Making a Splash
Joining the pro ranks has taught me the real value of short-game skills. Ball-striking is obviously important, but when you analyse the way that tournaments are won and lost, it all comes down to getting the ball into the hole: getting up and down. That's why we spend so much time working on pitching, chipping, putting and sand play. And if you want to see any improvement in your own scoring, that's what you must do.
Let me share with you some of my thoughts on bunker play, an area of the short game that you absolutely have to get to grips with. As ever, the key is to practise - and I hope this helps.
A storm in a sand trap?
A theme you need to pick up on right away is the sense of acceleration right through the shot. Good players are quite aggressive. Don't let the fact that you may only want the ball to travel 10 or 15 yards cause you to 'dolly' the shot, decelerating the clubhead weakly into the sand. For a real sense of splashing the ball up and out of the trap, you need to commit yourself to releasing the club all the way to a finish.
You are no doubt familiar with the usual rules of engagement: to utilise the 'bounce', you open the clubface before you make your grip and then compensate with your body alignment (something like 30 degrees open in relation to the target-line is the norm). The open clubface will bounce through the sand as long as you trust it and swing normally to a finish.
Always work with the slope
Your chief concern when you find your ball on a slope like this is getting yourself set up to it in such a way that you are able to establish and maintain good balance throughout the swing. And the key to doing that is to let your weight fall naturally on to the lower foot - in this case, the right foot. The rules allow you to wriggle your feet in the sand to create a stable footing, and this is what you have to do in order to create some sort of stability in the lower body.
At the same time, I suggest that you draw the left foot back from the target line a few inches (i.e. adopt a slightly open stance) as this gives you a better view of the shot your are about to play and gives you a headstart in clearing your body out of the way for impact to make way for the strike.
Once you are set-up, executing the shot is all about the hands and arms. There is no weight shift at all in the course of the swing - on this delicate footing you don't want any. The more anchored your base the greater your balance and the more chance you have of striking the sand precisely at your chosen spot behind the ball.
How far behind the ball should that be? The answer is not far at all. Because the ball is sitting on an upslope, you are naturally going to swing the clubhead into a wall of sand. Aiming about an inch behind the ball is usually about right. And you need to hit this hard - at least as hard as you can without losing your balance. An early wrist hinge creates clubhead speed and momentum, which you use to bury the head.
A sharp play
There isn't a player in the world who can put backspin on a ball that is plugged in the sand. It's just not possible. So first and foremost you have to be realistic in this situation: the ball is going to pop out with over-spin and will want to run on the green, so take a good look at the shot and identify the safest landing area.
If there's trouble beyond the flag, that may be to a wider, safe area of the green. Once you have the shot in your mind, take a fairly 'square' set-up, your weight favouring your left side, and visualise a fairly steep up-and-down swing that enables you to dig the leading edge into the sand behind the ball. Only with practice will you learn how to regulate your effort to have the ball fly a certain distance. But as long as you strike down into the sand, the ball will come out.