The TOURCaddie PRO app (www.pgatourcaddie.com) gives you real-time distances to all hazards, including fairway bunkers. On the left-hand side of the screen, you’ll see both the distance to each bunker as well as the yardage necessary to clear that bunker. Sometimes, however, despite your best intentions to avoid these hazards, you catch an unlucky break or simply mis-hit your tee shot and find yourself in the bunker. It’s not ideal, but assuming you draw a fairly decent lie, there’s no reason why you still can’t reach the green or put yourself in position to make a decent run at par. Here are some keys to help you make a clean escape out of the fairway bunker.
Step 1: Evaluate the Lie
Very seldom do you draw a flat lie in the bunker. If, for example, the ball is well above or below your feet, then consider wedging it out onto the fairway or laying up to a favorite distance that will leave you with a full shot into the green. I always tell my students, if you don’t think you’re capable of reaching the green, then ask yourself where you’re most comfortable hitting your next shot from. If it’s 100 yards, then lay up to that distance. Don’t attempt to hit it as far as possible because you could find yourself in more trouble or with a very difficult partial shot into the green.
Also consider the height of the lip and the ball’s proximity to it. If your ball comes to rest a foot from the face of the bunker and the lip is several feet high, you have no other option but to pitch out with your highest-lofted wedge. If you do have room, then select a club that’s going to produce enough loft for the ball to clear the lip, even if you mis-hit it just slightly. If you’re not sure your 7-iron has enough loft to clear the lip, then stand on the face of the club outside the bunker so that the grip end of the club points skyward. The angle of the shaft equates fairly well to the launch angle and trajectory that this club will produce, provided you return the club with the same loft you started with at address. Do not do this inside the bunker as you would incur a 1-stroke penalty for grounding the club inside a hazard.
Step 2: Inch Closer to the Ball
With a mid-iron, play the ball in the center of your stance and grip down on the club about an inch. (Short irons should be played just back of center.) Most golfers will swivel their feet into the sand just a little to help with balance, so you need to grip down to avoid taking too much sand behind the ball. You’re better off catching the ball a little thin than sticking the clubhead in the sand.
It also helps to stand closer to the ball, as that steepens your angle of approach and makes it easier to contact the ball first. The farther you stand from the ball, the shallower your attack angle is going to be and the more likely you are to hit the sand behind the ball. Focus your eyes on the front of the ball, and not the back as you would on most full swings. This will bring your sternum and body’s center of gravity forward, ahead of the ball, promoting ball-first contact.
Step 3: Take Some Sand
Most golfers try to pick the ball out of the sand from fairway bunkers, not disturbing a single grain in the process. In my experience, however, I think amateurs are better off hitting down on the ball—just like an iron shot—contacting the ball and then the sand. You have to be highly skilled to pick it, whereas if you take some sand after the ball you’re giving yourself a little extra margin for error.
As you swing the club back and through, focus on maintaining the height of your sternum and your knee flex. This encourages your lower body to stay quiet, so that the bottom of your swing is more likely to occur at the ball or slightly ahead of it. The more lateral movement you have to your legs, the more unpredictable your entry point is likely to be. Keep your hip turn to minimum on the backswing—again, to quiet the lower body—but make sure to keep rotating your torso and sternum through impact and into the finish. If you stop rotating your body, then the clubhead is going to go straight into the sand.
AJ Avoli is Head Instructor at TOURAcademy La Costa, located at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif. For more game-improvement tips, on-the-spot club recommendations and 3D previews of each hole, not to mention real-time distances to all key hazards and targets on each hole, download the TOURCaddie PRO app at www.pgatourcaddie.com.