Fairway Bunkers 101: One of Golf's Trickiest Shots

This fairway bunker shot technique can save you strokes out of these pesky areas

, GolfLink Writer
Updated March 19, 2024
Man plays a golf shot from a fairway bunker
    Man plays a golf shot from a fairway bunker
    Getty Image license

The dreaded fairway bunker shot can shake even the most confident golfer. The characteristics of bunker itself, like its shape, the height of the lip, and the consistency of the sand determine how you can escape it.

This article is your Fairway Bunkers 101 cheat code, so read on.

What is a Fairway Bunker?

A fairway bunker is a sand trap on or adjacent to the fairway of a golf hole. These pesky traps are typically strategically placed near the ideal landing zone, forcing players to consider a risk for trying to take advantage of a perfectly placed tee shot.


How to Hit Fairway Bunker Shots

Golfers need to use specific techniques to hit the ball out of the bunker and onto the fairway or green. Here’s how to do it.

When hitting a fairway bunker shot, it's important to follow these steps:

  1. Choose the Right Club for the Situation: Choose the club that has enough loft to get you out of the bunker. A sand wedge or lob wedge are good options for bunkers with a high lip. You may need to lay up in situations like this. If the lip is lower to the point where clearing the lip is not a concern, you can use a more appropriate iron for your yardage to the green.
  2. Build a Good Base: Next, open your stance slightly and dig your feet into the sand to create a stable base. Stability and no lateral movement are critical in hitting good fairway bunker shots.
  3. Aim for the Back of the Ball: Position the ball slightly back in your stance and focus on picking it up for long fairway bunker shots. If it is a closer yardage, you may want to play it more like a traditional green-side bunker shot, where you hit the sand to get the ball out. 
  4. Take a Three-Quarter Backswing: Keep your swing smooth and controlled, and don't try to hit the ball too hard.
  5. Good Finish: Remember to finish your swing with your weight on your front foot.

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. It may take time to master hitting fairway bunker shots. But, with patience and persistence, you'll get the ball back onto the fairway or even onto the green more often.


Helpful Hack

Check the scorecard and rules sheet, or ask the starter to confirm if the fairway bunkers are actually bunkers on the course you are playing. In some situations, these areas are referred to as waste areas rather than bunkers. In those cases, you can ground your club behind the ball, which is a huge advantage.

How to Practice Fairway Bunker Shots

One element that makes fairway bunkers such a difficult challenge is that they are hard to practice. Most driving ranges don’t have a sandy area where you can practice hitting full-swing shots from the bunker. Meanwhile, short game practice areas that do have a practice bunker don’t have room for you to try to pick a full iron shot clean and advance the ball 100-plus yards.

However, there are some drills and ways to practice fairway bunker shots. If your course doesn’t have a practice facility where you can work on hitting fairway bunker shots, try practicing out on the course.

Play a few practice holes during a time when there aren’t many golfers on the course. When you get to a hole with a fairway bunker, drop three balls and work on getting out of the bunker and close to the hole. Repeat this on the next hole with a fairway bunker, making sure to keep a reasonable pace of play and care for the course, even if you don’t see other golfers around you.

Here are the go-to fairway bunker practice drills that I use with my own students.


Simulate Real-Life Situations

When practicing, try to simulate real-life situations. Practice hitting from different types of bunkers with varying lip heights and sand conditions. This will help you become comfortable with other kinds of shots and be prepared for any situation on the course.

Use Alignment Sticks

Place alignment sticks in the ground to create a target line. This will help you visualize where you need to aim and hit the ball. You can also use the sticks to practice your swing path and ensure you're swinging along the correct line.

Work on Building Your Base

A stable base is vital in hitting good fairway bunker shots. Practice digging your feet into the sand, and work on your balance and stability. You can also practice hitting from different stances, such as open or closed, to see what works best for you.


Practice with Different Clubs

Try hitting from the fairway bunker with various clubs to see which works best. Take note of the distance each club travels from a fairway bunker compared to your normal swing.

Get Feedback

Have a friend or instructor watch you hit fairway bunker shots and provide feedback. They can help you identify areas for improvement and offer tips on improving your technique.

Remember, consistent practice is key to improving your fairway bunker shots. Incorporate these drills and techniques into your practice routine. They will help you become more confident and comfortable hitting from the bunker.

Manage Your Expectations From Fairway Bunkers

When your ball finds a fairway bunker, remember that they are designed to challenge you. They often make it hard to hit your next shot on or near the green. 

Your first goal is to get out of the bunker and leave yourself a reasonable next shot. Depending on the bunker's difficulty and your lie, you should manage your expectations of what a good result would look like. 

If the lip is low, the ball sits well, and the yardage to the flag is one you could get from the fairway, then you can raise your expectations a bit. Still, getting out of the bunker is most important. You need to set yourself up for a successful next shot. 

With practice and patience, you can master hitting fairway bunker shots well and be prepared for any situation on the course.