From the Golf Journal Archives - The ABCs of Bunker Play

Oct 28, 2011

By Byron Nelson

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1965 issue of Golf Journal.)

Most average golfers have quite a fear for bunkers … for no real reason. The good player knows that by following a few routine steps and by practice, anyone can rid himself of any fear of this particular golf shot.

The first thing you must do is select a proper club to play this shot. It should be a club with a rounded sole which keeps the club from cutting into the sand too deeply. Many people try to play out of bunkers with a 9-iron, or a pitching wedge. They are only handicapping themselves when they do this. No good golf professional would start a round of golf without having a good sand iron in his bag.

The position that you take in your stance in sand is most important. You should work your feet in the sand enough to assure yourself of a firm footing, so you will not slip or lose your balance during the swing. The feet should be a good distance apart, probably about the width of your shoulders. You must have quite a good flex of the knees so as to be almost in a squatting position.

Your stance should be open, which means you should face the hole slightly with the weight kept well back onto the heels of your feet. You should never take a long swing; about a half backswing is sufficient. Use very little hand action; keep the wrists firm.

Most people have a tendency to want to cut too much sand out from under the ball. The old theory of an explosion shot out of the sand is not used very much. The face of the club should be turned open slightly so that the ball will be lifted out of the sand very softly and very quickly. You should hit an average of from 1½ inches to 2 inches behind the ball, according to the distance which you need to hit the ball. If the pin is close to you, hit further behind the ball, taking more sand. The farther the flagstick is away from you, the closer you should hit to the ball so you get more distance.

One of the most important things is not to try to lift the ball out of the sand. Allow the club-face, which should be open a little, to impart the lifting action. Be very sure to stay down to the ball and hit through. The length of the follow-through should be about the same as the length of your backswing.

In case you have a bad lie in the sand trap and the ball is buried, then you must close the face a little so the club will cut into the sand a little more abruptly. This ball will always have a tendency to roll more because there will be more sand between the ball and the club, and you cannot swing through, or follow-through, as well on this shot as you do on the regular bunker shot.

When hitting from fairway bunkers and chipping from shallow bunkers near the green, the important thing is to choose an iron with enough loft to clear the front of the hazard. On these shots you should first make contact with the ball, rather than hitting into the sand behind it.

In all cases, you should use the same grip as you use for normal iron play.

After you have learned to play out of sand traps with some ability, if you go to a different golf course or a different section of the country, you may find the sand quite different. Some sand is quite heavy, and other sand very fine. The answer in adjusting – again – is practice.

Byron Nelson, the 1939 U.S. Open champion. (USGA Museum)