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For more than 70 years, golf magazines have featured tips on hitting shots from sand bunkers in almost every issue. Combined with tips on the internet, instructions numbers well into the hundreds of thousands.
And still golfers don’t get it.
Have you ever wondered why tour pros say they prefer their ball winds up in a bunker rather than in the greenside rough? That’s because they’re not sure how a ball sitting down in a nasty, gnarly rough will come out, but they know how to hit the bunker shot because the sand is highly predictable; they know how the ball will react since they have practiced the shot in many different ways.
Of course, with all due respect to tour pros, the shots they face from their bunkers are much easier than what we have to deal with here in the desert. Our bunker sand may be hard-pan, wet (from over sprinkling), muddy or super fluffy. But that begs the question about why most golfers struggle with bunkers.
So let’s discuss how to hit a sand shot - and here I’m referring a greenside sand bunker, rather than a fairway bunker some distance from the green. From my experience helping golfers of all levels at golf school, the problem is failing to grasp the proper technique for getting the ball out of the bunker.
Notice I didn’t say “hitting” the ball. A correct bunker shot requires you thump the sand from just behind the ball, and the sand then lifts the ball out of the bunker. In this case the clubhead never touches the ball. It’s like the magician who says to the audience “my fingers never left my hand.”
We don’t have photos here with this article, but picture and average sand bunker with your ball in the middle, some 60 feet from the flagstick. Grab your sand wedge, a 54, 56 or 60 degree wedge, spread your feet shoulder width apart and distribute your weight evenly. You need to loft your ball some 30 feet to get it on the green and then it will roll the rest of the way.
The setup position is with your feet open 20 degrees to a straight line, and the ball slightly forward in your stance. This position will allow you to open your clubface (an absolute must) so it’s facing down the target line. And the reason you open the face of your sand wedge is to get it under the ball and displace the sand beneath. The “secret” to hitting an explosion shot from the sand is to slide the clubface under the sand behind the ball in such a way that the sand lifts the ball an propels it forward.
Too many golfers approach a bunker shot as a chip shot and try to “trap” the ball and it doesn’t work. In addition, it requires a distinctly forceful swing to propel 10 ounces of sand up and forward. If you are going to practice bunker shots from the sand, learn to splash the sand from behind the ball. How far behind? Well, that takes practice.
And another thing, you don’t need a lot of body movement, just shoulders, arms and hands, not brute force. A lot of touch and feel. Make believe you are carving out a 7-inch path in the sand, about a half-inch deep, where the ball is on top.
Now let’s consider the shot from a fairway bunker, which is a horse of a different color, as cowboys here out West say.
Fairway bunkers are typically placed where an errant drive can cause problems. The fairway bunker on the par 5 hole number 5 at Red Hawk is huge and fairly easy to hit a layup second shot out of. There is plenty of fairway to the left so hitting into that bunker is a mistake, but not a big one. But let’s say you’re in a fairway bunker on a par 4 that is 150 yards to the green. If you normally hit a 7 iron 150 yards, take a 6 iron, or maybe a 5 iron. Try to hit the ball first and clean, since a little bit of sand behind the ball will really slow it down. The technique is to stand tall, and take a full swing keeping your lower body quiet, so your feet don’t shift in the sand. Remember, you are not allowed to touch the sand with your club before the shot, so hover your club over the ball and contact the ball first.
It all comes down to a matter of technique, which is another word for skill, and it takes a lot of practice.