniques. You’ll also discover that bounce is your friend. Make sure to use it as described and you’ll see a huge improvement in your results.
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