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How to hit bunker shots different distances

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I have a student named Trisha, who is a junior in high school. She is an excellent ball-striker, but her bunker play is below par… that was until her last lesson. I took her down to the short-game area where we talked for a while before getting started.

“You said you were having trouble getting out of a bunker,” I asked.

“Yes, in my last round I bladed the ball over the green and into the water,” she said. “I had to take a drop behind the hazard, and then I chunked my wedge shot into the water. I ended up taking a nine, and worse, at the time I was only 2-over par for the day.

“Why do you think you bladed the shot,” I asked?

“I’m not sure, but since then I’ve been afraid to really swing at the ball,” she said. “Now, I’m leaving every shot in the bunker.”

“I’m guessing that you moved forward on the downswing,” I said. “In playing these shots, you have to stay absolutely centered.” 

I went on to tell Trisha that in bunker play, you must limit the number of factors — and there are only two factors:

  1. Width of Cut
  2. Depth of Cut

In terms of controlling distance, the depth of cut is the constant while the width of cut is the variable. I asked Trisha to make some practice swings with her 56-degree wedge while just skimming the surface of the bunker.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “You’re keeping the depth of cut consistent. The next step is to begin controlling the width.”

I then drew a channel in the sand that was 6-inches wide. I explained that the objective was to remove the sand from the middle of the channel, while at the same time managing both the enter and exit points.

“Are you ready to give it a try?” I asked after showing her the technique. 

“Sure,” she said. “I think I can do that.”

I had drawn a series of channels in the sand, and as she moved from one to the other I remained quiet. She wasn’t hitting a golf ball… just skimming the sand. After she was done, we studied the first channel together.

“What do you see?” I asked. 

“Well, I entered past the front line of the channel,” she replied.

“Were there a ball there, what do you thing would have happened,” I asked.

“I guess I would have bladed it just like I did the other day,” she said.

“Yes, that is right,” I said. “Let’s look at the next one. Here you entered behind the front line. How do you think the ball would have reacted to this swing?”

“The ball probably would have stayed in the bunker,” she answered.

“Yes, right again,” I said. “I don’t think we need to look at the rest. What this suggests is that you are moving your center of mass during the shot. You can only be consistent when there is no lateral movement in your swing.”

“How do stay centered,” she asked?

“I’m glad you asked that question,” I said. “I’ll show you, but there are a few details we need to cover first.”

I stepped into the bunker. 

“In playing bunker shots, you need a weaker grip. First, move your left thumb to the center of the handle with your right-hand squarely on top of your left thumb. The “V” formed by the thumb and forefinger of your right-hand should point at your chin.”

“Like this?” she asked, showing me the revised grip. 

“Yes, that is correct,” I said. “The second step is to assume your setup, which includes: widening your stance, centering the ball between your feet, positioning the club shaft in a neutral position neither leaning forward or back, and then lastly, lowering yourself down while pushing your tailbone back and up to anchor your lower body.”

“I think I’ve got it,” she said climbing into the bunker. 

She worked her feet into the sand, choking up on the club to make up for the difference in length. And then she duplicated my setup position.

“Did I get it right coach?” she asked

“Yes, that’s correct,” I said. 

“What’s next?” she asked. 

“Let me show you,” I said, climbing back into the bunker.

“I’m going to turn my stomach out from underneath me in both directions without moving any other part of my body,” I said. “At the same time, I’m going to allow my arms, hands and wrists to react to the weight of the club, paying special attention to my right wrist, which must hinge to have enough energy to work through the sand.”

“I understand,” she said. “What’s next?” 

“As we talked earlier, you are going to just skim the sand entering and exciting an imaginary channel.”

“I understand,” she said. “This time I’ll pay more attention to that part of my swing.”

She then set up to the ball and swung. She bladed her first shot, sending it over the green. Then she left her second shot in the bunker. She looked at me with a frown.

You have to stay centered, ” I said. “Keep trying.”

The next time she anchored her center and on striking the ball, it floated up into the air landing softly onto the green.

“I bet you can’t do that again,” I said. 

I had given her a challenge. I could tell by her body language that she was determined to prove me wrong. Her next shot was like the first.

“How’s that coach?” she said with a big smile on her face.

Now that she had tasted some success, she was anxious to move on.  

“How do I control distance,” she asked.

“You vary the width of the channel, but that may take a little practice,” I said. “I suggest that we work on that at your next lesson. How do you feel?”

“I not scared anymore, she said. “I think with some more practice I’m only going to improve.”

“I agree,” I said, and we climbed back into the cart and made our way back to the clubhouse.

What I’ve found in teaching this technique to other students is that their bunker play improves immediately… just like Trisha. And with a little practice, they are able to begin to vary the distance of their shots. You can do the same, but just remember the formula:

The depth of cut is the constant. The width of cut is the variable.

