Sand Trap Golf Guide: Tips to Improve Your Greenside Bunker Shots

If you were to ask a group of amateur golfers which types of golf shots they find the most difficult, it’s a fair bet that many would point to the sand shot out of a greenside bunker. I’m guessing that many of our readers would agree.

It’s a shot that many higher handicappers dread, never knowing what kind of result they’re going to get. One bunker shot may be hit too thin, with the ball airmailing the green altogether, while the next shot could be hit too fat, resulting in a ball that ends up right back in the same trap. It can be exasperating.

But it doesn’t have to be. Like several other specialty shots in golf, a golf sand trap shot requires that you adopt several modifications to your stance and swing. One of the biggest impediments to success in bunker play by amateurs is erroneously approaching this shot as if it is just the same as any other shot hit from grass.

The biggest difference, of course, is that when hitting a bunker shot, you never actually contact the ball. You hit into the sand several inches behind the ball, allowing the forward movement of the sand to then carry your ball up and out of the trap.

In this article, we’re going to describe the adjustments you need to make in a trap, and we’ll provide photos that illustrate the proper technique.

What you’ll realise is that bunker shots really aren’t as hard as many players make them out to be. As Jack Nicklaus once said, “Does a sand shot scare you? Well, it really shouldn’t. It’s the only shot in golf where you don’t have to hit the ball first.”

How Do Amateurs Perform from Greenside Bunkers?

The two tables below illustrate the extent of the issue for higher handicap amateurs.

The first table highlights three metrics: 1) the ability of an amateur to hit a greenside sand shot to within six feet of the hole, 2) how frequently they miss the green altogether, and 3) how frequently they leave the shot in the same bunker. It should come as no surprise that performance from bunkers degrades significantly the higher a player’s handicap index is.

So, in looking at just one example in the table below, a typical 14-handicapper (i.e., someone who shoots somewhere around 86-90 on average) will hit their sand shot to within six feet only 13% of the time, which is only slightly better than just one out of ten times. That same golfer will entirely miss the green almost a third of the time and will leave it in the same bunker about 8% of the time.

Based on your handicap level, do the kinds of results shown below mirror the performance you usually see in your sand game? If so, you can see about how many shots you’re wasting in the course of each round.

The second table examines the impact that proximity to the hole (how close to the hole you hit your bunker shot) can have on your ability to save strokes on these shots. For the various handicap levels, you can see that how close to the hole on average you’re likely to hit your bunker shot will determine the approximate number of strokes it will take you to then hole out.

So, in looking at that same 14 handicapper, you can see that the average proximity to the hole from a sand trap is about 16 feet, from where it then takes almost three more shots to put it in the hole. Assuming there were no other wayward shots on his way to the green, that would probably result in a double bogey, or worse.

Considering that golfers generally end up in greenside bunkers about 2-3 times per round, it’s not hard to see that a substantial number of wasted strokes can accumulate with these kinds of results. With even a small upgrade in your bunker play (improved proximity to the hole, for example), you could be able to shave a handful of strokes off of your typical score.

How to Hit out of a Bunker: Improve Your Technique from the Sand

As I stated, sand shot technique is different than the technique used for standard golf shots. Below, we’ve included photos with technique guidelines and bunker shot tips at each stage of the swing. Making these modifications to your standard set up and swing, combined with some occasional practice in a sand trap, will make you a better player out of greenside traps.

But before we get into these adjustments, it’s critical that you understand a term that is unique to sand wedges, and one that it is so vital to making effective sand shots. That term? Bounce.

Bounce is Your Friend in a Bunker

If you look at the bottom of your sand wedge, you will notice that, unlike any other iron, it has a bulge, or flange, on the bottom of the club head. The effect of that flange is to lift the leading edge of the club off the ground when the club is at address. The angle from the leading edge to the lowest point on the sole (the bottom of the flange) is referred to as the club’s “bounce angle,” commonly referred to simply as the club’s “bounce.” In short, bounce is how high the leading edge is compared to the sole when on flat ground.

Table without Borders
This feature is what makes your sand wedge uniquely efficient in getting your sand shots out of the bunker. Because the leading edge sits above the trailing edge, it won’t tend to dig into the sand, where you would risk leaving the shot in the trap. On a properly executed sand shot, you should contact the sand with the bounce (the flange on the sole of the club head), not the leading edge. This allows the club to skim through, rather than to dig into, the sand behind the ball.

This is perhaps the single biggest flaw in technique on the part of amateurs. They think their club should enter the sand with the leading edge – just like they do on normal non-sand shots. Unfortunately, they then frequently dig too deeply into the sand, causing all sorts of inconsistent results (shots left in the trap, shots bladed over the green, poor distance control, etc.).

One of the best bunker players ever was long time British golfer and recent captain of the European Ryder Cup team, Luke Donald. He summarized this key when he said, "The most important part of bunker shots is making sure you use the bounce effectively. Making sure the back edge of the club is hitting the sand first ... it's really important."

