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Basics of bunker play

by Scott Sackett, golf instructor

Most amateurs are deathly afraid of hitting their ball in the sand and are subsequently poor bunker players for one reason: they do not know how they are supposed to play a bunker shot. A tour player would generally prefer to hit their ball from a greenside bunker, (provided their ball is not buried) than from the rough surrounding a green. This is because a tour player understands the function of the sand wedge and, more importantly, how to properly execute a shot from the sand.

To appreciate these changes in the setup, it’s important to understand the geometry of sand play, the first part of which concerns the clubface. On most bunker shots the clubface needs to be open to some degree. Open means that when you are holding the club in your usual grip, the shaft straight beneath your hands, its bottom edge will not be square to the line of your shot. Rather, it will face to the right of your target, the toe of the club having rotated a little clockwise. Opening the clubface increases the effective loft of the sand wedge and allows its sole to slide more easily through the sand under the ball. This is one shot in golf where you don’t contact the ball with the clubface. 

The ball is moved upward and forward by the sand beneath it. The sand wedge is designed differently than any other club in your bag. It is the only iron where the club’s trailing edge (or bounce) enters the playing surface first. The rest of our irons enter the playing surface with the leading edge first. The design of the sand wedge allows the club to slide into the sand without digging straight down into it.

Characteristics of greenside bunker play

Set the clubface open to approximately 1 o’clock.
Grip down on the club.
Take your normal grip.
Lighten your grip pressure.
Position the ball forward in your stance.
Open your stance slightly (feet parallel left to 11 o’clock).
Weight on forward foot 60-40.
Arms light and extended.
Hands in line or slightly behind the ball.
Never look at the ball, but focus a few inches behind the ball.
Swing the club along your stance line.
Distance is controlled by length of the follow through.

Final thoughts on bunker play
Once you have a true understanding of the function of the sand wedge, it’s the first step in becoming more confident. When you hit your ball into the bunker, your primary objective is to get your ball onto the green with the next shot. It is obviously best if you can get the ball close to the flagstick but, under many circumstances, simply getting the ball onto the green is a great shot.  You don’t have any chance of getting up and down from a bunker if you leave your shot in the sand or fire it over the green.

A great thought that will help you become a proficient bunker player is if you can get the sand on the green, then the ball has a pretty good chance to get on the green as well.