When it comes to bunkers, amateurs fear them far more often than do touring professionals. It's ironic, considering that most bunker shots require the kind of swing many amateurs have, which is a shorter, steeper golf swing. I suspect a lot of trouble in the bunkers has to do with a lack of both confidence and know-how, two things we're going to look at here. I've broken down a few bunker shots, with hopes of helping you to make your escape and get up and down.
Greenside Bunker Shot
To hit a short bunker shot, it's not always necessary to dig deep into the sand and make an overly aggressive and steep swing. If you set up correctly, the shot becomes a lot easier. Start with a narrow stance and an open clubface, then place the ball forward in your stance. As you start your backswing, you'll want to make an early hinge of the wrists. These four components will steepen your swing automatically, meaning there's no need to try to dig or scoop the ball into the air. Instead, allow the arms to swing down and make contact behind the ball on the forwardswing, just as you would a normal shot–only this time you're making the divot before the ball, not after. As far as how much divot behind the ball you'll need, forget about any standardized method. All players have different swings, meaning you need to find a practice bunker and see how far behind the ball you can hit the sand and still execute a good shot. By the way, different sand conditions and types can change the amount of sand you'll want between the clubface and ball, too. As you swing down and through, allow the hands to hinge after the shot, as well. And do what you can to keep that clubface facing the target while hitting a moderate amount of sand no more than an inch or so deep.
Long Bunker Shot
When it comes to a longer bunker shot, the right way to swing is with a wider, more rotational swing. To set up, square the clubface to the target, play the ball slightly forward of where you'd normally play a shot off the grass and make a lower and slower backswing. The goal is to swing wider than normal in order to shallow out your angle of attack. The shallower the better, since steep shots from fairway bunkers generally lead to fat or chunked shots. As you swing, allow your hands to hinge as normal, only make sure you release and make a full turn through the shot with a smooth tempo.
Wet Sand Shot
Wet sand shots are never fun, and they can be really unpredictable. To escape this lie, set up with a square clubface and the ball in the middle of your stance. Then, as you would with a normal bunker shot, swing fully down and through the shot, only swing faster, since the wet sand will significantly slow down your clubhead. Also, expect a lower trajectory and more roll once the ball lands on the green. If need be, aim to hit over the lowest point of the bunker lip to make sure you get out of the sand. Most amateurs don't expect the lower trajectory that comes from wet stuff.
The Buried Shot
This is the shot for you upright swingers. When it comes to the buried bunker shot, you need to stand closer than normal. The closer you are to the ball, the more upright your swing will be, so don't forget to choke up on the grip to accommodate this up-and-down move. As for ball position, play it in the middle of your stance, which should be narrower than usual, as well. To lift the ball from the buried lie, you need to hit behind the ball with a lot of force in order to push sand under the ball and lift it from the sand.
At impact, notice that despite my steep swing and huge divot, my body shows no sign of trying to scoop or lift the ball from its submerged lie. Instead, I've hit down and hard behind the sand with a square clubface at impact. To practice this shot yourself, try hitting from a few buried lies in the sand and copy my flat-footed position at impact. It's a sure sign I didn't overrotate through the shot and I'm able to dig hard behind the ball. As for the flight, buried lies are unpredictable, so expect just about any ballflight to happen. The key is to excavate the ball from the sand at whatever cost.
The High-Face Bunker Shot
To hit a bunker shot over a high face (or high lip), there has to be enough soft sand under the ball to slide the wedge underneath through the shot. If there isn't, play the safer shot and bail out over a lowered area of the bunker face. But if you can hit the shot, and the lie is good and the sand feels soft enough, play the ball forward in your stance and open the face to expose the bounce of the wedge. Finally, stand a little farther away from the ball than normal, as this will help make it easier to make a full swing with an inside-out path (a must-do to hold the face open through the hit). As you swing and clip the sand before and under the ball, it's imperative you keep the clubface open (as it was at address) through the shot. If you close the face, you'll reduce the loft, and the shot won't make it over the high face. But with an open face at impact and an open face through the shot, you'll see it's a lot easier to pop the ball up and out of the sand.
Low Bunker Shot
Not the most typical shot, unless you need to hit a greenside bunker shot that has some forward roll, the low bunker shot is one that takes a lot of practice. To pull it off, play the ball in the back of middle in your stance, open the clubface and make a flatter swing through the shot. It's almost a direct opposite of the high-face bunker shot, with this shot requiring you to close the face (almost as if you were hitting a hook) through impact. The ball then flies out of the sand much as an aggressive bump-and-run shot does–with a low trajectory and plenty of forward roll. Again, this isn't an easy shot, and it requires practice, but you never know when you might need to hit from the sand under a tree or to an uphill pin location on the green.
Uphill Bunker Shot
When faced with an uphill lie in the sand, don't fret. It's probably the easiest type of bunker shot around. To hit it effectively, play the ball just as you would a normal bunker shot, only align your shoulders to the slope of the bunker. As for your weight, try to balance it evenly over both feet. This will prevent you from digging too much into the sand. As for the ballflight, the ball will fly higher and shorter than normal, meaning you either need to swing harder or hit a lower-lofted wedge or iron. Remember, because you're hitting uphill, the body will want to hang back on your right side through the hit; so anticipate hitting more sand and hitting the shot harder than normal for this reason, too.
Downhill Bunker Shot
To hit the downhill bunker shot, one of the toughest shots in golf by the way, instead of adjusting your shoulder to match the downhill slope, try to stay level. Because your weight will now favor your front leg, expect to hit less sand and watch for a very low, hot ballflight. The key here, as with all bunker shots, is to get the ball out of the sand.
Not all bunker shots will lead to tap-in pars, but with good, simple mechanics, getting up and down from the sand will become easier and easier. Make sure you get out there and practice in the sand!
Jeff Yurkiewicz, PGA, is the head golf instructor at the Grayhawk Learning Center in Scottsdale, Ariz. To learn more and to book a lesson, visit grayhawkgolf.com.