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The Wedge Guy: The 5 indisputable rules of bunker play

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I received a particularly interesting question this week from Art S., who said he has read all the tips about how to hit different sand shots, from different sand conditions, but it would be helpful to know why. Specifically, here’s what Art had to say:

“I recently found myself in a few sand traps in multiple lies and multiple degrees of wetness. I tried remembering all of the “rules” of how to stand, how much to open my club, how much weight to shift forward or back, etc. based on the Golf Channel but was hoping that you might be able to do a blog on the ‘why’ of sand play so that we can understand it rather than memorizing what to do. Is there any way you can discuss what the club is doing and why you open the club, open your stance, what you’re aiming for when you open up, and any other tips?”

Well, Art, you asked a very good question, so let’s try to cover the basics of sand play–the “geometry and physics” at work in the bunkers–and see if we can make all of this more clear for you.

First of all, I think bunkers are among the toughest of places to find your ball. We see the tour players hit these spectacular bunker shots every week, but realize that they are playing courses where the bunkers are maintained to PGA Tour standards, so they are pretty much the same every hole and every week. This helps the players to produce the “product” the tour is trying to deliver–excitement. Of course, those guys also practice bunker play every day.

All of us, on the other hand, play courses where the bunkers are different from one another. This one is a little firmer, that one a little softer. So, let me see if I can shed a little light on the “whys and wherefores” of bunker play.

The sand wedge has a sole with a downward/backward angle built into it – we call that bounce. It’s sole (no pun intended) function is to provide a measure of “rejection” force or lift when the club makes contact with the sand. The more bounce that is built into the sole of the wedge, the more this rejection force is applied. And when we open the face of the wedge, we increase the effective bounce so that this force is increased as well.

The most basic thing you have to assess when you step into a bunker is the firmness of the sand. It stands to reason that the firmer the texture, the more it will reject the digging effect of the wedge. That “rejection quotient” also determines the most desirable swing path for the shot at hand. Firmer sand will reject the club more, so you can hit the shot with a slightly more descending clubhead path. Conversely, softer or fluffier sand will provide less rejection force, so you need to hit the shot with a shallower clubhead path so that you don’t dig a trench.

So, with these basic principles at work, it makes sense to remember these “Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play”

  1. Firmer sand will provide more rejection force – open the club less and play the ball back a little to steepen the bottom of the clubhead path.
  2. Softer sand will provide less rejection force – open the club more and play the ball slighter further forward in your stance to create a flatter clubhead path through the impact zone.
  3. The ball will come out on a path roughly halfway between the alignment of your body and the direction the face is pointing – the more you open the face, the further left your body should be aligned.
  4. On downslope or upslope lies, try to set your body at right angles to the lie, so that your swing path can be as close to parallel with the ground as possible, so this geometry can still work. Remember that downhill slopes reduce the loft of the club and uphill slopes increase the loft.
  5. Most recreational golfers are going to hit better shots from the rough than the bunkers, so play away from them when possible (unless bunker play is your strength).

So, there you go, Art. I hope this gives you the basics you were seeking.

As always, I invite all of you to send in your questions to be considered for a future article. It can be about anything related to golf equipment or playing the game–just send it in. You can’t win if you don’t ask!

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Terry Koehler is a fourth generation Texan, a native of a small South Texas town and a graduate of Texas A&M University. He has had a most interesting 40-year career in the golf industry. He has created five start-up companies, ranging from advertising agencies to golf equipment companies. You might remember Reid Lockhart, EIDOLON, SCOR, or his leadership of the reintroduction of Ben Hogan to the golf equipment industry in 2014. For almost 25 years, his wedge designs have stimulated other companies to slightly raise the CG and improve wedge performance. He has just announced the formation of Edison Golf Company and the new Edison Forged wedges, which have been robotically proven to significantly raise the bar for wedge performance. Terry serves as Chairman and Director of Innovation for Edison Golf, which can be seen at www.EdisonWedges.com. Terry has been a prolific equipment designer of over 100 putters and several irons, but many know Koehler as simply “The Wedge Guy”, as he authored over 700 articles on his blog by that name from 2003-2010.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. freowho

    Jun 4, 2020 at 5:44 am

    Very good article. Clear and precise. Great advice for club golfers to avoid bunkers and be happier in the rough.

  2. juliette91

    Jun 3, 2020 at 8:50 pm

    Really good advice!!! Knowing the big picture as you’ve laid it out helps all of us figure out how to hit shots that you haven’t really covered–because we know the principles of where to hit the sand, how steep the angle of attack and how to align our bodies.
    I’m guessing in my own game this will save me a 1/2 stroke a round.

  3. b.mattau

    Jun 3, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    Rule 3 isn’t right at all, in fact it is patently false. It is way easier to play bunker shots with an open face from a square or even closed stance.

  4. SV

    Jun 3, 2020 at 9:48 am

    It’s not just firmness or softness of the sand. It’s also if there is really any sand at all under the ball. Many times I “feel” with my feet that there is a cushion of sand only to hit the shot and find it is like hitting off of the cart path because there is a minute layer of sand and then hard packed clay under the ball. In the midwest this seems to be a common occurrence, even on good courses.

