How to Hit a Bunker Shot
Struggling with bunker shots? Golf expert Tyler Monroe is here with some tips and tricks to help you master the sand trap.
On the 18th hole, the gallery is humming with anticipatory energy. An up and down from the bunker and you will have beaten your personal best, won the skin money, and shaken golf to its core. Maybe before you would have envisioned yourself lumbering into the trap, rejected in thought, grimacing as if to bow your head to the golf gods and proclaim yourself unworthy. No longer! Scrap that negative canvas and paint a better version of this shot in your head! Beyond fundamentals, a paramount key to great bunker play is confidence!
There is no real secret to playing bunker shots well, and this isn’t a prescription derived from one master, but a correlation of techniques from some of the greatest bunker players that came across this game. Whether or not Luke Donald, Madelene Sangstrom, Ernie Els, Gary Player, or Phil Mickelson have specific differences in the way they play bunker shots, it's the concepts and effective fundamentals they all share that is useful.
As with any situational shot in golf, every bunker lie is different, as are sand condition and distance to the green. From sidehill lies, uphill and downhill lies, different types, and levels of sand, the ball sitting up nice or buried in sand, to a greenside bunker or fairway bunker - all are possible situations you will encounter in this unpredictable, amazing game. For this article let's imagine you're in the perfect sand trap, with the perfect lie for a greenside bunker shot, the sun is out, and you're at your favorite dream course. Bandon Dunes, Oregon with no wind sounds about right to me.
Building on a Solid Foundation
The biggest mistake I see as a PGA Professional Instructor when it comes to players getting out of a bunker is distance control. Either the ball gets on the putting surface well short of the pin or, worse, it never gets out of the bunker or is hit low on the club with such force it goes over the green and out of bounds.
How you set up to this shot, with a proper ball position, weight distribution in your stance, the position of your hands, and how you set the clubface, are all critical starting points for a successful sand shot. Unlike most golf shots in which we shift our weight to the back foot and then to the front through the swing to get power, in a greenside bunker shot this leads to inconsistent and poor contact with the sand. Presetting your weight on your front foot, with a forward ball position just inside that same foot line and using a wider stance prevents weight transferring away from that lead leg. This stable, stationary lower body, used as a solid foundation for an upper-body swing, is what enables players to eliminate that weight shift variable and concentrate power and speed at that critical impact moment. It also enables a shallower swing plane to glide the clubface under the golf ball at the appropriate level in the sand.
With this forward weight and ball position, the hands naturally set even with the ball and should not be forward pressed ahead of it. This can also lead to a steeper angle at impact and cause the clubhead to dig too deep in the sand, slowing the club down and preventing you from achieving the proper distance. Shuffling your feet as you set up for this shot engages this weight distribution, allows you to test the consistency of sand below your feet, and keeps your swing arc still bottoming out below the golf ball and through the sand.
Another key concept to hitting a great bunker shot is almost exactly opposite that. We are not hitting anything, but rather gliding the club through the bunker, entering the sand an inch before the golf ball, and using the sand to throw the golf ball towards the target. Beyond properly setting our body and the ball position it is important also to limit the amount of resistance the sand imparts on the club by controlling how much of the club's leading edge enters the sand. By setting the clubface open to the target the amount of leading-edge coming into contact with the sand can be greatly reduced allowing the club to keep its speed as it's swung through the bunker.
However, when asked to open the clubface, too many amateur golfers start by turning their forearms. It is important to open the clubface first and then regrip the club to avoid closing the face down through the swing. Also, opening the clubface to the target line of the swing will inevitably send the ball heading offline to the right for right-handed golfers. To keep the ball headed towards the intended target an open stance must be adjusted and a new aim point established left of the original target to compensate for this manipulation.
Keeping the Clubface Open
Establishing a routine to set up properly to a bunker shot and opening the clubface should be consistently checked before each swing. Still, a common flaw is to close the clubface from its open position during the swing and into impact causing changing variations in bunker divot levels and making controlling distance too difficult. Two well-respected bunker players, Luke Donald and Madelene Sangstrom, use what they term "The Scoop" drill to engrain the feeling of keeping the clubface properly open throughout the swing. Next time you're in a practice bunker, put some sand on the open face of your sand wedge and swing the club back, keeping the sand from falling off the face until the club is over your trail shoulder. This will help you learn to keep the clubface open and maintain control of how the face enters the sand.
Speed, Rhythm, and Tempo
The biggest takeaway from watching a PGA or LPGA Professional Player swing in person is seeing their tempo, rhythm, and ultimate authority of where they are fastest in their golf swings. They are not just swinging fast - their swings are rhythmically sequenced movements that inspire and manipulate ball flights with complete precision.
Producing a fast bunker swing that loses all its clubhead speed at the top of the backswing or at the start down is not the correct way to make a clean splash or glide through the sand to effectively hit this shot. Since bunker sand is heavy, slowing down improperly squared leading-edges and causing the bounce of the wedge to lift off the sand and hit the golf ball, it is critical to keep the club moving quickly through the sand to a good finish. Phil Mickleson's "Hinge and Hold" concept in which he sets his wrist angle or wrist hinge early in the backswing but holds his arms and the face position through impact allows a ton of control of the clubhead speed through the sand. Gary Player famously relates this point by suggesting players "strike a match" with the club through the sand. Ernie Els says, "there's always a bit of 'give' in sand, so don't be afraid to accelerate the clubhead – like I say, you have to keep the clubhead moving."
Believe to Achieve
Bunker play reminds me of Robin Williams’ hilarious skit about golf's relentless turmoil. Another mentally challenging obstacle to overcome to tame this great game. Mere yards from the putting surface and the difference between getting up and down or having a frustrating time are just these simple fundamentals and swinging through with confidence. Allowing hesitation, tension, and doubt to creep into the mind and body will always lead to poor performance. Learning from the best professional golfers at bunker play exposes these commonly shared concepts and technique tips. Understanding how these methods promote success in these shots and with a little practice, you will improve your sand saves from an amateurs average of 10% to the 40% the pros achieve.