Nothing instills fear into most golfers like having to hit out of a bunker. It is unlike any other shot in the game. For most of your round, the focus is on making solid contact with the ball. But becoming a great bunker player — especially around the green — means you have to get comfortable with hitting the sand first.
Learning to control distance and spin is the key to being a great bunker player. In time, many players will even feel more comfortable hitting out of a bunker than hitting out of the rough. If you practice the right fundamentals, you will eventually find that being a great bunker player means knowing exactly how the ball will react. There is far less guesswork than you may have with hitting out of the rough.
So how do you become an efficient and confident bunker player? Everything starts with the setup.
Bunker Setup Fundamentals
A bunker shot is typically executed with a sand wedge in the range of 54-60 degrees. A sand wedge of this loft not only allows the ball to get up quickly so the ball can get out of the bunker, but it also has something called bounce. Bounce is the angle between the leading edge of the clubface and the bottom sole of the clubhead. It's that extra flange on the bottom of the clubhead. A bunker player makes sure to hit the sand with the bounce. Using the leading edge and digging into the sand won't allow the ball to elevate, and it makes the spin far less predictable.
To use the bounce properly, proper setup is a priority. Play the ball just slightly forward of center in your stance. For a right-handed player, this means moving the ball slightly closer to your left foot. Put more weight on your left foot, take a wider stance than normal, dig your feet into the sand for stability and flare your front foot open towards the target. Hover the clubhead about two inches behind the ball — this is where you will want to make contact with the sand. Open the clubface slightly, exposing the bounce. The shaft of the club should be pointed slightly backwards, meaning the grip of the club is pointing towards your belly button. Your hands will also be lower, promoting a shallower swing.
This is all you really need from a setup perspective. Some players like to open their stance, and this can be a benefit on shorter shots in particular. However, most bunker shots can be played with a normal stance or one that is just slightly open.
Hitting a Bunker Shot
The trick to being a top-notch bunker player is to keep things as simple as possible. You don't need to get overly technical. Your setup and the club you are using will do most of the work. All you have to do is make a normal swing.
The best bunker players of all-time have long, fluid backswings. The trick is that when you get to the ball, you really want to create a lot of speed. You want to give the sand a thump — enough to splash sand out of the bunker on most shots. The speed you are creating is generating spin, which means the ball will have more elevation and stop quicker.
An effective way to practice is to draw a line in the sand where you want to make contact ahead of the ball. In general, if you make contact with the sand closer to the ball you will generate more spin. This is also a riskier shot because it's always possible to make contact with the ball first. That can be dangerous given the amount of speed the clubhead has coming into the ball.
Making contact further behind the ball means that the shot will come out lower and with less backspin. If you hit 4-5 inches behind the ball, you will often generate some topspin. This may sound like a bad thing, but this "chunk and run" is a nice shot for beginners to learn. You have far more margin for error, you can hit the shot with more of a square clubface if you want and the ball gets on the ground faster. As a rule of thumb, beginners should want to get the ball on the ground as quickly as possible around the greens.
Becoming a Great Bunker Player
Being the best bunker player in your foursome can go beyond mastering the basic technique.
For instance, one advanced technique to learn is how to extract yourself from a buried lie in a bunker. While the shot may look scary and difficult, it's actually one of the easier shots to learn.
In this instance, you do want the club to dig into the sand. You don't want to use the bounce here. Instead, take your normal setup and close the clubface slightly. You will want to create a steep angle of attack into the ball with a lot of speed, so it helps to hinge your wrists more sharply in the backswing. You want to hit about 3 inches behind the ball. Once you make contact, you will want to basically stop your swing right there — it's a chop into the ball, popping it loose.
The ball is going to come out with a lot of forward spin. Admittedly, this is a hard shot to control distance. It's easier than you think it is to get the ball out, but knowing how far the ball will run after it lands is another thing entirely.
Another advanced technique is to make slight tweaks for both longer or shorter bunker shots. For longer shots that may be in the 20-40 yard range, you will want to square the face and take a longer, shallower swing that takes less sand. Conversely, for bunker shots that need to go a short distance and stop quickly, opening the face more than normal, creating a steeper angle into the ball and stopping your followthrough waist-high will help the ball stop quickly.
Becoming a Good Fairway Bunker Player
Of course, not all bunker shots are around the green. Becoming an outstanding bunker player also means knowing how to handle fairway bunkers.
For these shots, you will want to hit the ball first. It's really critical to keep your weight slightly forward and maintain it there throughout impact and your follow-through. You don't want to dig your feet fully into the sand here, because that will restrict your ability to turn and generate power, but you do want to set your feet just enough so that you have stability to not slip.
Choking down on the club can also help, especially when you have no lip to contend with and making clean contact is the top priority.
Overall, hitting a fairway bunker shot is not tremendously different from other full swings. Your first mission is always to make sure you have enough loft to get out of the bunker. Beyond that, making a normal swing but with your weight slightly forward is a great way to play fairway bunker shots.
One last tip: If you have a fairway bunker shot in that dreaded distance of 40-60 yards, it's generally a good idea to take more club (somewhere from an 8-iron to a gap wedge) and play the shot like a long greenside bunker shot. This is definitely one that requires practice.
Bunkers may look like daunting hazards (and sometimes they are), but a few simple rules of thumb can help you manage to get out of them without too much trouble.
Remember to always check your lie and assess how easily the club can get through the sand. Feel the sand with your feet as you dig in, because that will tell you how much resistance the sand will provide. Sometimes wet sand requires more speed. Sometimes a lack of overall sand in the bunker requires less speed.
There are nuances you learn over time, but overall the classic fundamentals never go out of style.