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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 [email protected]

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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Instruction

Dennis Clark: Hitting from the turf

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I have seen as much as 4-5 MPH increase in clubhead speed when my students hit form a tee compared to hitting off the turf. Why?  Fear of FAT shots.

First question: Are you better hitting off a tee than on the turf?

Next question: When you play in a scramble and you have the option of dropping in the fairway or slightly in the first cut, do you choose the rough-especially when hitting over water or sand?

The answer to all these the same: Because the vast majority of golfers do not have a bottom of the swing arc safely in front of the golf ball consistently.

Consider a PGA Tour event, Korn Ferry, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, whatever…You might see missed fairways, missed greens, hooks, blocks, etc. but we rarely, if ever, see a FAT shot. They simply do not hit the ground before the golf ball. Of course, there are exceptions, into the grain on short pitches, for example, but they are just that-rare exceptions. On the other hand, go to any golf course and watch average golfers for a while. Fat shots are not uncommon. In fact, they, or the fear of them, dominate most golf games.

The number one mistake I have seen on the lesson tee for over 35 years is unquestionably a player’s inability to control the bottom of the golf swing. I have seen everything from hitting 4 inches behind the ball to never reaching the bottom at all It has been my experience that that hitting fat shots is the number one flaw in most golf swings.

Let’s start with this fact: elite level players consistently reach a swing bottom (low point) some 3-4 inches in front of the golf ball-time after time after time. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I’d like to look at today is the position of the golf club at impact with the golf ball.

The club is leaning forward, toward the target, the hands are ahead of the club head, never straight up over it, never behind it-always, always leaning forward is the only way to consistently bottom out in front of the golf ball.   

A player cannot hit a ball consistently from the turf until he/she learns this and how to accomplish it. For every golfer I teach who gets into this position, I might teach 50 who do not. In fact, if players did not learn how to “save” a shot by bailing out on the downswing (chicken wing, pull up, raise the handle, or come over the top, (yes over the top is a fat shot avoidance technique) they would hit the ground behind the golf ball almost every time!  Hitting better shots from the fairways, particularly from tight lies, can be learned, but I’m going to be honest: The change required will NOT be easy. And to make matters worse, you can never play significantly better until you overcome the fear of hitting it fat.. Until you learn a pattern where the bottom of the swing is consistently in front of the ball, the turf game will always be an iffy proposition for you.

This starts with a perception. When first confronted with hitting a golf ball, it seems only natural that an “up” swing is the way to get the ball in the air-help it, if you will. The act of a descending blow is not, in any way, natural to the new player. In fact, it is totally counterintuitive. So the first instincts are to throw the club head at the ball and swing up to get the ball in the air; in other words, it makes perfect sense. And once that “method” is ingrained, it is very difficult to change. But change if you must, if your goal is to be a better ball striker.

The position to strive for is one where the left wrist (for a right-hander) is flat, the right is slightly dorsiflexed, and the handle of the golf club is ahead of the grip end. Do your level best to pay attention to the look and feel of what you’re doing as opposed to the flight of the golf ball. FEEL that trail wrist bent slightly back, the lead wrist flat and the hands ahead. It will seem strange at first, but it’s the very small first step in learning to hit down on your tight lies. If some degree of that is not ultimately accomplished, you will likely always be executing “fit in” moves to make up for it. It is worth the time and effort to create this habit.

My suggestion is to get on a Trackman if possible to see where you’re low point actually is, or perhaps you may just want to start paying close attention to your divots-particularly the deepest part of them. I’m sure you will get into a pattern of bottoming out consistently in front of the ball when you begin to learn to get the hands ahead and the club head behind. And best of all, when this becomes your swing, you will lose the fear of hitting the turf first and be free to go down after the ball as aggressively as you like.

Ok, so how is this accomplished? While many players are looking for a magic bullet or a training aid which might help one miraculously get into a good impact position, I dare say there is not one. It is a trial and error proposition, a learn-from-the-mistakes kind of thing achieved only through repetition with a thorough understanding of what needs to be done. The hardest thing to do is IGNORE the outcome when learning a new motor skill, but you must do it. A couple of things you might try:

  • Start with 30-50 yard pitch shots, paying close attention to the hands leading at impact. Again ignore the outcome, look only at the divot.
  • Hit a TON of fairway bunker shots. Draw a line in the sand 3-4″ in front of the ball and try to hit it.
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What you can learn from the rearview camera angle

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We often analyze the golf swing from the face-on view or down-the-line camera angle. However, we can also learn how the body moves in the swing from the rearview or backside view.

