Best Club For Getting Out of Bunkers

Best Club For Getting Out of Bunkers: Introduction

Do you struggle to escape from sand? If so then the answer to your prayers may be in this article.

Despite what many amateur golfers think, getting out of a bunker is actually not that difficult if you have the right club and the right technique.

This guide should help you improve your bunker mentality and make playing sand shots fun.

First and foremost it’s important to get things in perspective. Around halfway through the 2021 PGA Tour season, the average for sand saves around the green is 49%. Let that sink in for a moment, among the best players on the planet, less than half of the time did they manage to get the ball up and down from a bunker.

They spend all day, pretty much every day working on some aspect of their game. For most amateurs just getting out of the greenside bunker and onto the green should be their number one goal.

Best club for getting out of bunkers
looks like someone could have used a rake

What is a Bunker?

In golfing terms, it is a depression or hole filled with sand. Under the rules of golf, it is designated as a hazard. Because it has been designated as a hazard certain rules apply.

Some people may also refer to grass bunkers, e.g. a depression or hole just covered with grass. In some ways, these can be just as difficult to escape as their sand-filled relative but they have no special standing on a golf course.

This guide will be dealing with the sand-filled variety of bunker. Some people might also refer to them as traps.

Bunker Rules OK!

Knowing whether or not you are actually in the hazard will determine what you are and are not able to do.

You are considered to be in the bunker if “any part of it touches sand on the ground inside the edge of the bunker.”

You’re also in the bunker if you are within the edges of the bunker and “on a loose impediment, movable obstruction, abnormal course condition or integral object.” For example, you come to rest on the rake or a leaf that is in the sand.

You are also in the bunker should you come to rest within the edge of the bunker on the ground where you would normally expect sand to be. This might apply if the course maintenance is not done particularly well or if someone is being a little overzealous with their raking.

Should your ball be stuck in the face or on a grassy island in the middle then you are not considered to be in it.

If your ball is in a bunker then the first thing to remember is you are not able to touch the sand with your hand, club or any other instrument. This is to prevent you from judging how your next shot might react.

You are also not allowed to touch the sand with a practice swing or the backswing of your actual stroke.

revetted bunker face
revetted bunker face

Types of Bunkers

So now you know how to determine if you’re in one and what you can’t do when you’re in there. Now let’s look at the two different types of bunkers you will find since that will determine the type of shot and therefore the club you will use to get out.

Greenside Bunker

As the name suggests a greenside bunker is placed near the edge of the green. It is designed to catch approach shots that are slightly off-line.

If you’re of a certain age and from the UK you may remember a certain cigar advertisement. The protagonist was struggling to get out of a bunker and eventually gave up and started smoking the product.

Hamlet Advertisement circa 1980.

Depending upon the design of the course greenside bunkers can be quite deep. If you’re playing on a links course then they are likely to be very deep with revetted faces.

Despite this, getting out of a greenside trap doesn’t even require you to hit the ball, you are attempting to hit the sand! Once you understand this then you should find it easier to escape the first time.

Fairway Bunker

Fairway bunkers are designed to catch errant drives off the tee. They are generally placed on the sides of the fairway and tend to be fairly shallow. You have a reasonable chance of advancing the ball somewhere near the green. Once again links courses will tend to have much deeper fairway bunkers. They will usually force you to concentrate on escaping the bunker rather than making progress down the hole.

Clubs

Most people will carry the regulation 14 golf clubs in their bag. Unless your name is Seve then you’re probably best restricting yourself to the most lofted clubs in your bag when you are looking to escape from the sand.

Don’t forget that the higher degrees of loft on the club, the higher your shots should go. The other thing that will be important with bunker play is the amount of bounce on the club which is also measured in degrees.

Sand Wedge: The Club Designed to Get You Out

Gene Sarazen is credited with the design of the modern sand wedge. He played around with a number of niblicks (the equivalent of a modern 9-iron) by adding solder to the base of the clubhead. His experimental club was first used at the Open Championship in 1932 at Princes Golf Club. Wilson, the manufacturer of the clubs used by Sarazen, took this new design and ran with it.

The club is designed to slide through the sand underneath the ball lifting it out of the bunker on a cushion of sand. It is the club you will likely find most useful to escape from greenside bunkers.

Until quite recently it would have also been the most lofted club in your bag with 56° of loft.

