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Adjust your setup and swing for better bunker shots

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The easiest shot in golf should be a greenside bunker shot. I say that because golfers can be much less exacting from the sand than other lies. A bunker shot can be hit anywhere from 0.5 inches to 1.5 inches behind the ball and the shot can still work. Imagine if golfers had that margin of error from the fairway!

Even so, bunker shots aren’t that easy for most golfers, because the vast majority still dread being in the sand. Professionals, however, prefer the sand to shots from the tall grass around the green because the outcome is usually much more predictable.

Do you want to look forward to bunker shots like the pros? First, we should discuss the golf club. The sand wedge was first conceived by the great Gene Sarazen some 80 years ago. It is unique in that it has a “flange” on the bottom where the trailing edge is lower than the leading edge. That part of the golf club is called the “bounce angle,” which is the angle from the trailing edge to the leading edge of the club.

Wedge bounce

Place a sand wedge on a table in front of you at eye level (as I did above) and you will see the angle I’m describing. Depending on your make and model of wedge, that angle can vary considerably. The width of the flange is another consideration. For example, if you have a wedge with 12 degrees of bounce with a 0.5-inch inch sole, its leading edge will rest considerably closer to the ground than a wedge of the same bounce with a 1-inch sole.

Keep this guide in mind when choosing your tool for the sand:

  • Do you play courses with fluffy, loose sand? You need more bounce, perhaps 14 degrees or so. 
  • Do you play course with firmer, tightly packed sand? You might need less bounce, perhaps about 8 degrees or so. 

Remember the leading edge can be the enemy of bunker play, and bounce is your friend. There are a lot of great resources on the web to help you learn more about wedge design and find the right sand wedge, such as Vokey.com’s Wedge Glossary and Tour Grinds Comparisons, and I recommend that you learn more about wedges before you purchase a new one. As for loft, I recommend at least 55 degrees. But this article is about bunker play, so let’s move on.

The Setup

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Posture: Think about this for a minute. If a golfer is trying to hit a ball resting in the grass with ball first contact, and then tries to hit another shot from the sand an inch behind the ball, can the setup be the same? The answer is absolutely not.

To impact the ground an inch or so behind the ball, a golfers has to lower his or her swing center. How is it done? First, take your normal stance. Now widen your stance considerably to create a stance width that is well outside your shoulders. What’s different? Well, the added stance width moved you closer to the ground, so if you’re trying to hit the sand and not the ball first, you just took a big step in the right direction.

Need to lower your swing center even more? Stick your butt out, which also gets you lower. But there’s an exception to all of this. Those of you taking huge divots on the grass likely don’t need to lower your swing center in a bunker. It seems that you’re already going to find plenty of sand.

Ball position: Here’s an easy way to understand the proper ball position in a bunker: Is the greenside bunker shot a high shot or a low one? It’s a high one, of course. Anytime golfers want to hit a high shot, they move the golf ball forward in their stance and a bunker shot is no exception.

Here’s a note of caution, however, for golfers who have an out-to-in swing path. They shouldn’t move the ball forward in their stance. That can make you more out to it and make it harder to find sand behind the ball, the main cause of bunker shots that fly 10, 20 or more yards over the green.

Grip: A bunker shot is one of the few times that it may help golfers to actually weaken their grip. That’s because loft is a golfers best friend when they’re in the bunker, and many good players weaken their grip for this shot to keep the club face open through impact. Not everyone should weaken their grip, and it’s a particularly bad idea for slicers; but if you’re are having trouble hitting your bunker shots high enough give it a try. Otherwise, your normal grip is fine.

Alignment: Bunker shot alignment is a very personal thing and varies from golfer to golfer, even with good bunker players. Often, golfers read about opening their club face and aiming left when they’re in a bunker. But I am suggesting that if you have a problem with slicing the ball (from an out-to-in swing path) that you should not open your club face or stance very much.

It’s true that opening the club face usually adds bounce to a club, giving it a better chance to work through the sand, but if you’re a slicer you already have an open face relative to your path at impact. And since you already have an out-to-in path, why would you want to set up more open? That will cause you to swing even more out to in.

The Swing

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Let’s consider two scenarios: Golfers who hook the ball in their full swing, and those who slice the ball.

Generally, golfers who hook the ball tend to have shallow attack angles. To become better bunker players, they might consider:

  • Taking a wider stance.
  • Sticking their rear end out more.
  • Putting most of their weight on their lead side.
  • Opening their club face and their stance.
  • Picking the club up abruptly in the backswing, creating a very early wrist set.
  • Feeling as though they have “high hands” in their backswing
  • Following through more, which helps get even more of their weight on their left side.

Generally golfers who slice the ball tend to have steep attack angles. To become better bunker players, they might consider:

  • Setting up square to their target.
  • Having a slightly open to square club face at address.
  • Centering their weight at address.
  • Standing a little more upright at address.
  • Feeling a slight shoulder turn in their backswing.
  • Feeling that their downswing is coming more from the inside.
  • Releasing the club earlier.

Again, slicers tend come into the ball from the outside and fairly steeply. Those who hook the ball tend to come from the inside, and have an angle of attack that is more shallow. Think about that in terms of what I’ve written above and you’ll start to see why there is a difference.

Teaching bunker play without seeing an individual’s swing is nearly impossible. Too often teachers see great players giving bunker lessons telling people what they do to hit good bunker shots. That’s well and good, but a 20-handicap likely doesn’t have the skills of that good player and is just trying to extract the ball from the cat box!

If you have are having trouble in the bunker, I’m here to help. Post a video of your bunker swing to my Facebook page and I’ll do my best to give you my feedback. You can even post a video of your full swing, because I can tell a lot about your bunker game by how you hit full shots. Give my page a like while you’re there, too.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Winmac

    Mar 8, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    If you reverse pivot yourself in the bunker, you will likely hit a fat on fairways but in sand, it will work great.

    Or just do a normal pitch shot, but collapse your right knee on downswing. That will make you hit behind the ball and make that bunker shot.

  2. SN

    Mar 6, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Thanks for a great article.

    My worst enemy in bunker play is info-overload mind, though.
    Lately I just have one swing thought, “Believe in the bounce (angle)”

    • Dennis Clark

      Mar 7, 2014 at 8:37 am

      Thats a good thought…speed might be another.

  3. Dennis Clark

    Mar 6, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    you’re welcome; steep is the key and shallow is the enemy. If you have anything like an ascending angle, sand is tough!

  4. Philip

    Mar 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks for a brilliant look at cause and effect on bunker play from different angles. This helps to explain why when I went from tending to fade/slice last season to drawing/hooking while trying to improve my swing that I suddenly started to struggle in the sand. I was at a loss as to why I was occasionally thinning bunker shots and in spite of my continued progress with my swing, I was nervous thinking about what to do this season. I’ll be marking this article for study and review later.

    Once again, thanks!

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