Bunker Basics: How to Approach Golf Sand Traps Confidently

In this guide, golf instructor Nick Foy will share tips on how to play out of sand traps and the mental side of how to overcome fear of sand traps. You’ll learn the basics of how to approach a sand bunker shot and if you’d like a list of drills for practicing out of sand you can check out this ultimate guide here.

What is a Sand Trap in Golf?

A golf sand trap is a hole dug into the ground and filled with sand on a golf course. Most sand traps are about 5 yards wide and stretch 10-15 yards in length. Some sand traps are dug really deep, known as “Pot Bunkers,” making steep inclines that you must hit the ball above to escape the sand.

The goal of a sand trap on a golf course is to create difficulty for a golfer. They are most commonly used around greens to protect the green and make the hole harder for a golfer to score par.

Sand traps placed near greens are also called “Greenside Bunkers”

Golf course designs may also include putting sand bunkers alongside fairways and sometimes in the middle of fairways. The goal here is to make the fairway harder to hit when a golfer is hitting his or her tee shot.

Sand traps placed near the fairway are also called “Fairway Bunkers.”

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What You Can’t Do in a Sand Bunker

According to the rules of golf, you are NOT allowed to ground your club before making your swing in a sand trap.

In other words, you can’t set the club down so that it is touching sand during your setup. Instead, you have to hover the golf club just above the sand when you place it behind the ball and get ready to swing.

If you break this rule, you’ll incur a two-stroke penalty in stroke play and if match play, you’ll lose the hole to your opponent.

This rule makes it even more challenging for hitting out of a bunker, hence why many golfers dislike going into the sand traps and try to avoid them.

There are certain exceptions to this rule. For example, in a waste bunker or ground marked under repair, golfers may be allowed to ground their club behind the ball during the setup.

In some cases of ground under repair and some cases where bunkers are full of rain water, golfers may get to move the ball out of the bunker into the grass without penalty.

What Club Do You Use to Hit Out of Sand Traps?

A general rule of thumb is to choose a club with more loft than normal when hitting out of a sand bunker. The extra loft helps get the ball up into the air.

It’s expected that you’re going to lose some distance when hitting from sand traps, so keep this in mind when trying to calculate distance to the green and how much power you’ll need to swing with.

For greenside sand traps, you’ll likely want to choose a wedge to hit with since it’s lofted and can pop the ball up out of the bunker to clear the edges.

For fairway bunkers you’ll club down to get extra club distance to adjust for loss of distance in the sand. However, if the lip (bunker’s edge) is built up taller, then you’ll want to take a little more loft to get the ball to clear the edge.

How to Approach Hitting from Wet Sand

When approaching a sand trap, you’ll want to assess the sand in the bunker to see if it looks dry or wet.

Ideal conditions would be a sunny day with dry sand that appears light weight and fluffy. However, if sprinklers were recently turned on or there was rainy weather, then there’s a good chance the bunkers will still be wet, leaving behind a clumpy, compact wet sand.

When hitting from wet sand, you’ll want to shut the face of your wedge more than normal to strike the sand with the leading edge of the club.

Adjust your setup so that more weight is on your front leg. Take a steeper backswing and maintain a steeper attack angle into the golf ball on the downswing to promote a cleaner strike near the golf ball.

Unlike dry sand where you can take more sand, wet sand requires picking the ball cleaner and taking less sand before the ball. The wet, compact sand will grab the club, causing digging and chunked shots if you hit too far behind the golf ball.

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Bunker Technique When Hitting from Dry Sand

Dry sand is light and fluffy, allowing the golf club to glide through the sand, provided you take a shallower swing and don’t dig the club into the sand.

To help you avoid digging, you want to make a shallower swing and let your backswing generate power that propels the clubhead through the sand on the downswing and follow through.

Similar to hitting a flop shot, we want to hinge the hands/wrists on the backswing and hold that hinge into the downswing. As we near the golf ball, we want to release the hinge quickly, and then rehinge the hands quickly on the follow-through after impact.

If you let the hands push forward to finish low instead of up to finish high, then you’ll increase chances of digging the club into the sand, causing a chunk or inconsistent bunker shot.

How to Practice Bunker Shots

Find a practice bunker at a local golf course you can get comfortable in and hit lots of sand shots out of. Aim to spend at least 30 minutes practicing out of sand a few times per week to see improvement in your bunker play.

Consider getting a lesson from a local golf instructor so you can have in-person instruction on how to escape sand bunkers. Or find a friend who is really good at sand shots to work with you during practice sometime.

Here are a few simple drills to practice bunker shots.

1. Two Line Drill

Draw two lines parallel to each other in the sand with your club. Space them about 6 inches apart. The first line is where the clubhead should enter and the second line is where the clubhead should exit the sand.