There have also been a number of manufacturers that have brought out specialist wedges for use in bunkers. Some being described as ‘foolproof’. Undoubtedly, the design of such clubs helps. Poor technique could still lead you to leave the ball in the bunker or even thining the shot over the green.

Lob Wedge

They will typically have 58° to 64° of loft. This additional loft might be useful if you are facing a particularly steep bunker face. Also if you need to generate extra height because you only need to move the ball a short distance to the pin.

Depending on the type of sand used in the trap you might find that a lob wedge gives better results. This would also depend upon the amount of bounce that it has.

vokey 58 degree
lob wedge

Pitching Wedge/Gap Wedge

Occasionally you may find you need a little more distance from your shot. There are a variety of ways to achieve this but the simplest would be to take more club, for example by using a pitching wedge.

You could use essentially the same technique to generate a little bit of extra distance to get you back to the flag.

Specialist Wedges

These wedges tend to have extra-wide soles in order to prevent you from digging into the sand too much. They will also allow you to play with the club set up in a square position which makes them easier for beginners or high handicappers to use. I can remember trying out the original alien wedge back in the early 90s. At the time it did look exceedingly strange. These days there are many manufacturers producing something quite similar.

Tour Edge Hot Launch E521

This club features their patented “Houdini” sole. It is much wider than the sole of a traditional wedge. It will increase your chances of successfully escaping from the bunker since the club will be less likely to dig.

C3i

The extra-wide sole and low center of gravity combine to make it easier for mid and high handicappers to get the ball airborne. It is usable from all sorts of lies including bunkers.

Callaway SureOut 2

Available in lots from 56° to 64°. The Callaway SureOut 2 features the extra-wide sole common with this style of club. It is designed to give maximum relief to the player from a variety of tricky lies including bunkers.

All these clubs have the same Pros and Cons.

Pros: Designed to be easy to use for beginners.

Cons: Designed with one purpose in mind not really great for creativity.

Favorite Wedges

vokey wedge
pitching wedge

Vokey SM Series

I’ve currently gone full-bore with all four of my wedges being Vokey’s of varying ages.

Mizuno MP Series

I’ve also had a number of Mizuno forged wedges in the past and was always quite happy with them. I’m sure when I’m next in the market for a wedge they will be near the top of my wish list.

Both of these clubs will have a variety of sole grinds available. The ‘grind’ is the removal of material from the sole of the club. This is to improve its visual appearance or to change the way it will interact with the turf during impact. This is more of an issue for advanced players.

MD Golf Norman Drew

Probably half the price of the Mizuno or Vokey wedges but I was very impressed with this particular wedge from MD Golf.

At the moment there are a number of small manufacturers producing good quality forged wedges for a fraction of the price of the premium brands. Definitely worth a look if you are in the market for a new set of wedges.

I was always taught that the first rule of bunker play is to just get the ball out. When you have a steep face in front of you, this rule applies more than ever. Here, you have to get the ball up in the air as quickly as possible.

Matt Kuchar

Technique

In terms of greenside bunkers, the classical way to play was the splash shot:

  • open up the face on your sand wedge
  • open up your stance to the target
  • settle yourself in the sand and squat down a little more than you would with a normal shot
  • have 55% to 60% of your weight on your lead foot
  • ball opposite your lead heel
  • swing along the line of your feet creating an open swing path
  • maintaining the loft on the club
  • hit the sand behind the golf ball

The amount of sand you removed and the length of your backswing would determine the distance you hit the shot.

Pete Cowan espouses a more modern approach. Set up much squarer to the target line and also use what he calls the ‘butterfly’ grip to help keep loft on the clubface through the shot.

For a much better explanation take a look at this video:

Struggling to feel the correct distance with bunker shots, pitches or chips? Try to do an imaginary underarm throw of the ball to ‘feel’ the distance required.

Common Problems

Probably the two most obvious mistakes that amateurs make are a lack of speed in their swing and stopping the club when it hits the sand.

As with any other shot you need the club to be accelerating through impact so make sure you swing through to as full a finish as you can. Try to imagine that your follow-through position is a mirror image of your position at the top of your backswing. This should help you maintain the pace of your swing and lift the ball out on a cushion of sand.

