Why it’s the bunker shot that reveals a golfer’s true character

Is the sand shot a golf metaphor for life? Over the decades many golf writers have written of the game itself as a metaphor for how we live – or how we should live – the virtues of patience, decorum, ruthless honesty and generosity of spirit towards others being equally valuable on the golf course as they are in daily social and commercial intercourse. But drilling a little deeper into this notion, I fancy it’s the sand shot that distils this truth into something as pure as an Islay single malt.

Perusing the previous paragraph, many a dear reader may well conclude that your columnist has imbibed more than a healthy few drams of the above-mentioned whisky, or uisge beatha, as we Gaelic speakers know it (that means “water of life” in English). Indeed, after a bad day in the bunkers, a lot of golfers seek mental repair with the “water of life”. And in the main it does a fair job of erasing the painful memories of failed sand shots.

All over the world golfers share many things, one of them being an immediate sense of sharp disappointment when we see our ball bound, leap or trickle into a bunker. This ghastly sight usually brings on a sense of two things: first, I’ve been treated monstrously and unfairly by this golf course which hitherto I had been generous in admiring; or second, more honestly, I am exactly what my spouse and my enemies call me – a hopeless fool. It’s either, “But I hit such a great shot…” or it’s, “I swear I’ll never be so stupid as to do that again. It’s over!”

So let’s ask ourselves, what are bunkers and how should we go about their exit if we find our ball consumed therein? This, dear reader, is where physics and philosophy join. In ancient times on the links courses of Scotland, the grazing sheep would gather behind small hillocks to shelter overnight from the cold winds. They wore out small circles of grass, and thus were born what we see today as round pot bunkers. These excavations were enlarged over time by the wind, some growing very large. Soon the Old Course was basically a series of bunkers and stretches of hardy turf, within which the local golfers chose flattish areas for putting – greens, in other words.

That’s the history. Here is the physics and the philosophy. What did the great golfers of years past say when advising on sand-play technique? Horace Hutchinson, the great amateur of the 1880s and a prolific golf writer, advised, “The [sand] shot that now has to be played is unlike any other in the game of golf in that one thing to be avoided is hitting the ball. The ball is to be removed by means of an explosion, and the player merely resembles the gentleman of anarchist proclivities who lights the fire.”

Bear in mind that in Hutchinson’s era anarchists all over Europe were busy bombing and shooting leading political figures. Few of them, however, one can be sure, played golf.

Bobby Jones, of course, knew plenty about sand shots: “The main idea should be to make certain that the ball should come out of the hazard at the first stroke. Therefore, the only shot to be considered is the full blast… Those who visit bunkers most frequently in play show the least interest in learning how to deal with them.”

Henry Cotton [above] was typically succinct: “No bunker shot is a blind swipe – it is a precision stroke.”

Perhaps the pinnacle of championship golf are the great sand shots played during an Open Championship, on the way to hoisting the claret jug. There is no finer shot to make in the game of golf.

How is this actually done, though? Ivo Whitton, five times an Australian Open champion, said, “[For the sand shot] I always play the ball to the left of the hole with a cut on it. In other words, I come across the ball… by swinging outside the line of flight in the backswing. Playing in this way makes the ball come up quicker.”

Another Melbourne Sandbelt champion, Geoff Ogilvy, echoing Whitton, said the same in a short video, quoting his father: “You’ve got to aim your feet to the left and your clubface to the right, so open the clubface, hit it hard and the ball will pop up in the air and go close to the hole.”

James Braid, Scotland’s five-time Open champion, sums up the notion that sand shots are the distilled metaphor for daily life: “It is the capacity to recover effectively from difficulties that distinguishes the fine golfer from the good one more frequently than anything else. It is impossible to avoid getting into difficulties at this game; the thing is to be able to get out of them again with little or no loss.”

What better philosophy of life could you ask for? 

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