10 ways to master fairway bunkers (so they don’t ruin your round)

fairway bunker shot

Ball-then-sand contact in fairway bunkers will produce the most reliably sound contact.

getty images

The No. 1 rule of fairway bunkers: Try to stay out of them, because finding one almost always hampers your scoring potential. Rule No. 2: You won’t stay out of them, so arm yourself with the proper knowledge and technique to get your ball back to safety. Here’s everything you need to know to help you master one of the game’s most daunting shots.

1. Ball, then sand

Many golfers incorrectly think that you should avoid taking sand in a fairway bunker and rather “pick” the ball cleanly. While it is possible to hit a good fairway bunker shot without taking sand, ball-then-sand contact will produce the most reliably sound contact, just as a well-struck shot off grass requires ball-then-turf contact. If you set up well and understand the correct motion, you will produce proper contact.

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2. Not all lies are created equal

The ball-then-sand approach applies primarily to good lies where your ball is sitting on top of the sand. If your ball is sitting down or is buried, it’s better to just take your medicine and chunk the ball out, taking plenty of sand to ensure you advance the ball rather than trying to get too greedy, risk catching the lip and seeing the ball roll back to your feet.

3. Clearing the lip is Priority No. 1

It’s essential that you make proper contact and also make the right club selection to clear the bunker lip in front of you. The higher the lip, the more lofted club you will need to select. If you’re between clubs, in most cases it is better to choose the more lofted option.

fairway bunker shot
The height of the lip will determine your club selection. getty images

4. Club up

Assuming you have a good lie and clearing the lip in front of you is not an issue, it’s a good general rule to take one extra club into your target — i.e., a 7-iron instead of an 8. Making the necessary adjustments to have solid contact from sand can limit the distance of your chosen club, so taking one club more will allow you to cover your desired distance.

5. Ball position: center-to-back

Proper ball position is always important but particularly in fairway bunkers, where you want to hit the ball before the sand. In fairway bunkers, you want the ball centered to slightly back of center in your stance. This will help to ensure that you contact the ball right before the low point of your swing.

6. Narrow your stance

Narrowing your stance can help to create more consistent contact in a fairway bunker. Making this adjustment will (1) limit the number of positions at which the club can hit the ground, and (2) help your motion be more rotary and less lateral. A more rotary motion will help produce more consistent ball-then-sand contact, while a more lateral motion could cause you to hit the sand before the ball and limit crisp contact. Narrowing your stance also will help you stand a bit taller, which makes it less likely your club will dig excessively.

7. Wedge your trail foot

Wedging your trail foot so that your little toe is higher than your big toe will help to create a barrier that reduces lateral motion that could cause the club to hit the sand before the ball. This wedging also helps to shift and transfer your forward foot correctly on the through swing.

8. Pivot on through-swing

When you make your through-swing, it is important that you make your normal pivot, allowing your trail heel to come up off of the ground and finish in balance. When you allow your normal weight shift and pivot to happen, this will help you to hit the ball and then the sand exactly as you would when the ball is on turf. Try to avoid the inclination to fall back and try to lift the ball into the air. Make your normal forward pivot.

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9. Don’t react to the lip

Once you assess the lie and choose a club that will easily clear the lip, it’s important that you do not react to the lip on the forward swing and incorrectly try to lift or “help” the ball over the incline. Through practice and repetition with feedback, be willing to make your normal swing where you allow your club to hit the ground. Any inclination to try to help the ball into the air can cause you to hit too high on the ball and fail to carry the lip.

10. Lean on lofted hybrids

With a good lie and enough lip clearance, a hybrid can be a great choice in a fairway bunker. A lofted 5-hybrid, for example, with solid contact will launch surprisingly high and not only provide clearance over the lip but also help you to increase your distance down the fairway and make your next shot easier. Practice this shot to develop confidence in it; when you see the launch you can generate, you will have a new tool for your game. Practicing fairway-bunker shots with all your clubs will teach you how aggressive you can be with your club selection.

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