The Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play
Over the past few years of writing this blog, I have covered a lot of ground, and answered a number of inquiries about how to hit this shot or that one. But I received a particularly interesting question this week from Art S., who said he has read all the tips about how to hit different sand shots, from different sand conditions, but it would be helpful to know why. Specifically, here's what Art had to say:
"I recently found myself in a few sand traps in multiple lies and multiple degrees of wetness. I tried remembering all of the "rules" of how to stand, how much to open my club, how much weight to shift forward or back, etc. based on the Golf Channel but was hoping that you might be able to do a blog on the 'why' of sand play so that we can understand it rather than memorizing what to do. Is there any way you can discuss what the club is doing and why you open the club, open your stance, what you're aiming for when you open up, and any other tips?"
Well, Art, you asked a very good question, so let's try to cover the basics of sand play – the "geometry and physics" at work in the bunkers – and see if we can make all of this more clear for you.

First of all, I think bunkers are among the toughest of places to find your ball. We see the tour players hit these spectacular bunker shots every week, but realize that they are playing courses where the bunkers are maintained to PGA standards, so they are pretty much the same every hole and every week. This helps the players to produce the “product” the tour is trying to deliver – excitement. Of course, those guys also practice bunker play every day.

All of us, on the other hand, play courses where the bunkers are different from one another. This one is a little firmer, that one a little softer. So, let me see if I can shed a little light on the "whys and wherefores" of bunker play.

The sand wedge has a sole with a downward/backward angle built into it – we call that bounce. It’s sole (no pun intended) function is to provide a measure of “rejection” force or lift when the club makes contact with the sand. The more bounce that is built into the sole of the wedge, the more this rejection force is applied. And when we open the face of the wedge, we increase the effective bounce so that this force is increased as well.

The most basic thing you have to assess when you step into a bunker is the firmness of the sand. It stands to reason that the firmer the texture, the more it will reject the digging effect of the wedge. That "rejection quotient" also determines the most desirable swing path for the shot at hand. Firmer sand will reject the club more, so you can hit the shot with a slightly more descending clubhead path. Conversely, softer or fluffier sand will provide less rejection force, so you need to hit the shot with a shallower clubhead path so that you don’t dig a trench.

So, with these basic principles at work, it makes sense to remember these "Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play":
1. Firmer sand will provide more rejection force – open the club less and play the ball back a little to steepen the bottom of the clubhead path.

2. Softer sand will provide less rejection force – open the club more and play the ball slighter further forward in your stance to create a flatter clubhead path through the impact zone.

3. The ball will come out on a path roughly halfway between the alignment of your body and the direction the face is pointing – the more you open the face, the further left your body should be aligned.

4. On downslope or upslope lies, try to set your body at right angles to the lie, so that your swing path can be as close to parallel with the ground as possible, so this geometry can still work. Remember that downhill slopes reduce the loft of the club and uphill slopes increase the loft.

5. Most recreational golfers are going to hit better shots from the rough than the bunkers, so play away from them when possible (unless bunker play is your strength).
So, there you go, Art. I hope this gives you the basics you were seeking. And hopefully that new EIDOLON V-SOLE wedge you just won will add a measure of assistance to any bunker shot you might encounter.

As always, I invite all of you to send in your questions to be considered for a future article. It can be about anything related to golf equipment or playing the game – just send it in. You can't win if you don't ask!

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[ comments ]
Agustin says:
Also remember to dig your feet as you "normally" take the stance inside the bunker to determine the degree of firmness (and also how deep the sand layer is; this unfortunately varies a bit as well). This is the only permissible way to get "feedback" on bunker conditions without breaking rule 13-4a.
Bryan K says:
My biggest problem with bunker play is quite simple. I can't ground the club at address. I've come to find that this is a huge problem since my depth perception is so poor. I need that arm-length gauge in order to know exactly where to strike the sand. Otherwise, I might as well do it with my eyes closed.

Practice, right?
Swingem says:
Another point worth mentioning is the degree of bounce appropriate for different sand conditions. Low bounce for firm sand, higher bounce for soft sand. I've also found that focusing on "get out of the bunker and onto the green", rather then "get it close to the hole", gets better results more consistently.
mjaber says:
@bjohn... when I end up in a bunker, I've taken to the practice of making a couple practice swings outside the bunker to get a feel for the swing I need to make. It has helped my bunker play considerably.
SD Charlie says:
Those are good "add-on" tips guys. Oddly, for being so new to golf (<1 year), I don't have too much trouble in the sand. Like Swingem, I just try to get it out of the bunker without worrying about getting close to the hole.
legitimatebeef says:
Thanks for acknowledging this particular challenge. If tour pros had to play the kind of bunkering faced by most amateurs there would be a lot of crying and whining.
Kurt the Knife says:
when I end up in a bunker, I've taken to the practice of lifting the ball and tossing it onto the green.

beats adding three strokes to each hole.
Trav says:
Terry's clubs are very nice, but nothing beats a well-executed hand wedge.
Bryan K says:

I do that as well. The problem is that it's not so easy to replicate the lie if it's on a hill. Plus, you really can't replicate the action you get out of the sand without taking a huge chunk out of the course.

