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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.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. fred

    Jul 25, 2018 at 7:15 pm

    this article made me turn my stomach

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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: What to do when you’re short sided

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Top-100 instructor Tom Stickney shows you how to avoid compounding a mistake when you’ve missed the ball on the wrong side of the green.

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Why flaring your left foot out at address could be a big mistake

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In his book “Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” published in 1957, Ben Hogan recommended that golfers position their right foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line, and then position their left-foot a quarter of a turn outward at a 15-degree angle (Note: He was writing for right-handed golfers). The purpose of the left-foot foot position was to assist in the “clearing of the left hip,” which Hogan believed started his downswing.

Through this Hogan instruction book and the others he wrote through the years, there four categories that defined his advice;

  1. He accurately described what was occurring in his swing.
  2. He described a phantom move that never occurred.
  3. He described something that occurred but to a lesser degree than indicated.
  4. He inaccurately described what was happening in his swing.

As evidenced by today’s modern video, Hogan did not open up his left hip immediately as he described. This piece of advice would fall into the fourth category listed above — he inaccurately described what was happening in his swing. In reality, the first move in his downswing was a 10-12 inch shift of his left hip forward toward the target before his left hip ever turned open.

SPINNING OUT

Those amateur golfers who strictly adopted his philosophy, opening the left hip immediately, ended up“spinning out” and never getting to their left foot. The spin-out was made even worse by the 15-degree angle of the left foot Hogan offered. That said, based on Hogan’s stature in the golf world, his advice regarding the positioning of the feet was treated as if it were gospel and adopted by both players and teachers. Since that time his hip action has been debated, but the positioning of the left foot has remained unquestioned — until today.

THE FLARED FOOT POSITION

The flared position of his left foot may or may not have been of assistance in helping Hogan achieve the desired outcome in his swing. That really is not the point, but rather that over a half-century there has never been a voice that argued against the flared foot position he advocated.

The rest of the golf world accepted his advice without question. In my opinion, the left foot position advocated by Hogan has harmed countless golfers who slowly saw their swings fall apart and wondered why. His well-meaning advice was a poisoned pill, and once swallowed by golfers it served to eventually erode what was left of their left side.

DEAD WRONG

The subject of this piece is not to debate Hogan’s hip action but the piece that accompanied it, the 15-degree flare of the left foot. I’m of the opinion that it is not only wrong. Because of its toxic nature, it is DEAD WRONG.  The reason has to do with the tailbone, which determines the motion of the hips in the swing. The more the left foot opens up at address, the more the tailbone angles backward. That encourages the hips to “spin out” in the downswing, which means they have turned before the player’s weight has been allowed to move forward to their left foot and left knee.

As a consequence of the hips spinning out, players move their weight backward (toward the right foot), encouraging a swing that works out-to-in across the body. You can see this swing played out on the first tee of any public golf course on a Saturday morning.

FOOT FLARE ISSUES

The problem with the 15-degree foot flare is that it promotes, if not guarantees, the following swing issues:

In the backswing, the flared left foot:

  1. Discourages a full left- hip turn;
  2. Encourages the improper motion of the left-knee outward rather than back
  3. Reduces the degree that the torso can turn because of the restrictions placed on the left hip.

In the downswing, the flared left foot: 

  1. Promotes a “spinning out” of the left hip.
  2. Does not allow for a solid post at impact.

STRAIGHT AHEAD

In working with my students, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most advantageous position for the left foot at address is straight ahead at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The reason is not only because it encourages a positive moment of the player’s weight forward in the downswing, but it also improves the player’s chances of making a sound backswing.

THE POWER OF THE LEFT HEEL

There is an inherent advantage to placing the left-foot at a 90-degree to the target-line. It is the strongest physical position against which to hit the ball, as it provides a powerful post at impact that serves to increase both power and consistency.

JACK NICKLAUS

A number of years ago, Jack Nicklaus appeared on the cover of Golf Digest. The byline suggested that in studying Jack’s footwork, they had discovered something that up to that point was unknown. The “secret” they were describing was that after lifting his left heel in the backswing, he replanted it in the downswing with his heel closer to the target line than his toe. The intimation was that this might be a secret source of power in his swing.  This was hardly a “secret,” and something that Nicklaus was probably unaware of until it was pointed out to him, but it’s a demonstration of the fact that his natural instinct was to turn his foot inward, rather than outward, on the downswing.

THE DISCUS THROWER

The discus thrower whirls around in a circle as he prepares to throw. On the final pass, he plants his left toe slightly inward, relative to his heel, because this is the most powerful position from which to cast the discus. This position allows the thrower to draw energy from the ground while at the same time providing a strong post position from which additional torque can be applied. The point is that as the discus thrower makes the final spin in preparation for the throw, he does not turn the lead foot outward. Why? Because if it were turned outward, the potential draw of energy from the ground would be compromised.

The same is true when it comes to swinging a golf club for power, and you can test the two positions for yourself. After turning the left foot into a position that is 90 degrees to the target line, you will immediately note the ease with which you can now turn away from the target in addition to the strength of your left side post at the point of impact. Conversely, when you turn your left foot out, you will feel how it restricts your backswing and does not allow for a strong post position on the downswing.

REPAIRING YOUR SWING

Do you have trouble cutting across the ball? You might look to the position of your left foot and the action of the left hip. The first step would be to place your left foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The second step would be to turn you left hip around in a half circle as if tracing the inside of a barrel. The third step would be to feel that you left your left hip remains in the same position as you scissor your weight towards your left toe, and then your right heel, allowing the club to travel on the same path. The combination of these changes will encourage the club to swing in-to-out, improving the path of your swing.

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Instruction

WATCH: Over-the-top vs. over-and-through: 1 destroys a swing, 1 can save it

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This video is about OVER-AND-THROUGH, which is very different than being over-the-top. Over-and-through is a great recovery from a backswing that is not quite in the right position. Over-the-top is flat-out a full default to the ball. See how you can bridge the gap with getting your swing to deliver better to the target!

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