When seeing the swing from the rearview, we can easily see how the glutes work. The trail glute actually moves back and around in the backswing. This means the glute moves towards the target or towards the lead heel. Note the trail glute start point and endpoint at the top of the backswing.

To some, this may seem like it would cause a reverse weight shift. However, this glute movement can enable the upper body to get loaded behind the ball. This is where understanding the difference between pressure, and weight is critical (see: “Pressure and Weight”).

This also enhances the shape of the body in the backswing. From the rear angle, I prefer to have players with a tuck to their body in their trail side, a sign of no left-side bend.

This puts the body and trail arm into a “throwing position”, a dynamic backswing position. Note how the trailing arm has folded with the elbow pointing down. This is a sign the trailing arm moved in an efficient sequence to the top of the backswing.

Next time you throw your swing on video, take a look at the rearview camera angle. From this new angle, you may find a swing fault or matchup needed in your golf swing to produce your desired ball flight.

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How to stop 3-putting and start making putts

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When we are 3-putting we are ‘stuck in the box’. This means that when we are standing over the putt the second before we make our stroke everything happens to ‘go downhill.’ When this happens, depending on your playing level, things can become a bit erratic on the putting surface.

When a 3 putt happens, it is typically because you failed to do something before you made your stroke. The large majority of my 3 putts happen when I am not completely SOLD on the line of my putt, aka not committed. Questioning anything over the ball will lead to 3 putts.

Here is a breakdown/checklist on how to approach the green and get your ball in the cup without hesitation.

1. It starts with the approach shot into the green and the decision of direction you make to enter the hole. Scan the entire green with your eyes on the walk-up. Left to right and right to left. Look for a few seconds before you step onto the putting surface. This helps determine the high side and the low side, or if the green is relatively flat. Don’t be picky, just look and make a decision.

2. Once you get to the ball, mark it. Take 3 steps behind your ball mark. Now you must pick a line… Left, Center, or Right of the cup. (Skip step 3 if you know the line) It should take seconds but for those that are not sure it will take longer. Understand that every putt has a statistical level of difficulty. So to increase the odds, players must avoid putting in the unsure mind, and take the time to figure out a line. I also find that people who are 3 putting are overly confident and just not committed aka too quick to putt.

3. To commit, you must find the angle of entry into the cup. Walk up to the hole and look at the cup. How is it cut? Determine if it is cut flat or on a slope angle. This will help you see the break if you are having a hard time. Then determine how much break to play. Cut the hole into 4 quarters with your eyes standing right next to it. Ask yourself, which quarter of the cup does the ball need to enter to make the putt go in the hole?

I encourage using the phrases ‘in the hole’ or ‘to the hole’ as great reinforcement and end thoughts before stroking the ball. I personally visualize a dial on the cup. When my eyes scan the edges, I see tick marks of a clock or a masterlock – I see the dial pop open right when I pick the entry quadrant/tick mark because I cracked the code.

Remember, the most important parts of the putt are: 1.) Where it starts and 2. ) Where it ends.

4. To secure the line, pick something out as the apex of the putt on the walk back to the mark. Stand square behind the ball mark and the line you have chosen.

5. To further secure the line, place your ball down and step behind it to view the line from behind the ball. Don’t pick up the ball mark until you have looked from behind. When you look, you need to scan the line from the ball to the cup with your eyes. While you are scanning, you can make adjustments to the line – left, right or center. Now, on the walk into the box, pickup the mark. This seals the deal on the line. Square your putter head to the ball, with feet together, on the intended line.

6. To make the putt, look at the apex and then the cup while taking your stance and making practice strokes to calibrate and gauge how far back and through the stroke needs to be.

7. To prove the level of commitment, step up to the ball and look down the intended line to the apex back to the cup and then back to the apex down to your ball. As soon as you look down at the ball, never look up again. Complete one entire stroke. A good visual for a putting stroke is a battery percentage and comparing your ‘complete stroke’ to the percentage of battery in the bar.

8. Look over your shoulder once your putter has completed the stroke, i.e. listen for the ball to go in and then look up!

If you find a way that works, remember it, and use it!

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