Images courtesy of Riyadh Golf Club

To understand a bunker shot we first need to know what a bunker is. In the Rules of Golf, a bunker is defined as ‘a specially prepared area of sand, which is often a hollow from which turf or soil was removed’. In other words, a bunker is typically a hole in the ground, filled with sand. These areas are designed to test a player’s ability to play a ball from the sand, which we refer to as a bunker shot. There are two common types of bunker shots: when we are far from the green — a fairway bunker shot — and when we are very close to the green, what this article will focus on — a green-side bunker shot.

Sand isn’t grass

Although it might seem obvious, when a club hits sand it behaves very differently compared to hitting from grass. For this reason, the way we play the bunker shot must be different and the clubs we use have some special characteristics to make this shot easier. 

We have previously looked at how the Bounce Angle is key to limiting the club digging into the ground or, in the case of the bunker shot, the sand. The club designed for this shot is aptly named the sand wedge (above), it typically has 56 degrees of loft and anywhere from 8-14 degrees of bounce angle. The higher the loft the easier to get over the sometimes-towering edges, also known as ‘lips’, of the bunker and the greater the bounce angle the less likely the club is to dig into the sand.

Setting up for success

Playing this shot successfully starts with the set-up, helping us to impact the sand in the right place and utilise the bounce and loft of the wedge. For clarity, all the below is aimed at the right-handed golfer:
• Place the left hand towards the top of the grip and the right hand below. Experiment with the hand location, placing the hands at the top of the grip can help to maximise our speed (below). Placing the hands lower on the grip can give us more control, stopping the club from going too deep into the sand.

• Stand with feet together, ball in the centre. Take a small step with the left foot and a larger step with the right (main image above). Experiment a little with the size of the steps, but as a general rule the ball should be in line with the left chest.
• ‘Shuffle’ the feet into the sand, this allows us to feel if the sand is soft or firm (more on this later) and helps to lower our centre of gravity.
• Shift our pressure 60-80 per cent on the left leg, and keep the pressure on the left leg as much as possible throughout the swing.

Don’t hit the ball

As strange as it might sound, the bunker shot is unique in golf because in most cases we do not actually make contact with the ball. Instead, the club enters the sand behind the ball and is pushed out on a cushion of sand. Because of this, the shot requires a much bigger swing relative to the distance that we are trying to hit the ball than almost any other type of shot. 

• To get a feel for the movement, swing the club back so the hands are at least chest high and the shaft of the club is pointing towards the sky.• Same as in pitching, you will notice the wrists being used to create this movement.
• As we bring the club down, the intent of the swing is to hit the sand roughly one-two golf ball widths behind the ball.
• Finish with all of your weight on the left leg, hips and chest facing the target.

Adapting to the conditions

As much as we would like them to be, bunkers are not consistent. Some will have very high edges, and some low, some will have deep, soft sand while others may be very wet, firm or dense. When we come across these different conditions there are some adaptations we can implement to help us deal with them.

High edges and/or soft sand
• Before placing the hands on the club, ‘twist’ the face open (to the right for the right-handed golfer), this not only increases the loft of the club but also the bounce angle. Adding loft can allow us to hit the ball higher, while increasing the bounce angle reduces the digging effect into the soft sand. Experiment with how much we twist the club and see how it affects the club through the sand, as well as the height and potentially direction. If we notice the ball going more to the side, we can adjust our alignment or experiment bringing the hands lower to the ground at address.

Firm/wet sand
• Instead of having the ball in line with the left chest, experiment putting the ball more towards the middle of the stance. The intent of the swing is still to hit the sand before the ball, keep the face pointing straight and experiment bringing the handle of the club more towards the left thigh. This slightly delofts the club and removes some of the bounce angles, allowing the club to dig deeper into firm sand.

Practice Drills

These drills focus on the most important aspect of the bunker shot, where the club is striking the sand.

Line in the sand
• Draw 2 lines in the sand roughly two feet long and two-three golf ball widths apart.
• The line on the left represents the ball, and the line on the right where we want the club to hit the sand.
• Start on the near side, set up the club behind the left line and swing trying to hit the right line.
• Finish the drill by placing a golf ball at the end of the left line, and try to hit in line with the right.

• Draw a box in the sand roughly the size of a banknote, one club head wide and two club heads long.
• Make a small indent in the middle to represent the ball, try to swing the club through the centre of the box, entering on the far right side and exiting the sand on the far left.
• Try the drill again, but instead of an indent place a ball in the box. Observe where the club has hit the box, if we are hitting out of the middle, toe or heel and if we are taking too much or too little sand.

Scott Edwards is a member of the PGA Professionals team at Golf Saudi-managed Riyadh Golf Club