The Proper Way to Get Out of a Sand Trap

Bunker shots, probably more so than any other shot in golf, have the most varied response amongst golfers in regards to their feelings about them. Some players love them, some hate them, some are indifferent, and some have no idea how to feel about them.

Regardless of these feelings, anyone who is capable of making a normal golf swing can consistently find their way out of the sand. What we are going to attempt throughout this article is teach you how to get out of the bunker consistently in all different conditions.

We have compiled an extensive breakdown from some of the top professionals, pros, and teachers to help you getting those shots up and out on a regular basis. 

Before we get to the mechanics of swinging the club in a bunker, we will have a look at an important aspect of solid sand shots. One that occurs well before you ever step foot on the golf course.

And that is Club selection...

Choose Your Wedges Wisely

Anyone who has played golf in more than one area can tell you that not all sand is made alike. Depending on your region of the country, time of year (humidity levels), and many other factors, the type of sand you must hit out of can vary greatly. This is why it’s important to have the proper kind of wedges, so that you may be prepared for any type of lies in the sand.

Bounce

Head into your favorite golf shop, and check out the section filled with wedges. Not only do these wedges have varying degrees of loft, they also have varying degrees of bounce. Bounce, which is the amount of degrees the leading edge sits above the sole at address, is what will allow the wedge to skip across the sand as opposed to digging in.

Why is this important? You need speed through the sand in order to elevate the ball out, and if the club digs, the momentum of the club is slowed drastically. If the club slows down, the ball isn’t likely to make it out.

Exactly how much bounce you need depends on the type of sand the courses in your area have. In order to be most prepared for any kind of sand texture, I recommend having at least two wedges: a higher lofted wedge with low bounce (about 8*) and a lower lofted wedge with more bounce (about 12*).

The higher bounce wedge will help cut through fine, fluffy sand while the lower bounce wedge will allow you to get under firm, wet, or compact sand. Could you have your wedges set up in the opposite fashion (high loft/high bounce and lower loft/low bounce)? You could, but we’ll get to that. Now that you have your wedges, it’s time to cover the next most important aspect of bunker play.

Assessing Your Lie

Gary Player once said, “There’s more to read in a bunker than any green.” Being able to ascertain as much information about how your ball is lying in a sand trap (without breaking any rules) is essential to achieve success from your bunker play. The assessment begins when you arrive to your golf ball. Is it in a flat spot in the bunker? On the upslope? On the side slope? Is it sitting high on the sand? Is it buried? A “fried-egg”?

The next part of the assessment takes place once you step up to the ball. Do your feet sink a little on every step? Does the bunker have more of a crunchy sound as you approach your shot? These are all factors that will determine your club selection, setup, and swing. We will attempt to cover every scenario so that you can go into that bunker with confidence!

Wedges in hand, and with your lie assessed, what do you do next? We will start with a basic sand shot from a flat lie, the ball sitting up, with the perfect amount of sand, then adjust accordingly, but first, a quick refresher on some possible infractions you might need to be aware of...

Most common bunker rules infractions:

  • Grounding the club at any time inside the bunker or touching the sand on the backswing. (Rule 13-4)
  • “Building a stance” (see the video below for an example) (Rule 13-3)
  • Removing loose impediments that are not covered within the exceptions or local rules. (Rule 13-4)

For more information regarding these rules, and how to avoid breaking them, check out the videos linked to them.

In the Sand, Setup is Everything

Ideal Conditions Bunker Shots

For someone who is just getting started with golf, or who is starting to work hard on their bunker play, finding a bunker that will allow you to create ideal lies will help you ingrain the fundamentals, which you can apply to any other bunker shot you may face. The most common misconception golfers deal with in regards to bunker play is that there is something “special” to the technique. Not true.