    • david j hollander

      Jun 16, 2020 at 1:27 am

      ok, dirt is more firm than sand. Play a wedge with even less bounce and apply his tips.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: How to never miss another putt

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Learn how your own anatomy is designed to roll the golf ball in the direction you want to start the putt without any interference or assistance on your behalf.

All you need is a system of predictions that will help you confirm that your putting stroke is pointed in the right direction. This is how you become a witness to gravity sinking the putt for you. This will become clear after you listen to the podcast and give this a try at a golf course near you!

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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On Spec

On Spec: Bryson wins BIG and discussing the greatest combo sets

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Talking about Bryson – the most electric man in golf, his driving, putting, and one-length wedges. Plus breaking down the greatest forged combo sets of all time.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

Ways to Win: American Muscle in Detroit

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Bryson DeChambeau put quarantine to good use, putting on 40 pounds of muscle with a widely-documented diet of protein shakes and pizza. All that work in the gym paid off in a big way when he came from three back to overtake Matthew Wolff and win the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club.

Much has been said about DeChambeau’s newfound speed and ball speeds regularly breaking the 190 mph mark. To be honest, I really did not want to get pulled into writing an article about his driving, especially considering that his flatstick had quite a bit to do with his victory this weekend. However, once I started tracking his shots in V1 Game, it is hard not to be blown away by what he has done with the big stick.

Drive for Show?

After the opening nine of his first round, DeChambeau already had four drives longer than 340 yards. Bear in mind, two of those nine holes are par threes. The only drives that didn’t go past 320 yards were layups. On the 14th hole, he uncorked a 375-yard drive, and found the green with his second shot for a one-putt eagle. Maybe he hit a sprinkler head or ran down the cart path for 100 yards like he did at least once the previous week. However, just three holes later, on the 17th, his tee shot traveled 378 yards. The V1 Game screenshot shows that drive’s towering distance.

So, alright. I’m impressed. DeChambeau has found the cheat code to overpower golf courses, and the field. He apologized to course designer Donald Ross early in the week, knowing that the fairway bunkers just were not far enough out to keep him from blowing past them on the fly.

Now, 378-yard drives are one thing. There are a handful of long drivers that could easily hang with that, but Bryson was also incredibly accurate this week. He hit 33 of 56 fairways for just under 60 percent. Not bad. However, he did so while making only a single driving error on the week. (A Driving Error in V1 Game is a tee shot hit into a penalty or recovery situation)

On the 14th hole on Sunday, DeChambeau put a 355-yard tee shot behind some trees and was blocked from advancing to the green (a recovery situation). He then overcooked his punch-out into the lake for his only two ball-striking mistakes of the week. DeChambeau averaged more than 340 yards (when hitting driver) on the week for around 47 attempts. He did so without making mistakes! Wild.

Referring to the Strokes Gained Stack chart at the top of this article, DeChambeau gained an impressive 11.1 strokes on a typical field driving for the week. Now, the PGA Tour normalizes that data to the actual field and even then, he gained almost seven strokes with driving.

To say DeChambeau found the cheat code is a little unfair to all the work he has put in. Clearly, those gains are paying off on the golf course. However, DeChambeau has effectively found a way to separate from the field while being perfectly average with irons and in his short game. Here is the secret… Bryson can afford to be an average player from 150 yards if the rest of the field is 40 yards back, hitting from 190 yards.

The above screenshot from V1 Game shows DeChambeau averaged around 330 yards per day when all drives (including layups) were counted. Each day, he easily crossed the 350-yard barrier multiple times. V1 Game can help you track your driving distance should you want to work on similar gains.

Putt for Dough?

Setting the shock and awe factor aside, the fact remains that DeChambeau would not have won this tournament without 1) a little help from Wolff, who had five bogeys in his first 10 holes on Sunday, and 2) a really hot putter.

Again, DeChambeau was perfectly average with his approach game all week. He found a way, though, to routinely make long putts. On two of the four days, he crossed the 100-ft barrier for feet of putts made (which you can see tracked in the V1 Game round summary). On Thursday alone, DeChambeau made 138 ft of putts. Additionally, he only had a single three-putt for the entire week. Below is a summary of his putting performance for the week.

DeChambeau putted well this weekend, avoiding three putts and misses inside six feet, which are two critical keys to scoring you will see highlighted in the post-round performance tracking in V1 Game. Looking at his Strokes Gained: Putting, DeChambeau gained strokes in every bucket except for “From Less Than Three Feet,” where he had one short miss on the week. This phenomenal performance on the greens, particularly on Sunday, kept Wolff from ever getting too close.

Takeaways

DeChambeau put in the work and it is paying dividends. He has been in contention each week following the quarantine and shows no signs of stopping if he can keep his tee shots flying as straight as he has thus far. If he could figure out a way to just be slightly above average with the irons, he would be very difficult to catch.

Much can be learned from seeing how the pros manage the course and get it done from day to day with different parts of their game. The big takeaway this week: If you want to improve your Strokes Gained: Driving, find a reliable way to hit it farther. V1 Game can help you track your progress on the course as you try to hit those distance goals.

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