Bunker shots are the nemesis of many golfers, but bunker play is one area of the game where some simple coaching can have a huge impact. In the guide we’ll cover how to hit bunker shots and move onto some advanced tips for controlling distance, accuracy and trajectory.
Table of Contents
- 1 The goal of bunker shots
- 2 Basic methods – getting the ball out of a bunker
- 3 Bunker shot set-up
- 4 How to hit a bunker shot – the swing
- 5 Controlling direction of your bunker shots
- 6 Controlling distance and trajectory of bunker shots
- 7 Bunker swing drill
- 8 Advanced bunker swing techniques
- 9 Summary
The goal of bunker shots
The key aim of any bunker shot is to firstly, get the ball out of the bunker and secondly, to get the ball close enough to your target to sink your next putt. Many golfers lack a method – they get confused knowing how much sand to take, how to do this consistently and how on earth you get good enough to start holing bunker shots. In this guide I aim to cover all three. This is an area I love coaching!
Basic methods – getting the ball out of a bunker
Bunker shots are the one shot in golf where you don’t directly strike the golf ball, instead you aim to slide the golf club underneath the golf ball, whilst taking a slim pocket of sand.
The image to keep in mind throughout this tutorial is one of the circle of sand around the golf ball below. Your aim when playing a bunker shot is to throw this circle of sand onto the green using your golf swing – as long as the circle of sand lands on the green, your golf ball will too.
You can draw these circles of sand during practice (we’ll cover this in a bunker drill later on) and picture these circles around your golf ball when on the golf course, they are super handy.
Bunker shot set-up
The secret in becoming a great bunker player is combining the image above along with a foolproof set-up to help you achieve perfect contact every time. The low-point in your golf swing is under your sternum situated above the centre of your stance, by placing the golf ball 2-3 inches forward in your stance you can confidently make a swing knowing your club will enter the sand at this point.
The video below provides a simple way to achieve this set-up. By following the steps in this video, repeating the set-up and making swings all the way through into the finish position, you will quickly start to hit great bunker shots.
How to hit a bunker shot – the swing
As you go through this drill try to copy the body action – you’ll notice the player keeps their posture pretty consistent, but there is a really positive rotation through the shot, with the whole body turning to face the target – contrary to what golfers think, keeping your head firmly fixed down is not helpful advice. Instead maintain your posture, but ensure your body rotates through into the follow-through shown in the right-hand image below.
Once you have the correct set-up, a basic bunker swing is just like a normal golf swing. Because you are not making direct contact with the golf ball you require a pretty big swing for a short bunker shot. This does take a little practice, but with the set-up above and a consistent strike you’ll soon be able to master how big a swing to make.
Controlling direction of your bunker shots
I would love to give you a simple answer for controlling the direction of your bunker shots, but the truth is that it is complicated. What we do know is that the ball will launch in between your swing path and where your club face is pointed at impact (red zone below).
Just like normal golf shots, the ball will generally start much closer to where your club face is pointing (black arrow below). However, once your club loft at impact increases to ~ 65° and above the club face begins to have less effect, and the ball will begin to shift towards your swing path. How much sand you strike between the club face and golf ball also affects this relationship.
This may sound very detailed, but controlling your accuracy is an area where, with practice, you build up a great understanding of where the ball will take off. Once you understand the concepts above, let your instinct take over with where to aim for varying bunker shots.
Controlling distance and trajectory of bunker shots
Controlling the distance of your bunker shots can then done in two ways – you can keep your set-up the same for every shot and just make a bigger swing back and through as you need to increase distance. Or you can open and close your club face as you grip the golf club to increase/decrease the loft you have. This second option allows you to make a pretty similar bunker swing for all shots and just use more or less loft to control distance.
Both of these approaches are useful and as you become a more advanced bunker player you will incorporate both into your play and practice. For beginner golfers I would recommend the second option of altering your club loft. This approach of adjusting club loft means you can keep your bunker swing the same for most shots, and ensures you fully commit to every bunker shot.
Bunker swing drill
Taking this knowledge, use the bunker drill below to practice your sand shots. Draw a circle of sand around the ball, a practice circle next to it, master your set-up and see how accurately you can get your club to enter the sand at the correct point.
Vary your club loft and swing length to find your most consistent way to control distance.