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As a teacher, Rod Lidenberg reached the pinnacle of his career when he was named to GOLF Magazine's "Top 100" Teachers in America. The PGA Master Professional and three-time Minnesota PGA "Teacher of the Year" has over his forty-five year career, worked with a variety of players from beginners to tour professionals. He especially enjoys training elite junior players, many who have gone on to earn scholarships at top colleges around the country, in addition to winning several national amateur championships. Lidenberg maintains an active schedule teaching at Bluff Creek Golf Course Chanhassen, Minnesota, in the summer and The Golf Zone, Chaska, Minnesota, in the winter months. As a player, he competed in two USGA Public Links Championships; the first in Dallas, Texas, and the second in Phoenix, Arizona, where he finished among the top 40. He also entertained thousands of fans playing in a series of three exhibition matches beginning in 1972, at his home course, Edgewood G.C. in Fargo, North Dakota, where he played consecutive years with Doug Sanders, Lee Trevino and Laura Baugh. As an author, he has a number of books in various stages of development, the first of which will be published this fall entitled "I Knew Patty Berg." In Fall 2017, he will be launching a new Phoenix-based instruction business that will feature first-time-ever TREATMENT OF THE YIPS.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Tricky R

    Jun 29, 2018 at 1:19 pm

    So, you don’t know how to hit it different distances out of the sand either? Your article should have been called “Hey all you 25 handicappers, here is how to hit the most basic sand shot.”
    I would like that 3 minutes of my life back please.

  2. george

    Jun 28, 2018 at 2:12 pm

    Imagine a headline that reads: “Hot to hit bunker shots different distances” and then you write an article about how to get the ball out but keep the secret to different distances to yourself.

  3. Briny Baird

    Jun 27, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    My two sand thoughts.

    Imagine the ball is sitting on a classic tee which is under the sand. Aim to break tee in half.

    Sand soft, swing hard; sand hard, swing soft

  4. Greg V

    Jun 27, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    I’m going to turn my stomach out from underneath me in both directions without moving any other part of my body,”

    How do you do that? OR is it a feeling?

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Instruction

WATCH: Two drills to help you stop hitting it fat

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Here’s a response to a question on my Instagram page from Neil Riley. He asked if he should steepen the angle of attack in the downswing in order to stop hitting fat shots. In this video, I share two of the reasons why golfers might be hitting fat shots, as well as two drills to practice that will help them stop hitting it fat.

 

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Changing your golf swing? Consider this before you do

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Golfers I have taught over the years have an almost uncanny ability to put the golf club on the ball (to varying degrees, of course). I have seen well-hit shots from an incredibly wide variety of positions. I’ve seen closed faces, open faces, steep swings, flat swings, outside-in paths, inside-out paths, slow and fast swings, strong grips and weak grips ALL hit the golf ball solidly at times. How? Well, thinking about this may very well help your swing, especially before you decide to change something in it. Let’s take a look at a few examples to explain.

Strong Grips/Closed Clubfaces

We’ll start with the example of a strong grip that tends to get the clubface quite closed to the arc in the swing and at the top of the swing. If that is left alone in the downswing, the shots are very predictable: low and left (for a right-hander), sometimes barely getting off the ground. But many golfers hit the ball in the air and straight with a strong grip; in fact, many hit high blocks to the right. How? Well, they open the face on the way down and usually “hold on” through impact. They adapt to the closed clubface to make it work, and that’s the point here.

Now, if they reach good impact consistently like a Dustin Johnson, Graham McDowell and several others do with a closed clubface, we have no problem. But often club golfers do not; in fact, many slice and top the ball from a shut face at the top.  They do so because opening a closed face is a very shallowing move and prevents one from releasing the club properly (it’s a power outage as well).  Functionally, however, opening a shut is far better than releasing it from there, for obvious reasons. If the trail hand pronates, the face goes from closed to really closed. So golfers simply learn to open it.

So along comes some well-meaning friend who says your clubface is really closed at the top. You look at many great players, and sure enough, your face is clearly shut. So you correct it. What happens next is also very predictable: high and very right, and very thin with many topped shots. Why? Because you only corrected part of the problem. You fixed the shut face, but now you’ve taken a square clubface and massively opened it as a force of habit. You have ingrained that move into your swing because you had to open your old, shut clubface in the downswing. Correcting only ONE thing made your swing worse. Your swing is now dysfunctional.

That’s why if you commit to one change for the sake of improvement or consistency, you have to commit to both changes. If you don’t, you’ll get worse… not better.

Steep Swings

Here’s another: many amateur players start the downswing with the golf club far too steep. Maybe it’s over the top, maybe not (you can be just as steep from inside the ball). But when the golf club is too vertical in transition, it can result in any one of a number of impact mistakes: namely fat, slices and toe hits. So the idea of “flattening the transition” (good idea) becomes your priority, but there’s always a catch. Most experienced golfers correct steep through one of a few different ways listed below:

  • Raising the hands (standing the club up) to avoid fat shots
  • Tilting the torso back or away from the target to avoid opening the face
  • Sending the hands away from the body to avoid toes hits
  • Raising the swing center

You get the picture here. You learn to get the club on a better plane (flatter with the butt of the grip pointed more at the golf ball), but you’ll likely still have one of the “fit-in” moves left into impact. So a flatter club, which is by far a better way to square the face, might result in a shank if you’re used to sending your hands away from your body to avoid a toe hit. Raising the hands might top. Tilting the torso back away might hit shallow fats or tops. So you fixed the steep transition, but your impact is worse! Again, you’re dysfunctional.