One thing to understand is that the main reason you went over to your favorite pro shop and bought those pretty wedges is because they are designed to do the work for you. The swing itself couldn’t be simpler: For the most part, it’s a basic three-quarter to three-quarter swing with your hips turning slightly, back and forth, to create speed (keep those feet quiet!). The essential fundamental to a sand shot is the setup. They all follow the same basic principles:

1. Take a firm stance, allowing your feet to sink, choking up on your wedge approximately the same amount your feet dig (this is important so your club strikes the ground as it normally would on the fairway). So what do we mean by a firm stance? Simply take your normal stance, at the ball, but you will wiggle your feet back and forth a bit so you sink into the sand. This puts your footing down onto the more firm sand below. See this video for help (at the 1 minute mark he wiggles his feet):

2. Take this step with a grain of sand salt, as there are mixed opinions on this. Opening the clubface so that the bounce has more exposure to the surface of the sand, which will allow it to cut through cleanly. Some will argue that you don't need to do this, and that opening the clubface will change your swing, and thus your confidence in the shot as well. While we think there is some validity in that, we know that opening the face is what got us to consistency.

3. Aiming your body to the left (or right, for you lefties out there) to compensate for the open clubface. See the video below for a good explanation (at 1:25):

4. The club should be set to enter the sand no less than an inch behind the ball, but ideally about an inch to two inches behind the ball. In theory, you are hitting into the sand behind the ball, as if to hit the shot "fat" intentionally. You will be taking the equivalent of about a 6 inch divet, which will create a wave of sand. This wave is what will lift the golf ball up and carry it out of the bunker. 

You might be thinking that hitting behind the ball is going to result in your club getting stuck in the sand... or that you have to swing WAY harder to get it through the sand. This is simply not true because of the "bounce angle" mentioned earlier. The club is designed for exactly this shot, which is why using a different club may make it increasingly difficult to get out consistently.

5. Follow through! This is very important. As you may know from previously duffing the ball... when you hit the ground behind the ball, you lose a lot of swing speed. So much so that it can outright stop your swing. 

You will want to have a high follow through so that you continue that upward wave of the sand to carry the ball out. It may seem unnatural at first to keep your hands moving way up as you hit the sand, but this is key. See Phil explain it here (1:35 for what he says):

Alignment for your Sand Trap Shots

If you are wondering what your alignment should look like with your stance, particularly where your hands should be, where the golf ball should be when standing in the sand trap, it is pretty simple. What we were taught, what the videos will tell you, and your instructor will all say to keep it the same as your normal swing. 

As you saw above, you will be digging into the sand with your feet a bit, and might be thinking that it is affecting your impact spot. You are right. 

But that is ok.

As mentioned you want to hit the ground/sand behind the ball and use the sand to lift the ball out. If your feet are dug down a bit, then this will occur naturally with your swing.

You want to keep the ball by your leading foot, and your hands behind the ball in your stance. If your hands get too far forward, or the ball too far back, you will dig into the sand too much and have a really hard time getting through the sand and getting any height on the ball.

See the great explanation in the video below (starts around the 1 min mark).

SIDE NOTE​​​​There’s no rule that says you can use a 9-iron up to a 5-iron from the sand, given you have the ideal lie and nothing between you and the hole. If your only option is to try to pick a long bunker shot cleanly with a wedge, the key is to set up like you normally would to a shot from the fairway, except you’ll want to choke down about half an inch on the club, and keep your lower body as quiet as possible. If the shot seems too daunting for you, there is zero shame in pitching out into the fairway.

Now that you know the basic fundamentals that go into a bunker shot, lets start looking at some of the different conditions that you can encounter...

Firm or Wet Sand Bunker Shots

First up let's look at the second most common type of variation you will experience in the sand trap... Wet sand or compact sand.

If you have ever played one of these shots before you know that your ball sits a little higher in the sand usually, and the sand itself is really hard to swing through. So that changes a couple things.

