The bunker might well be the scariest place on the course for many mid and high handicap golfers. Playing that floaty splash shot you see on TV becomes a desperate attempt to scoop the ball onto the green and increasing levels of frustration as it stays in the trap before finally being thinned across the green and out of bounds. As much as the greenside trap is tough, what happens when this trap is 150 yards away from the green is on a hole other level. If you have no idea how to hit out of a fairway bunker, read on.
Don’t Play the Splash Shot from the Fairway
The first real issue with being in the sand on the fairway is to understand what you are trying to do. So much bunker advice, whether on YouTube or from a teaching pro, centres on getting the ball out of a greenside sandtrap and up onto the putting surface. Of course, there are many ways to do this (and don’t rule out the putter) but it isn’t the same kettle of fish at all. A short bunker shot generally involves hitting behind the ball with plenty of speed and ‘exploding’ sand and ball up and out.
The ball is going to be flying a short distance, probably less than ten yards or so, and depending on contact and skill level, will spin to a stop or roll out. In fact, this shot is basically a deliberate attempt to hit the ball fat so that you don’t put all that energy into the back of the ball and smash it miles over the green, something I am sure most of us have done a time or two!
The fairway bunker needs almost the opposite mentality. Generally, hitting a little bit too far behind the ball in the sand isn’t the worst thing you can do. It quite often leads to getting out at least. In the fairway, this might not be the case at all.
Ball Contact is King
Unless you are playing at St Andrews, you almost certainly aren’t in a pot bunker on the fairway. You aren’t going to be obliged to try to hit some sort of flop shot out sideways in most cases. However, you will still have a fair bit of distance into the green or to get further down the hole. In many cases, you might still have quite a lot of sand to carry too. Splashing it out when you don’t need to is at best a wasted shot. At worst, it will leave you sitting in the same bunker ten yards closer to the hole!
This is when strike is really important. The one shot you do not want here is a fat shot. A thin, unless you have to get it over a lip, is actually a reasonable result in many cases. So the only real priority should striking the ball well
Choose the Right Club
Once you are in the mindset of concentrating on your ball-striking above all, it is time to think about the choice of club. There is a famous saying that is ‘take your medicine’ which is particularly applicable here. On the tee, you might have been thinking about hitting that par five in two with your three wood or smashing your six iron into that par four. Once you are in the fairway bunker, it is probably time to lower expectations.
There is nothing wrong with playing safe and leaving yourself with a chance of an up and down. Far better this than trying to hit a fairway wood out of the sand and losing the ball or whatever. Generally, you might want to take a little bit more loft. If you were planning on hitting six iron, just shift down to seven for example. A little bit more loft, a slightly easier club to hit and the chances of a decent strike go up.
This is also a good situation for an unusual and possibly unpopular choice, the chipper. With the release of the Ping ChipR it seems like the chipper might actually be coming back into fashion and I have said many times about how useful a club this can be. I currently have one (a first generation Cleveland Niblick 37, still my favourite) because they are a lot of fun to use for so many shots.
If you do use a chipper, this is almost certainly the easiest way to get out of the sand and down the fairway. For example, a half swing with my niblick 37 will knock it 100 yards down the fairway, nice and straight, and give it enough height to get over a bunker lip.
Having this shot in the bag is actually great in terms of strategy too. I am happy hitting driver towards the bunkers because if it misses, I will have a wedge to the green on a short par four and if it hits, I can use the chipper and get myself in a safe place for at worst a good shot at up and down.
Weight Forward, Easy Swing
Once you have got your club, you really need to forget about the fact that it is in the sand at all. If you have a horrible buried lie, that is different. In that case, just get the ball back in play. However, if you are sitting well on the sand, you are good to go.
As we said previously the only thing that matters here is really making good contact. Making good contact means that it becomes really important to hit the ball first. Don’t try to smash it, just make a comfortable swing. Don’t try to swing softly though. This is a guaranteed recipe for most of us for slowing down into the ball, duffing it and then facing exactly the same shot or worse right away!
The other key here more than anywhere else is not to sway away from the ball. Keep that weight forward. It doesn’t have to be full on stack and tilt but try to keep the feeling of staying on top of the ball more than usual. a bit thin won’t kill you but fat will. Don’t try to lift the ball out of the sand. A solid strike and the loft of the club will do this all for you.
The Hardest Shot in Golf?
The fairway bunker shot does get a bad rep. Is it really the hardest shot in golf? Generally, no. If you have 50 yards, this is a hard shot. Halfway between an explosive splash shot and a normal shot. If you are lying over a hundred yards away from your target and sitting in the bunker, there really isn’t any need to panic. Choose the right club, think about ball-first contact and make a sold swing without forcing it and you should be good to go and might even find yourself putting, who knows?