Instruction: Lose your fear of greenside bunkers

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K.J. Choi is one of the best on TOUR at saving par from the sand.
July 31, 2013
By Ted Brasile, Head Instructor, TOURAcademy Tiburón

One of the many statistics that TOURCaddie (www.PGATOURcaddie.com) tracks is sand saves, which is the percentage of time you get your ball up-and-down from the greenside bunker. The average PGA TOUR percentage is a shade over 50 percent (through the RBC Canadian Open), with K.J. Choi converting 70.48 percent of his sand save opportunities thus far in 2013. Choi has 74 “sandies” in 105 attempts, which is as many as some amateurs hope to make in a lifetime.

Most recreational golfers are happy just to get their ball out of the bunker -- unless, of course, they blade it over the green. They’d rather hit a delicate chip or pitch shot out of 4 inches of thick rough than take their chances in the bunker. There’s a simple explanation for this: They don’t practice this shot. Whereas the average TOUR pro or playing professional practices greenside bunker shots about two hours per week, the average golfer is lucky if they spend two hours a year in the sand. It’s no wonder why they fear even the easiest of bunker shots. The TOUR player, on the other hand, would much rather be in the bunker than in the greenside rough because they can control the spin, trajectory and distance much easier. All they have to do is change their entry point in the sand, the face angle, and the rate of their body rotation.

If you want to get better from the greenside bunker, then you have to put in more practice time in the sand. It doesn’t have to be two hours per week, but if you spend 20 to 30 minutes per week working on the following three bunker fundamentals, I guarantee you that your sand save percentage will start to improve. Your fear of the greenside bunker will also subside, and you’ll start to get upset when your shots don’t finish within 15-20 feet of the hole. That’s a much better feeling than wondering just how many shots you’ll lose to the bunker.

STEP 1: MOVE THE BALL UP IN YOUR STANCE
I don’t think the average golfer needs to play the ball as far forward as the TOUR pro does, but it should definitely be a ball or two forward of center in your stance. This helps expose more of the bounce, or trailing edge, of the clubhead, so that it can skim through the sand and not dig. It also makes it easier to maintain the loft on the clubface, so the ball has enough height to clear the lip of the bunker. If you position the ball too far back of center, than you get too much forward lean to the shaft, which introduces the leading edge and makes you more prone to digging.

At address, the shaft should be vertical or even leaning back slightly, with your weight favoring your front side. The buttons on your shirt (i.e., your sternum) should be even with or slightly in front of the ball. To check this, suspend a club from your sternum area—the club should be in line with the ball or ever so slightly in front of it. If your sternum is tilted back behind the ball, then you’re likely to hit too far behind the ball as well.

STEP 2: DIAL THE CLUBFACE OPEN

Most amateurs don’t open the clubface enough; or, in opening the face, they twist their hands into a stronger position, which promotes more face rotation and turns the club into a digger. The correct way to open the face is to grip the club with your right hand only toward the bottom of the grip, hold it up in front of you at waist-height with the leading edge square, and give the clubface a quarter turn to the right to dial the face open. Once you’ve done this, place your left hand on the club as you normally would and slide your right down into place.

When you open the clubface the trailing edge -- or what I like to refer to as the “skidder” -- moves closer to the ground and the leading edge moves farther away from the sand. Assuming a decent lie in the sand, you want to lead with the skidder so that the trailing edge touches down in the sand first, skids underneath the ball, and then exits out in front of the ball. The only time you want to use the leading edge, or digger, is when you draw a half-buried lie, fried-egg lie, or other bad lie.

STEP 3: FINISH YOUR SWING

In the bunker, you’re purposely hitting behind the ball and moving the sand toward the green; which, in turn, propels the ball up and out of the bunker. You can hit anywhere from 1 to 4 inches behind the ball and, provided you take a big enough swing, you should blast the ball out safely onto the putting surface. The difficult thing for most amateurs is getting the courage to make a big enough swing -- afraid to skull the ball over the green, they often decelerate or fail to finish their swing, and don’t generate enough clubhead speed to escape the bunker in one shot.

For a standard-length bunker shot (i.e., about 20 yards), dial the clubface open and set up as described earlier, holding the club toward the top end of the grip. Next, dig your feet about an inch into the sand. This lowers your center of gravity and ensures that the clubhead will enter the sand somewhere behind the ball. Do not grip down as that will change your CG and make you more likely to hit the ball first. Make sure your sternum is even to slightly ahead of the ball and your weight favors your left side, and swing your hands back and through to about shoulder-height, or from 10 to 2 o’clock. Don’t be afraid to swing the club, because by digging your feet into the sand you’re assured of hitting the sand first. Stay home on your front side and thump the sand underneath the ball with the trailing edge, accelerating through to a shoulder-height finish. Work on these three fundamentals consistently and you’ll get out on the green in one shot every time.

Ted Brasile is Head Instructor at TOURAcademy Tiburón in Naples, Fla. 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.