Advanced bunker swing techniques
Once you have the basics in place you can move onto some more elaborate bunker shots and skills. This section assumes you have an understanding of wedge bounce (I’m currently putting a short article together on this topic – a link will be place in here).
Advanced bunker skills include: getting out of various lies, mastering bunker shots with more or less sand and honing a wrist release technique specifically for bunker shots.
Plugged lies and semi-plugged lies
For bunker shots where the ball is sat down in the sand you need to make a few adaptations in your set-up to help the club dig down through the sand, rather than bounce.
Different clubs have varying levels of bounce, but the specific amount of bounce for a given shot is controlled by the shaft lean and how open the club face is as the club enters the sand.
More forward shaft lean and a squarer club face mean less bounce for a given club. This will encourage the club to dig deeper into the sand and extract the ball from a slightly buried lie. This set-up means more of the club’s energy is transferred into digging down through impact, and less into propelling the sand and golf ball forward, so for these golf shots you’ll generally need a more powerful swing to get the golf ball to your target.
Plugged lies in a bunker
When you come across a completely plugged golf ball, as in the video below, you need to make some serious adaptations to dig the golf ball out. The changes required in these instances are – the golf ball moves back in our stance, our hands move forward to create forward shaft lean and we thump down into the sand – hoping the ball pops out.
Sand depths and types for bunker shots
Many golfers struggle when bunkers have varying levels of sand in them, but once you have mastered the key concepts in this article, varying sand depths is far less of an issue. The same formula we described above is of great use when playing from varying levels of sand.
As you set-up for a bunker shot, shuffle your feet into the sand (yes this is legal if it is part of taking your normal stance). This should give you a good indication of how much sand is under your golf ball. For situations with less sand, or hard compact sand, select a wedge with less bounce and use a set-up that encourages the club to dig down (forward shaft lean and square club face). This makes it far easier for the club head to travel under the golf ball, rather than bouncing back up.
When you are faced with deep sand, or lots of light fluffy sand, choose a club with more bounce, open the club face fully and keep your hands behind the club head; creating a backward shaft lean. This will encourage the club to bounce back to the surface and prevent it digging too deep.
Making these adaptations at set-up allows you to make far less changes to your bunker swing technique, which will make you a far more consistent bunker player.
Mastering release and bunker shot trajectory
If you’ve put very little time and effort into your bunker play previously I would urge you to read the advice above and head off for a few weeks of practice. The information provided is perfect for taking your bunker play from beginner-level through to single-figure standard.
Once you’re pretty hot out of the sand, have a read of this section. Here I’ve included a couple of advanced techniques accompanied by a TaylorMade video from Tiger Woods and Jason Day.
Advanced bunker set-up adaptations
The first tweak to make to your standard bunker set-up is to increase your knee flex and to push your hands lower at set-up. This increases the radial deviation in your wrists and encourages a steeper shaft angle and more wrist hinge through your golf swing. It is a small, but important change for what comes next.
The second adaptation is learning how to create a unique release for your bunker shots. Tiger discusses this in the video above (2min 30s – 3mins). Great players flex their left wrist through impact, keeping the loft of the club pointing towards the sky.
This approach is a more advanced way of hitting high-soft bunker shots. It allows you to hit high, soft bunker shots that release straight, like a putt, rather than spinning sharply right.
To work on this change head to a practice bunker, dig your club into the sand with an open club face and shuffle the club around until it has a pile of sand on the club face. Then move into a follow through, trying to keep all of the sand on your club face. It is a strange sensation at first as this is a move that is damaging to most parts of your golf game – it feels like you are trying to scoop the golf ball up into the air. With a little practice, take this feeling and see what bunker shots you can hit. You’ll soon be hitting higher, softer landing bunker shots.
Great bunker play is a blend of understanding the basic theory and mastering a simple, repeatable set-up. Once you have these two aspects in place, practice in a measurable way to build your confidence.
Moving from being a good to exceptional bunker player requires you to adjust your set-up to hit consistent shots from varying lies and some fine-tuning your bunker technique – allowing you to hit some audaciously high and soft bunker shots.
I love coaching golfers to become better bunker players, so I sure hope this article is helpful. If you would like more short game guides check out these links in how to chip, here for some more advanced golf chipping tips and this article for a great short game practice plan.
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Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK
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