Because bounce plays such a vital role in bunker play performance, you should make sure that the sand wedge you use has a sufficient amount of bounce. For amateurs, it is strongly recommended that you use a sand wedge that has a minimum of 12° of bounce (most sand wedges prominently display the number of degrees of bounce it has right on the club head).

How to Hit a Bunker Shot: Sand Shot Set-Up and Stance Modifications

Below I’ve identified the main stance and swing changes you should make if you want to improve your bunker play.

Interestingly, the largest number of bunker shot tips actually pertains to the set-up position, indicating just how much of your success out of sand is predetermined at address, before you even start your backswing. As renowned golf instructor Butch Harmon said regarding adjustments to make in bunkers, “Most of the mistakes I see come at address, and those are the easy ones to fix.”

Address Position for a Sand Trap Golf Shot

  • At address assume a wide stance, with your feet just wider than shoulder width.
  • Dig your feet into the sand slightly to maximize traction. The slightest bit of slipping can alter your impact location in the sand and ruin the shot.
  • Feel that you are squatting or “sitting” down a bit lower than on a normal shot, with your knees flexed more than usual. Your hands should also be lower than usual. In this position, you are better able to expose and utilize the “bounce” of your wedge. To better facilitate this lower stance, it helps to move just a little farther away from the ball.
  • Choke down a little bit on the grip for better control.
  • Open the clubface so that it points skyward. An important benefit of having an open clubface, in addition to being able to achieve a nice high trajectory with the shot, is that this orientation again exposes the bounce of the club, which you want. An image to help here is to imagine that you would be able to lay a coin on the face of the club without it falling off.
  • You should have a neutral shaft orientation. There should be no forward shaft lean at address. Why? Because that would bring that dreaded leading edge of the club head more into play. To reiterate, contact with the sand needs to be made with the bounce of the club, not the leading edge.
  • The ball position should be toward the front of your stance, about one clubhead’s width inside the heel of your forward foot. If you were to put the ball back in your stance, as you might on a chip shot, that would yet again cause you to de-loft the club and hit the sand with the leading edge, a no-no as we’ve already mentioned many times.
  • Weight distribution needs to favor the front leg, approximately 60/40, and it should remain there throughout the swing.
  • As it relates to alignment, modern teaching of sand technique encourages a square set up with your feet aimed directly at your target. It used to be taught (and still is by many instructors) that you should orient yourself to the left of the target, and swing to the left cutting across the ball. For amateurs who don’t normally get a lot of practice from the sand, this can be a difficult technique to master. You’ll get more consistent results by orienting yourself directly at the flagstick.

How to Hit out of a Bunker: the Takeaway

  • There should be no real weight shift away from the target on a bunker shot.
  • Keep your weight forward on your front leg during the takeaway and backswing.

Golf Sand Trap Shot: Top of Backswing

  • At the top, you still shouldn’t have shifted your weight to your back leg. Keep your weight forward on your front leg all the way to the top.
  • The length of your backswing will depend on the length of the shot. If the pin is relatively close, a relatively short backswing is all that is needed. For longer sand shots, you’ll need to lengthen your backswing.

How to Hit Sand Shots: Impact

  • Through impact, almost feel like the right hand “overtakes” the left hand while making sure that the clubface remains open after impact (note in the photo how the clubface actually passes the ball after impact, and still faces skyward). If the clubface closes through impact, as it does on a normal shot, you’d be re-introducing the leading edge to the shot and could be subject to it digging into the sand.
  • Make sure to contact the sand several inches behind the ball. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be a precise entry point. Anywhere from 2 to 4 inches is acceptable and, assuming you have sufficient swing speed, will still get the ball up and out of the trap.
  • Because you will actually be hitting into the sand (and not hitting the ball first), the sand will naturally slow down the speed of your golf swing. Consequently, you need to swing with more force and speed than you would for a similar length shot from the grass. If you were to apply the same swing speed, you would inevitably leave the shot well short of the pin, or worse, leave the ball in the bunker where you will get the opportunity to try it all over again. This is a common fault that amateurs make in the sand – not swinging harder to compensate for the open club face and the reduction in swing speed caused by hitting into the sand.
  • Let the club head flow fully through the shot and into the follow-through. Many amateurs make the mistake of stabbing the club head into the sand and leaving it there, with no follow-through. Allow the bounce of the club head to skim through the sand, making a full swing follow-through.

Hot to Hit Out of a Bunker: Follow Through

  • You should accelerate through the ball so that you finish facing the target.

Bunker Shot Tips: Final Thoughts

The secrets to solid, effective sand play are knowing the proper technique to use when you find yourself in a greenside bunker....and practice.

Now that you have a better understanding of vital concepts like “bounce angle” and how to employ the bounce on your sand wedge when you hit a bunker shot, along with the many other set-up and swing adjustments that we’ve outlined in this article, you now need to make sure to spend some time in a practice bunker working on these new sand trap golf techniques. It will be worth the effort. You won’t dread greenside sand traps anymore and you’ll waste fewer shots when you play from them.

- Bill Sullivan