Practice making swings in the sand trap so you get comfortable where to strike the sand behind the ball, splashing the sand out of the bunker, and finishing through the swing so the club gets up and out of the sand, rather than digging.

2. Open vs Closed Club Face Drill

Practice hitting golf balls out of the sand with two different setups.

The first is to use the traditional open face setup for dry, fluffy sand so that the open clubface can glide through the sand using the clubs “bounce.”

The second setup is to shut the face more and practice hitting shots with a closed face to learn how to escape sand that may be wet and dense. This setup also prepares you for plugged lies when the ball is buried deeper down into the sand trap.

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Mentally Prepare Yourself for Sand Traps

Half of the success of hitting from a sand trap is having the confidence that you’re going to hit a great shot. Don’t let a negative mindset set you back before you even start. Have confidence in your sand skills. Build confidence through practice to gain experience and soften any fear.

On the golf course, strategize where to aim golf shots so you can avoid the sand traps. If a sand trap is guarding a certain side of the green that the flagstick is on, don’t get aggressive and aim at the hole. Instead, aim for the middle of green or opposite side of the green away from the bunker.

When hitting tee shots, consider a club selection that won’t hit far enough to reach a fairway bunker. This may mean clubbing down to a 3-wood instead of swinging driver.

But the main key here is stay positive!

Professional golfers have a positive mindset that it’s often better to be in a bunker than hitting from a challenging spot in the rough if they miss the green. This is because greenside bunkers can generate backspin helping the ball stop easier on the green than hitting from deep rough which may cause the ball to roll too much on the green.

Golf Sand Save Statistics to Track Your Short Game Improvement

Majority of amateur golfers are petrified by the thought of having to hit a bunker shot. Consistent good bunker play can save golfers at least 1 or 2 shots on average.

While low handicap golfers and professional golfers are on average decent bunker players, PGA Tour professionals are great bunker players.

An important aspect to keep in mind is the quality of bunkers out on the PGA Tour in comparison to the bunkers at your home club. The consistency of the sand is the same week in and week out and majority of the time players will get a good lie. PGA Tour pros won’t end up in a footprint or in a bunker that hasn’t been raked properly.

In order to know how much room for improvement there is for your bunker play, take a close look at these 5 PGA Tour bunker play stats for sand saves.

1. Sand save percentage

In order to highlight the importance of bunker play let’s start off by taking a look at the overall sand save percentage on the PGA Tour.

Rickie Fowler was the leader in this category getting his ball up and down 68.66% of the time that he took a trip to the beach.

If amateur golfers, especially high handicap players could do this they would save on average potentially at least 2 or 3 shots per round.

The 150th ranked player still managed to get it up and down out of the sand 45.95% of the time.

If you are a player that likes to keep track of stats this is important one to remember, always aim to get every other bunker shot up and down.

2. Sand saves <10 yards

Shorter bunker shots are normally easier than longer ones, but by looking at the stats even the best players in the world often times struggle in the sand.

In 2023, 6 players had a 100% sand save record on bunker shots under 10 yards.

In comparison Justin Thomas, one of the best players in the world, only got up and down 37.5%. It goes to show that even the best players all have parts of their game that can improve.

3. Sand saves 10-20 yards

As the distance of the bunker shots increase, the sand save percentages decrease.

Majority of bunker shots that a player will face out on the golf course will fall into this distance category, that is an important fact to keep in mind when practicing your bunker play.

Cameron Tringale was the leader in the category with 72.73% saves made.

On the other end of the spectrum Nick Taylor ranked 150th, getting it up and down out of the bunker 45.76% of the time.

4. Sand saves 20-30 yards

A lot of bunker shots are also played on average from this distance category.

Rickie Fowler’s bunker play is exception, as he got up and down 73.53% of the time when faced with a bunker shot from 20-30 yards away from the hole.

Other players on the PGA Tour weren’t as good as what Rickie was, 6 players tied for 150th spot getting it up and down only 40% of the time.

5. Sand saves from 30+ yards

Stats can often times be misleading, Nick Watney got up and down every time he had a 30+ yard bunker shot, when looking at stats always look at the number of attempts.

By taking a further look it is evident that 30+ yard bunker shots are drastically more difficult than shorter shots.

Paul Casey ranked 150th in this category only getting up and down 23.08% of the time.

Amateur golfers struggle with longer bunker shots, but don’t feel alone, the best in the world also have a hard time with this shot.

Final Words

This concludes our guide today on sand traps and how to approach them confidently once you learn the simple swing techniques for hitting out of bunkers.

Don’t neglect practicing out of sand during your practice sessions.

Make sure to block time and work on different golf bunker drills so you can gain experience of how the ball reacts out of sand and grow confidence.

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