Web-extra video: See video below for more on getting out of greenside bunkers.
Unhinge the club quickly, and then rehinge it so you 'miss the rope'
Players often ask how far behind the ball to hit in the sand, and my answer is always the same. If you learn to hit the sand exactly where you want (an inch or two behind the ball), you'll never need to ask that question again. To achieve that consistency, you might need some setup and swing changes. Getting the clubhead moving fast and skipping through the sand in the right place is like hammering a nail--using your wrist, not your arm. Release your wrist angle early and fast, and get the shaft in an upright position quickly after impact. If you stretched a rope three feet in front of you and two feet off the ground, the clubhead should miss it as you rehinge (above). I call this a "narrow" swing.
Pushing the handle toward the target creates width and dig, not speed or lift
If you struggle out of the sand, it's almost always because you're misapplying the force you need to hit this shot. When you surge the handle toward the target, it feels as if you're swinging fast, but you're really just slowing the clubhead down. You hit the sand too early and dig instead of skip. I call this a "wide" swing--it would hit the rope (below). Again, think about how you use a hammer. Do you keep your arm rigid and hit the nail with a big arm movement, or do you use your wrist to add extra hit to the nail? Play a bunker shot by rehinging your wrists quickly, and the clubhead will move fast, skip through the sand and pop the ball out without any extra lifting effort.
Keep your weight forward, arms soft and club vertical to make consistent contact
The bunker setup basics we've all heard are pretty standard--ball forward, open stance, open clubface. I think there's more to it than that. It's far more important to keep your spine tilt slightly left, shoulders level and head over the ball at address (above, left)--and throughout the swing. You're establishing the No. 1 theme for hitting good shots: hitting the sand where you intend to hit it. You tend to make contact with the sand at a point in line with the base of your neck. This way, you can set up square to the target, with the face open just enough to expose some bounce, the shaft vertical and your arms soft. You might feel like you're going to make a reverse pivot, but that's OK.
A rigid left arm pushes the left shoulder higher and the head too far back
Many players understand that their weight needs to be forward at address, but they do it the wrong way--by stiffening the left arm and shifting the hips toward the target. This pushes your head behind the ball and sets the shoulders at a steep angle, the right well below the left (above, right). When your head is shifted back and your left shoulder is so much higher than your right, you're setting up to crash the clubhead into the ground far behind the ball. It's no wonder players get so frustrated in the bunker. They make a large swing and scoop at it. They are basically just hoping to hit the sand somewhere far behind the ball and just get it out. It's hit and hope.
Turn your hips and shoulders, and hinge the club quickly with your wrists
Here's where you make or break a bunker shot. You hit the sand in a consistent spot by maintaining the position of your head relative to the ball--directly above it. Keep that left spine tilt and at least 60 percent of your weight on your left side during the swing. Then make a hip and shoulder turn while hinging the clubhead up quickly with your wrists (above). Keep your wrists and elbows soft, and you'll create effortless speed. It should feel as if you're making a slight reverse pivot and swinging back from inside a phone booth. Notice how my spine angle is the same at the top of the backswing as it was at address. I haven't shifted my shoulders back or moved my head behind the ball.
More arm swing doesn't always translate into more clubhead speed
When many players feel they need to create more speed in the bunker, it usually translates into a big, wide swing of the arms (above). But all that does is pull your head back behind the ball, and it doesn't produce enough speed. As we talked about before, moving the handle instead of hinging the club actually slows the clubhead. In this case, with your head behind the ball, the tendency will be for your weight to shift to your back leg, and you'll return the club too far behind the ball. If you don't release the hands from here, you'll hit it fat and leave it in the bunker. Release them too early, and you'll blade it over the green. Consistency requires too much reliance on timing.
STAN UTLEY, a Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher, works with players on the major tours. He's based at Grayhawk Golf Club, in Scottsdale.