Long and Short of Bunker Shots
There are so many tips and techniques for bunker shots that you can get your mind so cluttered you can’t execute any of them. But I got a few questions these past couple of weeks about hitting short greenside bunker shots and longer ones, I thought I would dive into the topic and see if I can’t help some of you that are struggling for “something to believe in”.

No matter what theory of bunker play you want to subscribe to, I think there are some very basic fundamentals that apply. The first is to S-L-O-W D-O-W-N. I like the term “speed kills”, especially when it applies to the short game. From full swing short irons and wedges to the shortest putt, my only swing thought is typically to feel the end of the backswing/backstroke. If I can feel it, then I did not get jerky or too quick. At least that’s my key.

Another fundamental is to quiet the hands. If you’re here often, you’ve seen that advice a lot. What I mean by “quiet hands” is that you want to minimize the “floppiness” or quickness of the hand action through the impact zone. We get anxious in the bunkers especially, and tend to try to make the clubhead work by using our pincher fingers and thumb of our right hand. But if you will quiet the hands, and focus more on keeping your left forearm moving through the impact zone, you will have more success in the bunkers, and on all recovery shots around the greens.

For bunker play, I’m a subscriber to a set of fundamentals that are built around a wider stance, more flexed knees, and a full upper body core rotation. When you are practicing, just take swings that move the right amount of sand and see where the club is making contact in relation to your stance and body core. It is likely to be in line with your sternum. Then position yourself so that the ball is just forward of that point. A 15-20-minute bunker session about once a month will do wonders for your technique and confidence.

I like to use several different clubs in the bunkers, from my 57 all the way down to my 51. That way, I never have to swing too aggressively. The lower loft will fly further and roll out some, while the higher loft will deliver a higher trajectory with softer landing.

Fairway bunkers are a different matter altogether. Here you want to make a clean contact with the ball. What I do is play the ball slightly more forward in my stance, choose one longer club than I would from the fairway at that distance, grip down ½” or so and make as smooth and relaxed a swing as I can. And I always play to the safe side of the flag or green.

But the toughest bunker shot of all is that ‘half wedge’ from 50-90 yards. At least in my opinion. I remember a telecast many years ago, when a player had that shot and the announcer said “They shouldn’t even put bunkers at that range because Tom Watson is the only guy who can hit that shot with consistency.” Quite a complement to Tom, but it doesn’t have to be that hard. Choose a mid-loft wedge – 50-55 degrees – and follow the rules for the fairway bunker shot. But swing as if the shot were a little further than it is.

And relax your expectations! Just get it out and somewhere safe and you’re doing better than most.

I hope that helps make some sense out of bunker play. I’m sure these readers will have lots more help to offer – you always do, and I love it!
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[ comments ]
SD Charlie says:
Great info as usual. I've been using my 57º (Eidolon) almost exclusively in the sand, but I will start practicing with my 52º to expand my options. There are times when there is a lot of rough between the bunker and the green and that's where the 57º leaves me. If I chose the 52º, I might've ended up on the green and closer to the hole.

Shallowface says:
Slightly more FORWARD in the stance for fairway bunker shots?
First time I've heard that. We're usually told to play it back.
Please explain your reasoning for handling these this way. Thanks!
Bryan K says:
Fairway bunkers are easy. I've never had a problem with them. The greenside bunkers, though, gave me fits until a couple of months ago when I took a lesson specifically on how to hit out of them. Some of the first words out of the pro's mouth: "It's a lot like a flop shot". So I tried to hit it like a flop shot, and I've never looked back. I wish someone would have told me that years ago. Would have saved a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.
birdieXris says:
@shallowface - i've been trying to wrap my head around that one too. I've always played the ball slightly back, with a quiet lower body and never had an issue.
wedgeguy says:
I recommend the ball slightly more forward so that it will be ahead of the point where the ball strikes the sand. I saw an good video tip from David Toms the other day, where he draws a line in the sand perpendicular to the target line, makes a few practice swings to see where the club makes contact in relation to the body, then determines ball position from that indicator. Pretty smart!
DougE says:
On fairway bunkers, I play the ball pretty much in the same place I would if it were in the rough and pick a spot just in front of the ball to aim for to make sure I make ball-first contact. I can certainly understand WedgeGuy's ball slightly back concept, which should encourage ball-first contact as well. If the bunker lip is low enough, I try to keep some weight forward, which also encourages ball-first contact. However, if the lip is higher, I let more weight stay back to pick and lift the ball. Weight back, however, could easily result in sand-first contact (and has too many times in my golf life).
birdieXris says:
Can you post that link? I did some googling and i can't find david tom's tip at all, however i did find about 300 other ones that advocate moving the ball back because you want to get the ball cleanly first. I'm all for learning and i want to know his thinking behind it, especially if it can make me better out of the fairway traps.
DougE says:
Wait a minute...he said "slightly forward?" I, then, misspoke in my earlier comment. I understand playing the ball back, certainly. But, ball forward? I suppose it's easier to pick it clean this way, catching virtually no sand, before or after contact. Is that the reason WedgeGuy?
onedollarwed says:
Last year, I was asking for help with bunker shots because, I rarely am able to practice them. I'm good enough that I keep the ball in play. Besdies, the few practice facilities that have sand areas, have an unrealistic sand product or condition - not real helpful.
So I needed a basic approach. The idea of putting the ball ahead of the low point in my swing was an instant breakthrough! That one bit of information has carried me safely through many a round.
I also find it helps to think grossly - less about placing the ball, and more about getting out. "What's it going to take to get out of this thing," is the question I ask. You need to get over the lip, past the expanse of sand, or down out of the bunker. Magic!
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