First, club selection. As mentioned earlier, in fluffy sand you want a club with a good amount of bounce. However, in wet sand you will want a club with less bounce. This is because you won't be digging in as much, and thus don't want the club to bounce up. If it does bounce up, you risk topping the ball (and likely having another sand shot). This would ideally be a lob wedge, but other short wedge clubs can work too!

Ok, so less digging in, less bounce, that must mean we have a different contact point on the ball/ground... correct!

Earlier we mentioned striking the sand about 2 inches behind the ball, however, in this compact sand scenario, you want to strike the ball only about an inch behind the ball. You will try to skim across the sand more so than digging into it. 

As for your ball position, stance, and club face... all the same as before. See a the video below for a good explanation:

Uphill Lie Bunker Shots

Time to get a little trickier... What are you to do if the ball is lying on the uphill slope of the bunker?

The good news is that you don't have to change too much.

The first thing you will notice is that you have a lot of weight on your back foot. That's OK, this is normal. You will still want to wiggle those feet in like you normally would, but be careful as to not "build a stance", since that would be a rule violation.

Next you will want to try to align your upper body 90 degrees to the slope the ball is on. This may feel like you are leaning back, but that is much better than leaning forward. A forward lean will result in very little loft on the ball.

Your swing will remain more or less the same as with a normal bunker shot. The main thing to remember here is to FOLLOW THROUGH! You will want to be aggressive with this swing so that you are going through the sand and getting that ball up and out. See the video below (1:20 mark for a quick demo).

Again, your sandwedge with an open face, hitting about 2 inches behind the ball is what you want to strive for here. The difference being that the ball will be slightly further back in your stance as compared to the flat/normal bunker shots.

Downhill Lie Bunker Shots

These suck. Not going to lie.

Ok, ok. You love a challenge... So do we, so let's get to it...

Much like the downhill lie shot mentioned above, you will want to make sure your shoulders are parallel to the slope surface. Yes, this is one of the few times in golf where you will be leaning forward with respect to the ball.

Ball position... Here you will want to have the not quite as far forward as the flat bunker shot, but not as far back as the uphill lie shot.

Club selection... You will want to choose your highest lofted club in your bag. The reason being of course is that this shot will normally want to travel down, so we want to get it into the air as quick and as high as possible, thus the high loft. A 60 degree wedge works great in this situation.

Ok so now that we are set up. Let's go over the swing. You will want to really come down and attack that ball. It will mean a slightly steeper attack angle (partially in order to avoid the edge of the bunker), but still hitting the sand 2 inches behind the ball, and of course following through nice and high. See the video below for a great demo and explanation (2:35 mark).

You will have to swing harder than usual on this shot to get it out. Your going to try to keep your legs/knees from moving too much.

No problem. You got this.

Sidehill Lie Bunker Shots

So what happens if the ball is on the side hill of the bunker... either above or below your feet?

The shot here will remain the same as the normal bunker shots however your body position will change a little. 

The reason why it changes your body position is because you are either closer to the ball (ball above feet) or further away from it (ball below feet). This means you have to adjust your upper body to compensate and end up with the same swing.

This means standing more upright for the ball being above your feet or slightly more slouched with it below your feet. You may also want to choke up on your swing when its above your feet.

Check out the video below for a quick explanation.

Plugged Ball Bunker Shots

What do we mean by 'plugged' bunker shots? 

This is when the ball is half or more buried in the sand. It is sometimes referred to as a 'fried egg'. It usually occurs when you hit a high shot in towards the green, but somehow the green mysteriously moves and your ball ends up in the bunker.

It can be a little daunting to walk up to these, but let's look at how to handle them...

The setup and swing for these shots is slightly different than your typical bunker shot, as you will be trying to get down under the ball more to lift it out. So...

Ball position... You are going to want to get the ball a little further back in your stance compared to the other shots. Right in the middle of your stance will work great.

Club Selection... You will use your sand wedge on this one, but could get away with a lob wedge in a pinch.