Remember, if you commit to one change, you MUST commit to both.

Weak Grips/Over-The-Top

One more: Golfers who start out with a weak grip (as most do) slice. So as a reaction, they come over the top and swing outside-in. So they fix the grip, and of course, the result is predictable. They pull the ball, generally low and left (for right-handers). You get the pattern here. They need to learn a new swing direction, and on and on.

The lesson is clear; a single correction of a swing issue can be sufficient, but in my experience, two corrections must be tackled for long-term improvement. What to correct first? Well, you’d have to consult with your teacher or coach. As a rule, I try to get better impact first if I can get someone there from where their swing is now. Some other teachers may prefer a different sequence, but I think they’d all agree that a two-part correction is ultimately in the works.

I’ve always believed that teachers can disagree widely on the prescription, but they should be pretty much in unison regarding the diagnosis. Learn the swing flaw AND your reaction to it before you decide to make a swing change.

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How to use your handicap to lower your scores

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The fastest way to improve the game of an amateur, or a handicap golfer, is to use the established handicap as a guide to direct and then to measure that improvement. The measurement component is simple; as the game improves, the handicap goes down. Using the handicap as a guide is a bit more complex because the player must be dedicated, determined and disciplined enough to stay within the improvement process. And before I share with you the process, I want to share the foundation, or the rationale, that makes it work.

“Placing the ball in the right position for the next shot is 80 percent of winning golf.”

— Ben Hogan

Not all that long ago, I was present when a friend of a client of mine was complaining that no matter what he did with practice or lessons he just wasn’t getting better. He said that if he could just break 90 once he could “die a happy man.” It sounded like an opportunity to be of service to me, so I agreed to a playing lesson. The short version of that lesson was I told him what to hit and where to hit it — and he shot 87.

Was he happy? Not on your life! Angry, not quite… but really upset. Why? The poor guy said he didn’t have any fun!

The day of the playing lesson, I met the player on the range while he was warming up. I observed that he should never hit a driver, so I didn’t let him. I observed he couldn’t hit a long iron, so I didn’t let him. I had him tee off with a six iron on the par 4’s and 5’s, which he hated. And if he could have controlled his putting distance a bit better he wouldn’t have three-putted three times. No penalty shots, no water balls and no OB’s. All we did for 18 holes was try to put the ball in play and to keep it in play. He hated it. So much for dying a happy man.

During this playing lesson, I used the player’s handicap as a guide to maximize his playing ability, and I used his ability to help him make the best score he could at that time. So how did I use his handicap? I could see this player was no better than an 18, so I added one stroke to the posted par for each hole. Par 3’s became Par 4’s. Par 4’s became Par 5’s, and Par 5’s became Par 6’s. Once his par was established, he played each hole to get on the green according to that par adjustment. For example, the 210-yard par-3 became a 210-yard par-4. So instead of trying to get on the green from the tee, we used a strategy to get on the green in two and then two-putt for a 4, or “his par.”

I advocate every player use this handicap game-improvement system. A 15-handicap adjusts 15 holes so his par changes from 72 to 87; an 8-handicap adjusts eight holes so that his par changes from 72 to 80. I use this process for plus handicaps and professionals as well. A plus-4 adjusts four holes so his/her par changes from 72 to 68. Using this mindset, my playing lesson shot 3-under his par of 90.

I’ve had clients cut their handicaps in half in just a few months by adherence to this process. It works in lowering scores because it eliminates most “unforced errors,” and about half of all dropped shots at all levels are a direct result of unforced errors. Unforced errors occur when something is attempted that the player can’t do or shouldn’t do. The fewer unforced errors per round, the lower the score. It’s as simple as that.

I strongly urge golfers to chart each round of golf in order to identify every unforced error. Just email me at edmyersgolf@gmail.com and I will send the game-improvement scorecard that I have my clients use to evaluate their performance.

Posting lower scores is how handicaps go down, and all handicaps plateau when the player is faced with the realities of what he/she can and can’t do. For example, an improving handicap golfer may require the need to use clubs or hit shots not previously necessary. The playing experience reveals what needs practice, and practice is where the player should learn what can and can’t be done. Rule of Thumb: if you can do it 7/10 times in practice, you can consider doing it in play.

In the opening paragraph, I stated that dedication, determination, and discipline are required to stay within this improvement process should the player decide to implement it. But I should have said it takes a whole lot of all three. Experience tells me that players say what they feel, but do what they want. Neither is a plan for progress.

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