Playing from Fairway Bunkers

Hitting your tee shot straight is always important, but when you’re playing a hole lined with fairway bunkers, there’s a bit more pressure to hit it in the short grass. That’s because playing from fairway bunkers is not a whole lot of fun. It’s hard to be aggressive or confident in a fairway bunker, and because of the difficulty involved in creating a simulation at practice facilities, it’s one of the least practiced shots in all of golf.

This is why mastering play from a fairway bunker is all about experience and time. Still, knowing the basic strategy for the situation can only help for when you eventually find yourself in one.

But before you even take a swing at it, here are some important rules to keep in mind when you step into the hazard. The same rules for greenside bunkers apply to fairway bunkers, since both types of sand traps are considered the same type of hazard.

Rule: Grounding the Club

Unlike on a regular lie (in the fairway or rough, for example), you cannot put your clubhead down onto the ground when you set up for a bunker shot. The only time your club can touch the sand in a bunker is at impact on your downswing. That means no practice swings can touch the sand; you can’t lie a club down in the sand for any reason other than stopping yourself from falling; and you have to hover the clubhead above the ground when you set up to the ball.

  • Reasoning: The rule stands so that a golfer can’t improve his lie in the bunker by pressing the sand down behind the ball. Being able to lower the level of sand behind the ball would essentially “tee up” the ball on the higher sand, making it easier to get loft and spin.
  • Penalty: The penalty for grounding your club in a sand bunker is two strokes added to the golfer’s score on that hole.

Rule: Loose Impediments

In regular lies, golfers can move any loose impediments (objects not attached to the ground) that might obstruct their golf shot, as long as removing the object doesn’t move the ball. In sand bunkers, however, the rule is different. Golfers can remove artificial loose impediments from the bunker, but not natural loose impediments. That is, a golfer can remove a rake, a soda bottle, or a candy wrapper from the bunker (as long as doing so doesn’t disturb the ball), but any fallen leaves, twigs, pine cones, etc. may not be removed.

  • Reasoning: Bunkers are hazards, and part of the consequence of being in one is having to deal with a more difficult lie, as long as the obstructions are naturally part of the golf course.
  • Penalty: The player will have a two-stroke penalty added to his score if a natural, loose impediment in the same hazard as the ball is moved.

Hitting the Shot

So now that you know what you can and cannot do in a fairway bunker, it’s time to hit the shot.

Step 1: Club Up

Hitting from the sand will result in a less powerful shot than usual, so use a club or two more than you normally would. For instance, if you’d typically use a 7-iron from that distance in the fairway, use a 6 or 5-iron to get the same distance from a fairway bunker.

Step 2: Judge the Loft You’ll Need

Depending on the height of the bunker’s lip, you might need to get the ball up quicker in order to clear it. The higher you want the ball to go, the more you need to open the face of your club by turning the club in your hands. Since this move will affect your club’s alignment, make sure you’re lined up the way you want to be.

Step 3: Ball Position

For the sake of balance, widen your stance just a bit more than usual. Get your feet past shoulder width until you feel stable. Also, make sure the ball is in the middle of your stance. If the ball is too far forward in your stance, you’ll hit the sand before you hit the ball, which is the opposite of what you want in a fairway bunker.

Step 4: Plant Yourself

The top of the sand can be a bit loose and slippery, so get a sturdy footing by firmly planting your cleats into the sand. The rules say you cannot build yourself a better stance, but you can dig your cleats into the sand for what is known as a “fair stance.” Flex your knees and stay solid.

Step 5: Choke Down

Choke down on the club’s grip exactly as much as you dug yourself into the sand with your cleats. This will ensure that you make solid contact on the bottom part of your swing’s arc.

Step 6: Visualize Your Swing

The major thing to keep in mind about a full swing from a fairway bunker is to keep your lower body quiet throughout the swing. Setting up with about 60 percent of your weight on your front leg will combat the temptation to use too much hip action and weight shifting during your swing.

The other main aspect of the fairway bunker shot is to make sure you hit the ball first. Unlike in a greenside bunker, where you want to hit the sand first to get the ball up in the air, hitting the sand first in a fairway bunker will only cause you to flub your shot. Instead, imagine picking the ball clean off of the top of the sand.

Step 7: Take Your Backswing

The only difference between your backswing from the grass and your backswing from a fairway bunker is your lower body. Here, keep your legs and hips quiet and steady. Make sure you get a full rotation from your shoulders; watch that front shoulder come up under your chin at the top of your swing.

Step 8: Downswing & Follow-Through

Once you’re fully coiled at the top of your swing, you’ve got to power through on your downswing. As you start coming down with your club, feel your back elbow tuck into your side. Let the grip of the club’s shaft lead the way, and keep your wrists hinged until just before impact, when you should snap your wrists at the ball.

Again, your lower body will remain pretty steady through impact. Since you started your swing with a majority of your weight already on your front side, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about shifting over on your downswing. As in all swings, keeping a good rhythm is essential for balance, but it’s even more important on unsteady lies like these.

Power through the ball, of course, but don’t over-swing. If you picked the ball clean off the sand, you should see it get out of the bunker on a slightly lower trajectory than you’d normally see from that club.

After the Shot

No one will blame you for wanting to get out of the fairway bunker as soon as possible, but make sure you practice good golf etiquette by raking the sand after your shot. In every bunker should be a rake for you to clean up the evidence of your presence. That means raking the line made by your ball when it entered the bunker, the aftermath of your club hitting the sand, and any footsteps or loose impediments you left or found. Gathering good golf karma can never work against you.


As previously mentioned, practicing fairway bunker shots is not always the most accessible thing to do. Some driving ranges offer a sand trap to hit full shots from, but many do not have the space or the means to build one. If you can’t find a facility with a practice fairway bunker, that’s all the more reason to get out and play more rounds of golf. Mastering the fairway bunker shot will take time and patience, but now that you know the basics, you’re already well on your way.

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