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Three Toughest Shots In Golf

Westchester / Hudson Valley Magazine Golf Guide
April, 2006

Escape a deep greenside bunker
Launch a high approach from a downhill lie
Conquer the dreaded long bunker shot

By Dave Donelson

Golf looks so simple, doesn’t it?  The player starts each hole by putting the ball up on a little peg so it’s easy to hit and ends by gently tapping the ball into a hole more than twice as big as the ball.  How hard it that?  It must be easy—most of the players look like they never break a sweat and dress like it’s casual Friday at the office.

But golf does make you sweat—I know.  In between that level, manicured tee and the smooth, carpeted green are nasty surprises like rough grass up over your ankles and moats brimming with water and pits full of sand deeper than the Grand Canyon.  You don’t see players hit from those places very often on TV.  Most of the coverage is devoted to drives and putts—swings most average golfers know how to make even if they don’t do it right all the time. 

It’s the tricky shots in between where most of us need help, so I turned to some Westchester experts for advice on how to hit the three hardest shots in golf.

Deep Greenside Bunker

I dragged Nelson Long with me to the third hole at Century Country Club in Purchase, where he is head professional (although he spends his winters as head pro at Tryall Golf Club in Jamaica, the dog).  I pointed into the deepest of the two bottomless pits of despair they call bunkers next to that green and asked him what the heck I was supposed to do if my ball landed in there.

Dave Donelson bunker shot“You’re going to have to use a lot of force to go a short distance,” he replied in his native Texas drawl.  “So you have to sell yourself on swinging hard.”  How hard?  “It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to swing at this shot pretty much like I’m hitting a full seven or nine iron.  Further back, I might go after it as much as I would a driver.”

Just hitting it hard can’t be all there is to it.  What else?  “Start with the club face open to the sky and keep it open to the sky,” he answered, smiling innocently.  He then reminded me to hit the sand behind the ball, not the ball itself.  Anything else?  “Play the ball off your left heel, and keep your weight more on the front foot.  The lower body remains in its starting position, kind of like hitting a bunt in baseball.  The backswing is an equal combination of shoulder, arms, and wrist.  Then, coming down, you kind of just turn through the shot”

 “I rely on at least a three-quarter or full backswing,” he added.  “A short backswing will get you into trouble.  Sam Snead used to say he was always looking for an opponent with a short, quick backswing and a fat wallet.”  Except for the fat wallet, it sounds just like me. 

Long then blasted six beauties out of the sand, each one of which landed neatly on the green far above his head.  He made this hard shot look easy, so I asked him for one key to remember.  “Continue through the shot,” he said.

Downhill Lie

Bobby Heins, who is in his twenty-fourth year as head professional right up the road at Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, took me out to its fifteenth hole, where the postage-stamp sized green is surrounded by bunkers, which demands a high, soft approach shot.  Unfortunately, you have to hit that shot standing downhill.  It’s not an unusual problem in Westchester, where golf courses are noted for having undulating (or worse) fairways, so you almost never have a level lie. 

The key is to not believe everything you read, according to Heins.  “Most people have read the books, so they put the ball back in their stance,” he said.  “That causes the ball to fly low and screws up their distance.  Or they play it normal and the instinct is to try and get your balance back.  Because the ground is higher behind the ball, they hit fat or they skull it.  I see it every day.”

The solution?  “Play the ball just slightly back of normal, put your weight on the front foot—maybe sixty percent—and elongate the bottom of the swing while turning around the left leg.  The last thing you want to do is lean back and try to help it into the air.”

I knew there had to be more to it. “The usual tendency will be for the ball to go a little right off the downhill lie,” he added. “So aim a little left.”

After Heins floated several towering shots that landed softly in the middle of the green 130 yards away, I asked him for a single key.  “Your club head should follow the slope,” he answered, “And keep the club down through impact.”  That was two keys, but I let him ride.

Long Bunker Shot

When I told Heath Wassem I wanted him to demonstrate how to make a long bunker shot, he said with a laugh, “Oh, the hardest shot in golf!”  Wassem is the head pro at Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale and the 1999 Westchester Golf Association Player of the Year.  I figured if anybody could handle it, he could.

“The key to this shot is, don’t land here in the first place,” he said cheerfully while standing seventy-five yards from the green in a serpentine bunker that challenges golfers on the fourteenth hole at Fenway.  I told him that advice wasn’t helpful.

“You have to contact the ball first before the sand, so you get it to the green,” he answered more seriously.  I noted that this is absolutely opposite to what you’re supposed to do in a greenside bunker and he agreed.  He choked up a full hand-width from the end of the club and said, “Play the ball back in your stance, grip down, and take a little extra club so you can take a smoother swing.”

I’ve heard that smooth swing mantra before.  It’s hard to do when you’re standing in kitty litter and your buddies are snickering from the sidelines because they know you don’t have a clue how hard to hit the ball to make it reach the green without sailing over it.  

Wassem didn’t have that problem, of course.  Every one of his long bunker shots landed on the green and bounced toward the hole like he’d just tossed it underhanded instead of hitting it with a golf club.  His key?  “Aim at the equator of the golf ball” so you hit the ball first, he replied.

The pros didn’t have a bit of trouble hitting these, the hardest shots in the game.  I guess if you know what you’re doing, it’s easy.  Come to think of it, they didn’t break a sweat, either.