One of the biggest problems amateurs face when they find themselves in a bunker is their mental state. You need to have a positive mindset, doubt or fear is likely to lead to poor results.

How to Improve

If you’re serious about improving your bunker game then you’re going to have to start measuring your performance when you are practicing. Ideally, you should be doing this in a practice bunker but not everyone has access to such practice facilities.

Once you have reached a level where hitting out of bunkers is no longer intimidating then you can start working on trying to improve from the bunker.

Dave Pelz always talked about the ‘Golden 8’. This was the length of putt where you still had a high chance of holing out. Thus if you could get your bunker shots, chips or pitches inside the 8 feet range you would have an excellent chance of holing your next shot.

When you have a practice session have 10 goes at a particular flag from a greenside trap. Ignore your best and worst effort and then try and come up with an average for the remainder. Challenge yourself to try and increase the percentage you get inside the ‘Golden 8’. If you do this then you should see an improvement in your scoring.

Poor lie in bunker
ball sitting down in the sand

Sand

The condition of the sand in the bunker can also have a massive effect on how you should play the shot and even the type of club you should use.

If the sand is very soft and fluffy then you will probably need to use a wedge with plenty of bounce to help you glide through without digging in too much. If the sand is much denser or if it’s wet and compacted then you would want to use a wedge with less bounce and take less sand through the shot.

Plugged Lies

Occasionally you might find that your ball is buried in the sand making a normal splash shot unlikely to get the ball out. In order to improve your chances of escape do the following:

  • set up with slightly more weight on your left side to help promote a slightly steeper swing
  • generate plenty of clubhead speed and maintain it through to as long a finish as you can manage
  • cock your wrists earlier

You will be attempting to dig the ball out more than you would with a shot from a good lie.

The ball will come out on a slightly lower trajectory and with less spin than you would achieve with the normal splash shot.

Fairway Bunkers

Your choice of shot from a fairway bunker is going to be dictated by your position in the bunker, the lie and the size of the lip that you have to clear.

If you think you need a 3-wood to reach the green but you are near the face then clearly it’s just not practical to attempt the shot. First and foremost you must be making sure that your next shot is played from a more advantageous position. You really need to maximize your chances of escaping from the bunker. If that means giving up on reaching the green then so be it. Also, you need to consider the lie. If the ball is sitting down then you’re not going to be able to hit a lower lofted club. Give yourself the best chance by using more loft or your next shot will be from the sand!

Technique From Fairway Bunkers

If you are trying to achieve a significant distance then you are not going to be able to use the same techniques that you would use near the green.

Firstly you need to give yourself a stable base by shuffling your feet into the sand. You also need to grip down on the club to make sure you have allowed for the fact you are now that bit closer to the ball.

You should play the ball slightly further back in your stance since you want to hit the ball first rather than the sand. You also need to make much more of an upper-body swing and keep your lower body relatively still.

In order to get good distance, you will need to pick the ball off the top of the sand. Should you hit the sand before the ball then at best the ball will come up short of your target and at worst you could leave yourself in the bunker.

This is about the only time you should be picking the ball out of a trap, in the majority of cases you’ll be wanting to hit the sand rather than the ball.

Player escaping from a bunker
escape!

Checklist

Before stepping into the bunker and attempting the shot this is the process I would go through:

  • Assess the lie. The lie of the ball in the sand is going to determine what is achievable. The worse the lie the more loft you are going to need to help you get out of the bunker at the first attempt.
  • Assess your stance. Has the ball finished in a position that would make your stance awkward? Will you have to have one or possibly even both feet outside the bunker? If the stance is too awkward you may have to consider playing the ball out sideways or even backward in order that you can get a simpler stance.
  • Height of the lip. How high is the lip of the bunker in the direction you want to go? If you are in a greenside bunker then you will likely need your sand wedge or even lob wedge to clear the lip. If you are in a fairway bunker then you need to judge whether you can clear the lip with the club you need to reach the green.

Conclusion

Armed with the right tools and understanding, bunker play shouldn’t strike fear into your heart. Remember that even the best players in the world only get up and down 50% of the time. It’s not realistic for you to think you’ll be playing all your shots close and then holing the putt.

Concentrate on getting out of a bunker first time. This will greatly improve your confidence and your golf scores and should help you lower your handicap.

One thing that golf teaches a man is humility. Nevermore so than when in the sand!

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