The truth is, I've actually been hitting pretty well out of the sand recently simply concentrating on what the others have mentioned...just get it out of the bunker and hopefully onto the green. However, I'm not sure if that is just luck or if I'm actually getting better at striking the right spot in the sand.

One thing I thought I'd add is that one thing I've started doing that has helped is I try to ignore the ball completely when hitting out of the sand. I concentrate on the point in the sand that I want to hit instead.
mjaber says:
@bjohn... when I make my swings, I'm looking for the right sound from the swing rather than the action I get from the sand. I'm looking to get that same "THUMP" I like to hear when I'm hitting a shot out of a greenside bunker (I know it sounds different in the sand than off the grass, but it works for me). If I get that sound when I'm outside the bunker, I know I've got the right swing and setup to get the bal out and onto the green in the area I'm looking to put it.
nswynnerton says:
Terry: The bunkers at your old course (F.O.R.)are exceedingly difficult to get out of. Why? Well, they have lots of fluffy sand that is fluffy only on the top 0.5 inch or so, and very wet underneath, from the sprinklers. Hit a little heavy and the ball stays in the bunker, but hit it a bit thin and it sails over the green. That makes it tough on us amateurs, and Frank Conner, PGA tour guy, recently said he had no idea how to play them consistantly. Might you have thoughts on this problem?
aaronm04 says:
what really helped me with my bunker shots was three things: 1) Make a nice, smooth swing with a good finish (no decel), 2) Keep my posture, and 3) Keep about 90-95% of my weight on my front foot (when possible). Now, 1 & 2 are pretty fundamental to a regular swing but I found that those broke down more often in the bunker than out of it. #1 is my swing thought because #2 usually happens if #1 does and #3 is more part of my setup rather than my swing. Hope this can help someone.
lcgolfer64 says:
@bjohn - Just throwing this out there as a thought to maybe try. I 'hover' my wedge right over top of my ball in the sand prior to my shot. it helps me do a couple of things:

1. getting my depth - knowing I need to only slice through the sand roughly an inch and 1/2 inches, or so (depending on the lie)
2. it makes me thinking of slicing through the sand under my ball as opposed to hitting behind the ball - which tened to have me 'slicing' too far behind the ball (taking too much sand behind the ball)

If you have a facilty or course where you could practice in a bunker, you could 'rest' your wedge on the ball to maybe help you better gauge the depths a little better when hitting them out - just a thought and hope it helps!
lcgolfer64 says:
@bjohn - PS - apologize for the spelling - should have proofed it prior to sending

2. It gets me thinking of slicing through the sand under my ball, as opposed to hitting behind the ball, which tends to have me entering the sand too far behind the ball (taking too much sand)
Swingem says:
@mjaber-good point about taking practice swings outside the bunker. I use the same swing for flop-shots out of the rough as I do for bunker shots.
sepfeiff says:
Easiest sand lesson ever:
Strike the sand at 1 ball distance behind your ball as it lies. When he sand is soft, hit it hard. When the sand is hard, hit it soft.
BigDoctorJ says:
@sepfeiff, that is all I do and it works perfectly. No need to over-complicate things.
wedgeguy says:
With regard to the sand at FOR, if a tour pro says they are tough, enough said. But I'd play them like firm sand, and just allow for that 1/2" or so of fluffy stuff on top by increasing swing speed somewhat. All you other guys, good stuff. Keep it coming.
KVSmith59 says:
follow through...most of my bad bunker shots are when I don't follow through.....
moonlight says:
Well ... it took me (4) strokes to get out of the bunker at Robinson Ranch. Super soft sand.
More like sifted flour than sand. Goes with super fast greens.
Strike the ball at 1 ball distance behind your ball ... that would skull it. It is my understanding you strike the sand with the bottom of the club - not the leading edge.
Not trying to be negative but I would like more input on that train of thought. There is something about that statement that might work if it could be clarified a little.
I did not follow thru as my club just buried itself. Apparently, I need to play it more forward in my stance & swing shallow. Now that is good info. BTW - I got out by chipping it & letting it roll forever. Worked but not what I would like. I do not like 60' putts.
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Terry Koehler is "The Wedge Guy" and President of SCOR Golf- The Short Game Company.

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