How to Play a Plugged Bunker Shot

The Plugged Bunker Shot: How to Deal with an Embedded Ball

A plugged bunker shot is one of the top five most challenging shots in golf. Other ones including playing from a divot, mudballs, flops, and others.

It’s arguably just as challenging as the 50 yard bunker shot that Tiger once said is the hardest shot in golf. The ball hits and buries, opposed to when the ball rolls into the trap for a normal shot.

The everyday golfer makes it much harder than they need to be for two reasons – not understanding technique and the wrong mindset. Today we’ll help with both of those issues so you can escape from the sand, even if your ball is buried. 

Plugged Bunker Shot – Dealing with a Plugged Lie

Bunkers make golf even more challenging – both greenside traps and fairway bunkers.

Most golfers don’t love bunkers to begin with but seeing your ball buried in the sand, typically in the face, is rarely a shot anyone looks forward to.

However, a lot of golfers make this shot even more difficult because they don’t have the proper technique or the right mindset. This leads to a lot of doubt, fear, and guessing on what to do in the swing.  

Key Takeaways

  • A plugged bunker shot requires a different technique than a normal greenside bunker shot. 
  • You don’t want to add loft and open the face, instead you’ll play this shot with a square clubface to create more digging motion. 
  • It’s important to adjust your expectations and play for more rolls from a plugged bunker.
  • The main goal when hitting a plugged bunker shot is to get it out in one swing. 

Keep reading to learn how to hit these difficult shots with ease. 

Step 1: Assess the Bunker Shot 

So, how do you play a plugged bunker shot?

Start by laughing it off instead of getting negative and pessimistic like so many golfers. Bad breaks are a part of the game and the Golf Gods are merely testing your abilities. 

When you notice your golf ball is plugged is to get in the bunker and evaluate your stance. It’s also a good idea to see how much room is between you, the green, and the pin. 

Plugged Bunker Shot

If you have time, it’s always a good idea to walk up to the pin and see if there are any breaks or slopes. This will help you adjust your ideal landing zone for the upcoming shot.

Once you have a better idea of where to land the ball, it’s important to relax and focus on your breathing. A lot of golfers get so mad when their ball plugs, they feel the need to announce it to the whole group. Thinking it’ll somehow make the shot easier.

In reality, you need to spend all your effort on getting the ball out of the bunker. 

Step 2: Pick the Right Wedge 

Once you have an idea on how you want to play the shot, it’s time to grab your wedge. But don’t grab a pitching or gap wedge, as it won’t have enough loft. 

It’s best to play plugged bunker shots with a 56-60 degree wedge. A sand wedge or lob wedge works better, as the additional loft and bounce will help you escape the trap in one shot.

There’s one major setup difference with plugged lies – you do not want to open the club face. In a normal bunker, you want the face pointing toward the sky. This adds more loft and bounce, which makes it easier to escape the sand.

With plugged bunker shots, you want the face square at address position. This will feel very awkward as you’re likely used to opening the club, but it’s needed to hit this type of explosion shot. 

This will ensure you hit the ball with the toe, more so than heel, which is the last thing you want on this bunker shot. It will also promote more of a digging motion, which is needed to get the ball to pop out of the sand. 

Why you should choke down on the golf club

Step 3: Choke Up and Add Grip Pressure 

Like any bunker shot – even fairway bunkers – you’ll want to choke up on the golf club. This will make it shorter, easier to control, and give your hands a bigger role in the swing. 

It’s also a good idea to increase grip pressure to help the club from twisting too much. This is very similar to hitting from the deep rough when you don’t want the hosel to twist. 

You’ll also want to dig your feet into the sand so you can get on a similar level as the ball. Position the ball slightly forward in your stance, but not as much as a normal bunker shot. 

Step 4: Hit Behind the Golf Ball 

When you’re hitting from a bunker, it’s important to remember that you always hit the sand, not the ball.

If you make contact with the golf ball, it’s likely going to sail over the green. The closer you hit the ball, the more spin it will create.

However, from plugged lies you won’t get any backspin and instead will get a ton of forward spin. You want to pick a spot nearly three inches behind the ball.

During your swing, focus on that spot, not the golf ball, to ensure the club enters the sand in the correct spot. 

Tips for the Long Bunker Shot

Step 5: Get Steep and Swing Aggressively 

Once you’re set up for success, it’s time to execute the shot.

It’s a good idea to stick to your pre-shot routine to not linger over the golf ball longer and make the shot more difficult. 

