How To Play Out of a Fairway Bunker (5 Keys)


Tired of fairway bunkers ruining your round?

You stand there around 160 yards out, just hoping to catch the ball clean.  You fear the chunked shot or the shot that is bladed and hits the lip of the bunker, leaving you with another shot out of the bunker.

Arguably the most difficult shot in golf, the fairway bunker can cause some difficulty for the average golf or maybe even the most advanced golfers.

Don’t worry, we are here to help!  The steps/tips below will help you get the ball back in the play and possibly even hit the green in regulation.

How to play out of a fairway bunker?

There are several keys to ensure you hit a quality shot out of the fairway bunker.  These include:

  • Assessing the shot
  • Proper club selection
  • Stabilize your feet and legs
  • Hit the ball first
  • Manage expectations
When golfers fear fairway bunkers, they will often hit their driver worse. Build confidence with these shots so you can remain aggressive with the driver.

Key #1: Assessing the shot

The first and maybe most important key when you end up in the fairway bunker is assessing the shot that you face.  The big mistake is when you simply just get your yardage and go hit the shot.  Instead, you should consider the following items:

  • Is the ball buried in the sand, sitting down just a bit or sitting fine?
  • Where is the lip of the bunker?
  • How high is the lip of the bunker?
  • What distance do you have left to the green?
  • Are there other bunkers, water hazards or other barriers between you and the green?
  • If you are playing match play, what situation is your playing partner in?

Depending on your skill level, you might have a simple goal of advancing the ball down the fairway 100-125 yards to leave yourself with a reasonable 3rd shot.  As you get better, you will get to the point of being able to select a club to give you a chance to hit the green in regulation on a par 4 or advance the ball far enough on a par 5.

Whatever level you are at, the main goal is to ensure you don’t hit the ball and have the ball get jammed in a worse situation than you are currently in.  When in doubt, take some additional loft to ensure you fly the front of the bunker.  If there is little to no lip, this does not become a factor.

Related Post: How to get out of a Greenside bunker

Key #2: Proper Club Selection

You are going to fall into several different categories:

  • Just chipping the ball out sideways (Lob Wedge or Sand Wedge)
  • Advancing the ball down the fairway 100-125 yards (pithing, wedge, 9 iron or 8 iron)
  • Going to try to the green in regulation (similar to the yardage you normally hit a club, and then maybe plus one club

Once you have determined that the lip is not going to be an obstacle if you fall in the third bullet above and can hit the green, understand if you need an additional club.  Sometimes in fear of hitting the ground too early, the swing speed or ability to truly compress the ball can become an issue.

Key #3: Stabilize your feet and legs

After you have gone through the process of determining your shot and your club selection, go ahead and get set up.  You want to dig your feet slightly into the sand to help you stabilize and to ensure you do not slip.  You might need to choke down a ½ inch to a full inch depending how much you dug into the sand with your feet.

During your swing, you will want to stay steady and smooth through the shot.  Too much movement in your head, shoulders or legs can lead to a really poor shot and leave you faced with another bunker shot.

Related Post: When to use a sand wedge

Key #4: Hit the ball first

Everything you do with your setup and your swing is all about hitting the ball first.  If you hit the sand even slightly before the ball, you are more than likely going to lose some significant distance.

The key to hitting the ball first is controlling the low point of your golf swing.  If you fail to do this often, the fairway bunker becomes extra difficult. 

Below is a great drill for golfers of all ability level as there is a direction correlation between handicap and the ability to control the low point, which impacts the overall strike of the golf ball.

The Drill: The Low Point Control Drill

  • Take some yard paint and patina a 1-2 yard long line.
  • Setup with 55% of your weight on your front side.
  • Try to hit the target side of the line and see how many times out of 10 you can do this successfully!
  • Repeat this drill every day for a month, tracking your progress and your ability to to this successfully in trials of ten.
  • You may need to start with half swing and progress to full swings.

If you are struggling, put more weight forward and work on keeping your head still to help control the low point in the swing.

Helpful Post: How to lower your score in golf (top 5 tips)

Key #5: Manage expectations

Sometimes golfers can let frustration, emotions or unrealistic expectations start to creep in and impact decisions, and golf swings.  When you hit the ball in the fairway bunker, sometimes taking your medicine and simply advancing the ball down the fairway is a good option. 

Trying to hit a fairway bunker shot 175 yards over a water hazard is a great recipe for a double bogey or worse, essentially ruining your round and your day.  Instead, take the extra shot, and maybe get it back by hitting a quality wedge and putt.   Keep yourself in the game.

This starts with managing those expectations and what is realistic out of a bunker at your current skills level.  Did you know that the average proximity to the pin from 100 yards on the PGA Tour is 18 feet?  So if you have a bunker shot from 150, make sure you aim a wide target and take the safe route when necessary.  Be smart and keep the round and shot in front of you!

Another Great Drill: Stock Shot Drill

Next Steps: Practice

While fairway bunkers are not commonplace at many driving ranges, seek a place to practice this shot.  If you can even get 40-50 shots of a fairway bunker and come up with a strategy and some swing thoughts that work for you, it could save you a shot or two per round of golf.

If you can find a bunker, find some bare dirt and work on catching the ball clean and hitting it a reasonable distance.  Your golf club isn’t overly interacting with the sand in a fairway bunker until after you strike the bal, so the low point control drill or simply working on hitting the ball pure is helpful when you get into a bunker.

Get out and practice your ball striking if you want be to be good out of a fairway bunker.  When you can combine solid ball striking skills with some of the tips and keys above, you are on your way to hitting the shot you need out of a fairway bunker.

Helpful Post: How to hit irons pure (5 Tips)

Final Distance: Know your carry distance. Consider the investment in a range finder or GPS watch.

Take Action – What You Can Do Today to Get Better

What does this mean for you?  I believe in the following recipe to get better:

1 – Improve your motion in the golf swing by identifying a golf instructor.  Here are some options:

Here is a list of golf instructors that we have reviewed:

2 – Train to swing faster and improve your swing speed.  Here are some options:

Looking to gain more Speed and Distance in your swing. Two Options:

3 – Understand course strategy and work to break through your next barrier.  Here is a series on breaking through:

We have provided guides on how to break 100, 90, 80 and 70. Check out more below, if interested.

4 – Practice Frequently

Did you know that I build a golf simulator in my garage and have played over 500 rounds of golf on my SkyTrak system?  It has been a game changer and one worth checking out. Here are some of my other posts on golf simulators frequently asked questions:

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