The Swing... On these shots you are going to really come down towards the ball on a steep attack angle (similar to the downhill lie mentioned above) to really dig into the sand behind the ball. You are going to aim an inch behind the ball. 

You will keep the clubface square or very slightly open to the ball (unlike open on the other shots). As you swing down on the ball (or the sand behind the ball) your club will dig into the sand and come to an abrupt stop. You need to remember this is going to happen. What you need to do to compensate is to swing with a little more power than you normally would in order to get the ball out.

You also need to remember that on these shots the ball is going to come out a lot faster and run a little further. Depending on how much green you have to work with, you may need to change where you aim. For me, it is better to have a longer putt on your next shot than another bunker shot.

One last piece to remember here is to have your weight slightly forward on your front foot, as this helps with that downward steep swing. 

The guys over at Me and My Golf do a great job explaining and demonstrating this shot below.

High Lip Bunker Shots

This section is dedicated to those sand trap shots that require you to get the ball up very high to get it up and out.

We're talking about standing in the bunker and looking at 3 feet or more of a wall to try and clear. The type of shot where you might have to try to find the pin before you step down into the bunker for your shot.

For the most part, this set up and swing will be the same as a normal sand shot, with the difference being that you want to open the club face even more.

Ball position... Up in your stance, closer to your leading foot.

Club selection... Here you can get away with using a sand wedge, however, the better choice would be a lob wedge. The reason is two-fold. One, you need to get the ball up and out so you want as much loft as possible. Two, as you open the club face very wide, the bounce on a sandwedge can become too high and affect your entry into the sand (and thus your shot).

As we mentioned, in this shot, you will want to open the club face even more than usual. How much? That depends on how high the front of the bunker is. Higher lip equals more openness on the club face. To compensate for the open club face which will send your ball more in the direction of its openness, you will want to aim your feet/body more in the other direction.

Again, you will want a good follow through, even if this means hitting your club against the side of the bunker or grass as you do swing through.

You can check out the video below by The Academy of Golf Dynamics:

Long or Fairway Bunker Shots

When you hit those sand bunkers just off the fairway it might feel like you are doomed for a bogey on the hole. This doesn't have to be the case. Let's look at the best way to get out the fairway sand bunker.

As with the other shots from the sand we described above, one of the most important factors is your footing. You will want to make sure you are secure in your footing since this one usually involves a bigger and harder swing than the greenside bunkers. However, you don't want to get too far down into the sand, as that will affect how you contact the ball with this one.

Ball position... As with the other shots, you will want the ball a bit up in your stance, nearer to your front foot, but leaving it in the middle isn't the end of the world here.

Club selection... with this one it will depend a lot on the situation. First thing to consider is how high the lip is. You NEED to get this ball out of the bunker, so select a club that can do that, even if it means you can't get it as far as you need.. A very common choice here is a 7 iron.

The setup... Before starting your swing you will need to adjust your grip. Since we wiggled into the sand a bit to secure our stance, you will need to adjust your hands on the grip by approximately the same amount. You will want to put the weight slightly on your lead foot, and try to maintain that throughout your swing.

The swing... Here you will be trying to pick the ball clean off the sand instead of trying to lift it up and out (provided there isn't much lip). You may want to shorten the backswing a little to help focus on hitting that ball clean instead of worrying about power. When you worry about power your feet might move and it will affect your strike on the ball.

With these shots you don't want to open the club face like the others, as loft and flow through the sand aren't our focus here.

Here is a good video from one of our favourite YouTubers, Chris Ryan, to give a good explanation:

The Final Word

Practicing all these different shots consistently is the only way you’ll hone in your sand game. Just remember: have fun with it. Make it a game, challenge yourself or a friend to see who can one-up the other in the bunker.

Like most things in golf, shots that may seem scary will become less scary once you learn more about them. I hope the tips you’ve read above will help your bunker game improve the next round you play, and every round after.

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