Commit to your target, take 1-2 practice swings and go.

The biggest thing to remember with these shots is you need to get very steep. Try to imagine yourself cutting wood with an ax to produce a straight up and down motion with the club head.

Since you’re hitting so far behind the ball, you need plenty of speed also. Since you’re so steep and taking so much sand, you shouldn’t have any follow through. Your swing should pretty much stop once you hit the sand.

This should result in a golf ball that pops up, out of the sand, and rolls toward your target. If you’re short sided, it’s nearly impossible, since the ball will roll forward so much more than a typical bunker shot. 

Optional: Find the Closest Relief Area

If the ball embedded badly, you can take relief – although it’s not free relief.

As the USGA said in the rules of golf, “16.3b/C1 Clarification: Player Not Always Allowed to Take Embedded Ball Relief. If a player’s ball is embedded in the general area but neither the reference point nor any part of the course within one club-length of the reference point is in the general area, the player is not allowed to take free relief under Rule 16.3b.”

This includes if the ball is embedded at the base of the lip, bunker face, or wall of a bunker.

New Rules of Golf

There are several options if you’d like to take relief from a bunker thanks to a plugged lie. Since there is no relief area like a penalty area, you’ll need to decide which of the following options is best.

  • One shot penalty. Take lateral relief within two club lengths, no closer to the hole from the reference point of the original ball. This is like taking relief from a penalty area and you’ll drop the ball in the bunker. This can lead to a plugged lie, depending on how the ball lands and what type of sand is in the trap.
  • One shot penalty. Take relief with a back on the line drop. Similar to an unplayable lie, you can also drop the ball in line with the flag, going as far back in the bunker if you’d like. You get to drop within one club length of the general area in line with the flag.
  • Two shot penalty. Take relief back on the line outside the bunker. You can take the ball out of the bunker entirely, but it is a two shot penalty and must drop one club length, no nearer the hole. 
  • Two shot penalty. Lastly, you can elect to play the previous shot again with stroke and distance. For example, if you hit a tee shot on a par 3 into the lip of a bunker and don’t like the other three options, you can re-tee and hit your third shot. Drop within one club length from the previous spot.

This helpful video from the USGA on Instagram walks you through embedded ball relief from the trap.

FAQs About Bunker Shots

Do you have more questions about playing from bunkers? If so, keep reading through the most commonly asked questions and answers now. 

Greenside Bunkers

Do you get relief from a plugged ball in a bunker?

No, if your ball plugs in the grass – fairway or rough – during play you do get relief thanks to the embedded ball rule. But bunkers are considered hazards, which is why you can’t ground the club. This means you do not get relief if the ball plugs and must play it as it lies. 

Why do I struggle with bunker shots?

Normal bunker shots are significantly easier than plugged lies.

If you’re struggling from greenside shots, make sure to always open the face, take a wide stance, minimize lower body movement, and swing with enough speed. Most golfers don’t swing with enough speed, which leads to deceleration and leaving the ball in the bunker. 

Why am I skulling bunker shots?

If you’re skulling bunker shots, it’s because too much weight is on your back foot at impact. This causes them to hit up on the ball, instead of hitting behind the ball 1–2 inches. Make sure to minimize lower body movement, keep more weight on your front foot, and hinge your wrists quickly. 

How to Play a Fried Egg Bunker Shot

How do I play a fried egg shot in golf?

A fried egg is another challenging shot that happens in the bunker and requires a different swing and setup. Click here to read our full guide now

My Experience

A plugged lie bunker shot isn’t fun, but it’s part of the game. The biggest tip I have is to focus all your effort on the shot, not complaining about the situation. Don’t try to argue with the reality of the situation, a plugged lie bunker shot is hard enough… try not to make it more difficult.

Additionally, make sure you practice this shot at the short game area so you’re familiar with the technique needed on the golf course. Once you learn the basic technique, you’ll have a lot more confidence on the course.

Final Thoughts 

Plugged lie bunker shots aren’t easy and no free relief is provided. It’s up to you to learn how to play this shot so when you get this lie in the bunker, it doesn’t ruin your round.

Do you hate these shots or fried eggs more?

Let me know in the comments below. Also, make sure to learn how to hit a long bunker shot next. 

Michael Leonard

Michael Leonard

Michael is a friend and contributor to the Left Rough. He is a full-time writer, podcast host of Wicked Smart Golf, and mental golf coach. He’s played for 25+ years and regularly competes in amateur golf tournaments in Arizona.

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