*Editor's Note: Every Monday Kevin Hinton, Director of Instruction at Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, N.Y. and one of Golf Digest's Best Young Teachers, tells you how a tour player hits a key shot. This week Kevin focuses on the immaculate bunker play of Rory McIlroy, who won the Honda Classic while withstanding a tremendous final-round 62 by Tiger Woods. Rory got up and down from greenside bunkers 77 percent of the time for the tournament to win by two strokes. It helps to have your own backyard bunkers (click on the video link at the end to see Rory's free-flowing bunker swing).
*__Here's Kevin:__When you think of Rory's game, most people's first image is his fearless, free-flowing swing. While as beautiful and technically sound as it is, Rory has his short game to thank this week for his win at the Honda Classic and his new No. 1 ranking. Rory's ball-striking was actually quite mortal this week, hitting only 11 of 18 greens in regulation in the final round, and nine of 14 fairways. The often-maligned ball-striking of Tiger Woods out-matched Rory for the week, as Tiger hit more fairways and greens, as well as an impressive 14 greens in the final round. Tiger even led the field in total driving, something he's done only once (the 2009 BMW) since 2000. However, as often is the case in golf, the player who masters the wedge and putter normally comes out on top. Rory led the entire field in Scrambling Percentage and was an impressive 7 for 9 in bunker saves. This week we will look at Rory's bunker basics. I have a pretty good feeling it won't be the last time this season we get to analyze an aspect of Rory's short game that was a key to victory . . . and here's a hint: Think Georgia in April!
Rory's naturally long, rhythmic backswing is one key to his excellent bunker play. This is a great thing for the amateur player to copy. While the size of your swing varies based on the distance of the shot (especially your finish), nothing good comes from a short backswing in the bunker. One absolute in golf is that small backswings produce low shots. You simple can't produce the speed required to get the ball high into the air with a short backswing. With golf courses being designed and renovated with deeper and more penal bunkering, being able to hit a lofted bunker shot is crucial. The only way to produce height in golf is speed. Short, timid backswings don't cut it in the bunker. That's lesson No. 1 we can learn from Rory, and he demonstrates it in the video at the end of this post.
Here are the other keys to being a good bunker player:
1. Ball Position: Somewhere in front of middle is the basic rule. The higher you want to hit it, the farther forward you should play the ball
2. Stance Width: Here is another solid statement: Narrow stances produce low shots. At address, place your feet at least at shoulder width. If you really need to hit it high, stand farther from the ball, get even wider and lower yourself. Tom Gillis took this exact stance from the greenside bunker on No. 12 Sunday. He hit a beautiful high-spinning shot to tap-in distance that helped secure a tie-for-second finish. I hope you saw it!
3. Set the clubface open at address. The degree to which you do this should vary on the length of the shot and the sand conditions. Open the face on shorter shots when height is essential. Keep it more square on longer shots. Open the face in softer sand conditions to use more of the bounce of the club. Keep the face fairly square in firmer sand conditions, or when there isn't much sand in the bunker. Remember, opening the face adds bounce, turning the club into more of a skimmer and less of a digger.
4. A normal swing is preferred. If you're enrolled in Bunkers 101, simply make your normal swing, aim two to four inches behind the ball and be sure to get the ball out of the bunker. If you've signed up for Advanced Bunkering this semester, experiment with applying a little bit of "cut" to your downswing. If you really need to get the ball up quickly and get it to stop, making a subtle slice swing with some speed will help do that.
__5. Distance Control.__In general, the size of your finish is the biggest determining factor in how far the ball will fly. The longer the shot, the fuller your finish should be. This will ensure the necessary clubhead speed. Rory hit a great long bunker shot on 18 in the third round. His up-and-down birdie gave him a two-shot lead going into Sunday's final round. This extra cushion certainly affected his final-round game plan.
You can also adjust a few other variables on longer shots. If the shot doesn't require a long carry, simply try playing the shot with a PW, or even a 9 iron. This will allow you to still aim a safe distance behind the ball. If the shot is long, and requires a long carry, you'll need to increase your speed and aim closer to the ball, more like one to two inches max. Unfortunately, this becomes a very dangerous shot because you risk hitting the ball first. It might be prudent to select a safer option and aim away from the pin and simply get the ball anywhere on the green.
Here's another way to improve your sand play. Build your own backyard-bunker playground like Rory did!