When you hit into a greenside bunker, is your brain flooded with swing thoughts that make the next shot seem complicated, like you’re running through a long checklist just to get the ball out? Instead, clear your mind—if you can—and try my simpler approach: No matter the lie, no matter the yardage, play the ball roughly in the middle of your stance and swing so your club hits the sand about an inch or two behind the ball. But when I say hit the sand, I’m being literal. Accelerate the club down and under the ball, and keep it moving. Do that, and you’ll splash the sand toward the hole and execute a quality bunker shot just like we do on the LPGA Tour.
That’s my first lesson to better bunker play: Keep it simple. In my rookie season on tour in 2018, I got up and down from greenside bunkers more than 60 percent of the time. If you’d like to play better from the sand, check out my other tips on the following pages. I’ve even got a few for fairway bunkers. Let’s turn sand play into a strength of your game.
The advice I just gave you is really going to help you get it on the green. And when you do that regularly, you’re ready to make some adjustments depending on the lie that will help you get the ball closer to the hole. I practice a few different shots.
The first is when I need to get the ball up quickly. You’ll use this shot when you have less green to work with or a high lip to clear. Again, keep the technique simple. Before you take your grip, open the clubface so it’s pointing skyward. Then when you swing, put some more speed into it. Everything else stays the same. Splash the sand (below) and finish the swing.
A plugged lie requires different adjustments. The key is to take more sand to get the ball out. Set up with your feet wider than your shoulders and dig them into the sand (below). Both of these things help you get the club under the ball. Also, don’t open the clubface as much as you would to clear a lip. In fact, it’s OK to hit this shot with the face square. This helps prevent you from chunking it. Also, think about exiting the clubhead low and left after impact. This will keep you from trying to scoop the ball out—an amateur mistake that usually leaves the ball in the bunker.
The third greenside shot I work on is when there’s a fair distance between my ball and the hole. Many teachers will tell you to use a longer club, like a pitching wedge or a 9-iron. That’s good advice, because those clubs don’t require a harder swing to get the ball to the hole. But I also make a few setup adjustments: I don’t open the face to prevent leaving it short. I also lower my hands at address. This shallows my angle into the ball so it flies higher, as if I was using a sand wedge. I also increase the length of my backswing for the longest shots into the green.
To be clear, a long greenside bunker shot is not the same as a fairway bunker shot. They’re played a lot differently. Let me teach you what to do when you’re in fairway sand or a waste area. So much of good fairway-bunker play happens before the shot is hit, but what I want to talk about first is what your goal should be when you get into a fairway bunker: Hit the ball solid and high. If it comes out too low, you’re going to slam the ball into the lip, or if you just clear it, you’ll never hold the green.
A key to hitting it solid and high is swinging from a stable base. Excessive movement leads to poor contact, so widen your stance slightly and dig your feet in about a half-inch. Notice how my toes are slightly turned out (above). That improves balance. Also note that my ball position is not too far forward, because the goal is to hit the ball before you hit the sand—not the other way around like you would in a greenside bunker. Choose a club one longer than normal, because you need to grip down a little to compensate for your feet being lower than the ball. You always want to grip down the same depth that your feet are dug into the sand.
I also like to stand a little taller than usual at address (above). This keeps my legs from moving too much when I swing. You need leg action to produce clubhead speed, but it’s easier to hit a solid shot if your lower body is quiet. The other reason I like to stand taller is to create space for my arms to swing on a wide arc. I don’t want to trap it like I would from the fairway. I want to feel like I’m clipping it off the sand from a shallow approach. For that to happen, I have to create more room for my arms to swing through—this is important if you want to hit it solid and high.
So that’s it. That’s how I’ve become a better sand player. Nothing beats experience for handling these shots, but even if you don’t have a lot of practice time, your chance for success improves if you take a simpler approach like I do. You’ll stand in the sand with confidence. —WITH KEELY LEVINS
(This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Golf Digest)