Escaping Bunker Shots, Both Fairway and Greenside

By Bradley W. Smith
December 26, 2016

Start Playing Bunker Shots with Confidence

Updated 02/14/2018

Death. Taxes. Bunker Shots.

Some things are just unavoidable in life, no matter what you do. Now I don’t have a time machine and I’m not an accountant or an attorney, so I can’t help you at all with the first two things. But with the help of some trusted PGA professionals, I can help you with bunkers though.

Remember in 2000 when Tiger played all four rounds of The Open Championship at St. Andrews without hitting into a single pot bunker? It was an incredible display of control, shot-making and some luck thrown in. It also wasn’t you.

I’m guessing the last time you hit into a bunker was the last time you played. It happens. Golfers tend to start sweating and get all nervous and all of sorts knowing they have to play a bunker shot, but it doesn’t have to be like that.

No matter if it’s a greenside or fairway bunker, just follow these tips and put your anxiety at ease.

A tip from Martin Chuck:

Fairway Bunker Shots

Let’s start with fairway bunkers, because I feel these create a lot more stress and confusion for the average golfer.

Be honest. If you hit your drive into a fairway bunker, do you know what to do next? By that I mean do you know what club you should be hitting or where you should be aiming? Having a hit it and hope attitude with fairway bunkers isn’t productive and it isn’t going to help your score either.

First thing you need to do in a fairway bunker is to take one more club than normal.

If your ball was in the fairway and you would normally hit an 8-iron, take a 7-iron for your bunker shot. Taking a little less loft off your club will help you swing better. Trouble usually lurks in front of the green so make sure you’ve got enough club.

Now let’s talk about your swing.

Ideally, a three-quarter swing is what you should be thinking. You’ve got extra club so a full swing won’t be necessary. It will be too difficult to control and it’s too difficult for the average player to make solid contact.

Check your feet for where the ball is aligned. You want to hit the ball first and sand second (the opposite of a greenside bunker shot, which we’ll talk about next).

To accomplish hitting the ball first and sand second, simply move the ball a little bit back of center in your stance. Doing this will allow you to make clean contact with the ball. Remembering these three simple tips is going to allow you to feel much more comfortable and confident in the bunker and it should take the fear out of your mind.

So when you summize the tips to hitting great fairway bunker shots, consider these tips:

  1. Take more club

  2. Take a three-quarter swing

  3. Hit the golf ball first and the sand second

If you’re able to perform those three keys, you’ll start improving your percentages around the green of both escaping, but ending up in a better position, as well.

Greenside Bunker Shots

Now let’s discuss those greenside bunker shots.

There is a key component to understand here….not all greenside bunkers are the same.

Some are bunkers deep with very high lips where your top priority is just getting the ball out. Some are from a relatively shallow bunker, but be 15, 20 or maybe 30 yards from the hole.

I’m going to walk you through several different scenarios to again help you feel more confident and comfortable with sand under your feet.

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Long greenside bunker shots

Long greenside bunker shots are probably the hardest for the average player, simply because they don’t practice them or encounter them much on the course.

To help explain, here’s a video featuring Todd Kolb discussing the long bunker shot:

First thing to think about with that long bunker shot, like a fairway bunker, is your club selection.

Most golfers will automatically reach for the sand wedge or lob wedge, whatever club has the most loft in their bag. That’s fine if you’re near the hole, but it’s not so ideal for this shot.

PGA teaching pro Todd Kolb suggests to his students grabbing a pitching wedge or gap wedge to play the shot. This is going to make the ball come out a little lower and carry a little farther.

Next, is to shallow out your backswing. (What does a shallower swing mean?)

Drag the club back lower on your backswing and, again, this is going to allow your ball to come out lower and travel longer with more roll.

You still want to hit sand first and splash the ball out like you would a regular greenside bunker shot. Practice these long bunker shots and you’ll be amazed by the results.

  1. Try a pitching wedge or a gap wedge.

  2. Shallow out your backswing.

  3. Hit the sand first and splash the ball out.

If you follow these tips and put in some practice, there is no reason you can’t knock it close even from the other side of the green.

The High, Soft Bunker Shot

If you’re in a deeper bunker but closer to the hole, don’t despair.

Joseph Mayo and Grant Waite explain wonderfully these bunker shots in the video below:

You can still be aggressive with the shot easily get up and down to save par.

For this shot, you do need all the loft you have so grab your sand wedge or 60-degree wedge and trudge into the sand. You want the ball to get out quickly and land softly.

Give yourself some space. Don’t be right on top of the ball crowding it. Stand a little farther away from the ball, and make sure there is space between your belt buckle and the butt-end of the golf club.

Next, be sure to keep the ball in front of your stance and flex your knees, flare your feet out and squat. You want your rear end lower to the ground than a normal chip shot. Your swing should be low to the ground.

Imagine you’re trying to cut underneath the ball. Let the bounce of the wedge do the work for you. Hit behind the ball and finish the swing and you’ll see the ball pop out and land quickly with minimal roll. If we’re taking this step-by-step, we’ll be doing the following:

  1. Grab a sand wedge or a 60-degree

  2. Stand further from the ball

  3. Put the ball in the front of your stance

  4. Flex Your Knees

  5. Flare Your Feet Out

  6. Squat

The late, great Seve Ballesteros was a master of the high bunker shot and you can be as well.

Bunker shots don’t need to fill you with dread or anxiety. You might even find them easier and more preferable compared with a chip shot from nasty ankle-deep rough.

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The key thing, like any other golf shot, is practice. I think the reason a lot of golfers fear bunker shots is simply because they don’t practice them. You’ll spend a half-hour at the range with a driver in hand trying to hit the 300-yard sign, but probably won’t drop two balls in a bunker before heading off to the first tee.

Take some time to practice a variety of bunker shots and really make it a strong part of your game.


  1. When I have a short side bunker shot
    Close to lip, I m trying all the set up tricks
    But still the ball is coming out low catching the lip
    The sand looks compact when I get in the bunkers
    My attack angle is steep, making a V on backswingbut
    But club doesn’t penetrate the sand but bounces

  2. Interesting, Rich. The shot you’re looking for is the one taught by Joseph Mayo and Grant Waite in this video.

    If those don’t work, perhaps it’s your equipment. What club are you using (both loft, shaft length, and bounce?)

    This is also a very difficult shot to hit when the sand is so firm…

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