Instruction: Improve your bunker play from different distances

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In 2013, K.J. Choi led the PGA TOUR in sand save percentage at 67.18 percent.
December 10, 2013
By John Stahlschmidt, Senior Head Instructor, TOURAcademy

From a greenside bunker, the average PGA TOUR player gets the ball up-and-down in two shots or less about 50 percent of the time. That’s regardless of the shot’s length. They’re able to control the clubhead’s entry point in the sand and their distance so well, that they can stick the ball within a few feet of the hole just as easily from 10 yards as they can 20 yards.

I’m often asked by my students how to vary the distance of their sand shots, especially from short and long range. And I tell them it’s fairly simple, provided their clubhead contacts the sand 1-1/2 to 2 inches behind the ball. If the entry point is consistent, the only other two components to controlling distance in the bunker are your clubface’s loft, and the speed in which you rotate your body through the shot. The latter will determine how much energy the ball has, and how far the sand goes. Remember: From the sand, you’re not hitting the ball with the face, but you’re using the sand to move the ball. This is an important distinction when it comes to controlling distance, as I’ll explain shortly.

Here’s how to become a whiz in the sand from all distances.

Short Bunker Shot (15 yards or less)

If you’ve short-sided yourself and the pin is cut very close to the edge of the bunker, then you’ll need some extra loft to stop it close. Pull out your most-lofted wedge--preferably, 60 degrees--and dial the clubface slightly open so that it points right of the flagstick, toward 1 o’clock. If you don’t have a lob wedge, then open the face on your sand wedge to 2 o’clock. Play the ball slightly forward of center in your stance and address the ball toward the toe of the clubhead, because the more you open the face, the more likely you are to hit the ball off the hosel and shank it. Make a normal backswing but don’t carry too much acceleration through the hitting area. Turn your body through at a moderate pace, or just fast enough to propel the sand to the front edge of the green and no farther. If you accelerate too swiftly you’ll propel the sand and the ball too far.

On all bunker shots, regardless of distance, it’s important to take a full backswing. A lot of amateurs get short and choppy with their swings and, as a result, take too much sand. You want to modify your rate of turn and acceleration through impact to create the desired distance. For the short bunker shot, it’s long and lazy, similar to a lob shot from around the green.

Medium Bunker Shot (15-25 yards)

For the traditional-length bunker shot, use your 56-degree sand wedge, open the face slightly, and imagine the sand flying deeper onto the green than the above short-range shot. The farther the sand flies, the more acceleration you’ll need to incorporate through impact. Important: Always dial the face open before you assume your grip, and, should you hit a lot of bunker shots thin, experiment with taking an extra-wide stance (even wider than driver) with a little extra knee flex.

This creates a lower center of gravity and a more stable foundation to swing from, so that you have an easier time maintaining your posture and contacting the sand versus the ball. A good rule of thumb is you want your divot to start 1-1/2 to 2 inches behind the ball and be 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep.

Long Bunker Shot (25 yards or more)

There are two ways to play this shot—you can try to pick it with a sand wedge, or blast it out like a traditional bunker shot, but with a less-lofted club. I recommend the latter, since there’s a much greater margin for error. If you try to pick it and swing too hard, the ball is going to fly the green. To blast it, take out your pitching wedge or 9-iron—depending on the distance—open the face like you would your sand wedge, and be a little more aggressive with your body turn through impact. This time, imagine you’re propelling the sand even farther onto the green.

To summarize: the longer the shot, the less loft you want to utilize and the faster you want to rotate your body through; the shorter the shot, the more loft you want on your club and the slower your rate of turn is. Always, always, aim to contact the sand 1-1/2 to 2 inches behind the ball, regardless of length.

John Stahlschmidt is Senior Head Instructor at PGA TOUR Golf Academy World Golf Village and TOURAcademy TPC Sawgrass. For more game-improvement tips from the TOURAcademy instructors, on-the-spot club recommendations and 3D previews of each hole you play, download the TOURCaddie PRO app at