Playing from Greenside Bunkers

For the inexperienced golfer, few lies on the golf course cause as much anxiety as the dreaded sand bunker. The trepidation is totally understandable, since hitting successfully from a greenside bunker involves a specific technique that really isn’t used anywhere else on the golf course.

The good news? Once you’ve learned how to play out of a greenside bunker, it’s one of the least intimidating shots you’ll have to face.

Before you swing, though, you’ve got to know exactly what you’re dealing with in these greenside bunkers. Also called a “sand trap,” a bunker is what is known as a hazard, a purposefully placed obstacle on a golf course that carries with it certain rules and penalties. That is, playing out of a sand bunker is different than playing a shot from the grass not only in strategy and technique, but in technical regulations.

Here are a couple of the major rules that are applied to sand bunkers:

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.

Assessing Your Lie

Depending on the angle and speed of your ball’s descent into the sand trap (and depending on luck, too), you won’t necessarily find your ball in a similar situation every time you get to the bunker. Some lies are better than others, and some will require a little creativity on your part. Here’s a brief overview of some of the lies you’ll see in a greenside bunker:

  • Flat or Uphill Lie: This is the lie you hope to get in a greenside sand trap. If your ball ends up sitting nicely on the flat or uphill face of the bunker, you’re set to hit a good shot.
  • Downhill Lie: If your ball ends up on the downhill face of a bunker, where your front foot is below your back foot, your bunker shot is going to be much less controllable.
  • Buried Lie: Also known as a fried egg – when half or more of your golf ball is plugged into the sand – a buried lie will make your escape efforts a much more difficult endeavor.

Each lie requires a different strategy. This guide, which centers on the basics of a bunker shot, will focus on the first example, a good, uphill lie. Strategies for the other lies will be the subject of other, more advanced guides.

Hitting the Shot

Now that you know some of the significant rules and situations you’ll encounter in a bunker, it’s time to learn how to hit the shot.

Step 1: Pull Out Your Wedge

Use a sand wedge of about 56 degrees or another, higher-lofted wedge from your bag.

Step 2: Open Your Clubface

Open the face of your wedge by turning the club in your hands, and then aim the open-faced club at your target behind the ball. Remember, you cannot ground your club in a hazard, so keep your club hovering above the sand.

Step 3: Open Your Stance

Once your club is aligned correctly, set up to the ball with an open stance by dropping your front foot back a few inches. This way, you’ll be facing your target a bit more. Make sure the ball is forward in your stance.

Step 4: Plant Yourself

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: Visualize Your Swing

The key to the bunker shot is a big, long swing. Because your clubface is open, and because you are going to purposefully hit the sand behind the ball, a big swing is necessary even for a short distance. Your goal is to hit the sand about an inch or two behind your ball, which will let the blasted sand lift your ball out of the bunker and onto the green with a good amount of backspin and control. If you hit the ball first, you will hit the top of it, and probably fail to get out of the bunker in one try.

Step 6: Take Your Backswing

Without moving your lower body or your head, let your wrists hinge upwards, leading your arms back on a long, smooth arc. For right-handed-players, your left elbow should remain much straighter than your right elbow, which should tuck in toward your right hip. At the top of your backswing, your club’s shaft should be near vertical or even past vertical, which will let you know that you’ve hinged your correctly and that you’ve taken big enough of a swing.

Step 7: Make Your Follow-Through

Once you’ve reached the top of your backswing, it’s time to accelerate through the sand and come to a full and long follow-through. Keeping your wrists hinged on the downswing, you want the grip of the club’s shaft to lead toward your target. At the very bottom of your swing, just before impact, snap your wrists and hit an inch or two behind the ball. You’ll purposefully blast a lot of sand out of the bunker, which will carry your ball onto the green. The most important thing here is to finish strong by making a full follow-through so that you’re facing the target to watch your ball fly over the lip of the bunker and near the pin. Rhythm is key, as well, so take a few practice swings (outside of the bunker to avoid penalties) to get your swing as smooth and comfortable as possible.

After the Shot

After your ball escapes the sand in one piece, don’t be too relieved, as you could forget to do the following things that all golfers should keep in mind after a bunker shot:

  • Squint: Hitting the sand with a big swing will undoubtedly blow some sand into your eyes, so make sure you’re expecting it. You should probably keep your mouth closed, too.
  • Rake: Every bunker has a rake provided by the course managers. Raking your bunker after you hit your shot is an essential part of golf etiquette, so make sure you rake out any divots, footprints, or other objects after you hit your shot.


As with all types of shots, you’ve got to practice them before you use them on the course. Shots out of sand traps are especially practice-worthy, since the strategy you use for them is so unique. Find a practice facility with a practice bunker, and see how big of a swing each target’s distance requires. Practice will help you overcome your fear of the greenside bunker, and pretty soon, you’ll learn that a clean lie in a bunker is much more desirable than a bad lie in the rough.

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