Sand traps certainly make a golf course unique, and some may even say beautiful. However, there are others that loathe sand traps and do everything they can to stay out of them. I think I’m somewhere in between.

I appreciate what sand bunkers do for golf courses, but I prefer to be in the short grass.

What is a sand trap in golf?

Sand traps, often called bunkers, are large depressions on a golf course filled with bunker sand. The sand is challenging to hit from, and most bunkers have a raised edge requiring a higher lofted shot.

image of sand bunker near the cup - AEC Info

There are several types of bunkers, including pot bunkers and waste bunkers.

Links courses have deep bunkers that often require a ladder to help golfers get out. Some courses, especially those in the western United States or Florida, have large waste bunkers that are shallow, have no real lip or edge, and are mostly located on the sides of the fairway.

Fairway bunkers tend to be more shallow than greenside bunkers. As you get closer to the golf hole, things get more challenging with bunker placement in golf. Which is why it can be important to know if you should be using a pitching wedge vs a sand wedge for a given shot.

What is the difference between a sand trap and a bunker?

The golf rule book uses the word bunker from cover to cover. A bunker is a generally accepted term, but some golfers say that a sand trap is any area of the course with a sandy or rough surface. Use the word bunker when you can, as it is the official term in the rules of golf.

Is a sand trap a penalty?

Hitting the ball into a bunker in golf is not a penalty. However, if you ground the club while attempting to hit a sand shot, you will be subject to a two-stroke penalty. In addition, if you hit the sand in the swing path (backswing), you will also have to penalize yourself one stroke in stroke play.

For a match-play situation, the penalty is the loss of the hole.

Can you touch the sand in a sand trap?

The sand in a sand trap can be touched only after your golf shot has been played and the ball has left the sand trap. This rule is in place to ensure that you are not testing the conditions of the bunker. If you touch the sand prior to hitting the shot, you will be assessed a two-stroke penalty.

After hitting a normal shot out of a bunker, it is expected that you will rake the trap and smooth the surface for the next golfer.

Can you touch the sand before hitting?

Your feet can touch the sand before you hit a sand trap, but do not touch the sand with your club. Even if you move away from the area where your golf ball is, you cannot take a practice swing and let the club head touch the ball. Always hover the club over the sand so it does not touch the sand on the backswing as you swing it back.

Can you practice swing in a sand trap?

You can take a practice swing in a sand trap, but you still cannot ground the club. If you want to take a practice swing while in the sand, hold the sand wedge well above the surface of the sand and make a sort of air swing. Another option is to take your practice swing outside the bunker so you have no concern about hitting sand.

Should you hit the ball or sand first?

When hitting from a greenside bunker, hit the sand first and then the ball; the ball will actually carry out of the bunker riding on the sand. However, when playing from fairway bunkers, where you have a long distance to the green, you will want to try and hit the shot as cleanly as possible.

image of golfer getting out of sand bunker - AEC Info

Play the fairway bunker shots as you would play a shot from the fairway, attempting to take the divot after the ball. Be smart about your club choice here; if there is any lip on the bunker, you will need a bit more left in the club you choose.

Can you accidentally ground your club in a sand trap?

The new rules of golf are a little more lenient when it comes to grounding the club in a sand trap; your club can touch the ground except not directly behind or in front of your ball, not to test the conditions, and not as part of your backswing.

With the changes to the rule book, you can, however, move a loose impediment that is in your way when attempting to hit a sand shot. Take your practice swings out of the bunker and only remove things like rocks and leaves that will impact your ability to play the shot.

Can you drop out of a sand trap?

If your ball lands in a sand trap, you can drop the ball out of the sand trap and take a penalty stroke. The first option is to take your golf ball back to the position you just hit from (if that was not in the sand trap) for a penalty of one stroke. The second option is to take a two-stroke penalty and drop the ball on a line back from the position you are currently in without moving closer to the hole in any way.

Can you take an unplayable out of a sand trap?

Taking an Unplayable lie out of a sand trap gives you four options to make these difficult shots a bit easier. You can replay your ball from the previous location, move two club lengths within the bunker (no closer to the hole) or take relief on a line back in the bunker (while staying in the bunker), all for a penalty of one stroke.

In addition, you can take a two-stroke penalty and remove the ball from the bunker completely. Club golfers that struggle with certain bunker locations may find it makes more sense to take relief than to use three or four swings to get a ball out of the bunker. This rule in golf is 19.2.

Can you remove a ball from a sand trap?

A ball can be removed from a sand trap, but you must take a penalty. For a one-shot penalty, you can replay your golf shot from the previous location. If you happen to hit your tee shot into a bunker, simply go back to the tee, and take the one-shot penalty.

If you don’t want to return back to the position of your last shot, you can take a two-stroke penalty with back-on-the-line relief. With this type of relief, you can drop just outside the bunker, but you will end up having to hit over the bunker, so keep this in mind.

What are the basics of hitting a bunker shot?

When hitting a bunker shot, you will want to keep the following things in mind:

  • Ball position: middle to the front of the stance to ensure you get enough sand
  • Swing type: slightly upright and somewhat aggressive to ensure acceleration through the ball
  • Finish: high finish facing the target

In addition, the official rules say you can’t ground the club behind the golf ball or hit sand in your backswing, so incorporate that into your bunker basics as well.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now understand more about sand traps and your options for hitting out of the trap. The key here is to learn to get the ball airborne enough to carry the lip of the bunker without breaking any of the hazard rules. However, the best bet is to just keep the ball in the center and avoid the bunkers altogether!

For more information be sure to check out the rest of AEC Info.