When my bunker game fell apart, so did I. But fighting my way out of the slump taught me a valuable lesson.

© Britt Spencer
| Credit: © Britt Spencer

It was such a serious problem that it started keeping me up at night.

It was interfering with my work.

It was intruding on my marriage.

I actually brought it up to my shrink.

Erectile dysfunction?Hardly. Poker problem?Not with two kids in private school. No, this was something far more frightening: My sand game had suddenly vanished. I couldn’t hit a bunker shot to save my life. I was a six handicap playing like a twenty from the beach.

Sand is the unspoken threshold between decent players and the top tier. Think about it: How many single-digit golfers do you know who aren’t solid in the sand?For a six, my bunker play was adequate enough, but in the back of my mind I always knew it was the least dependable part of my game. I could get up and down a fair amount of the time, but, as I would soon come to realize, I did not have a specific enough approach to bunker shots and, worse, had no real understanding of the required mechanics.

The slump first surfaced last June during a match with my friend Avery Scheiner, a ten handicap with whom I’ve had a competitive relationship since we were both fourth-graders at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. It began with backgammon, progressed to tennis and then, when we were in our mid-thirties, moved to small ball. Our matches are legendary (to us, anyway), and I always look forward to them.

This time we were at the venerable Old Oaks Country Club, Scheiner’s home course, in Purchase, New York, and cruising along even-up when I dumped a seven-iron into a greenside bunker on the eleventh. Nice lie, easy shot. But with my sixty-degree wedge wide open (or so I thought), I left a couple in the bunker. Lost the hole and eventually the match.

When I got back to L.A., I began to give away more strokes in the sand. Anyone who has had the yips or the shanks knows what happened next. The misses got into my head, and my confidence eroded rapidly. I started to fear bunkers so much that I played to avoid them. When I did get in one, anything could happen. For me, most of the misses were the same. Instead of hitting an explosion shot and blasting the ball with the sand, I was hitting the ball itself and driving it low and away and often to the right.

The pattern was scarily repetitive: I’d have a good round going, then I’d miss a couple in the bunker and the wheels would come off. On one brutal day at my home course, I opened up birdie-par-par and then doubled the fourth when I got stuck in the sand. What promised to be a round in the seventies devolved into a mid-eighties misfire.

The problem was feeding upon itself. I’m normally laid-back, but the sand was turning me into a head case. At first exasperated and then frightened, I eventually got angry. I was short-tempered with my wife and impatient with my kids, and some nights I just lay in bed verbally berating myself. In short, I felt like a loser and the fun of the game was in peril. Picking up tennis again suddenly seemed like a viable solution: Backhand, forehand, serve, volley—not one of them involves a speck of sand.

My first instinct was to grind it out at the range, hitting buckets of balls in the practice bunker. Bad idea. All that did was show me I was consistently inconsistent: For every good shot, I’d hit two or three poor ones.

Next came the marvelous subculture of golf instruction. I photocopied the chapter on sand play in Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible and started carrying it around in my briefcase. I studied Tiger’s theories in How I Play Golf and searched the Internet to see how other slumpers recovered.

No luck. Still mired, I dwelled on my woes day and night. When my wife and I took a walk on the beach, I failed to notice the beautiful sunset. I was too busy wondering how to hit out of the type of sand I was walking on.

Then came the old standby: I started blaming the equipment. I changed the bounce of my wedges. I substituted my fifty-eight-degree wedge with a sixty. I even carried two sixties at one point, one with a big, thick topline that for a minute seemed to be the answer. But it was useless from the fairway, and I got tired of having to tell the caddie which sixty I wanted. In the end, the result was the same. I just could not count on a reliable outcome.

Along the way I spent thousands of dollars with numerous instructors. All those well-intentioned souls preached familiar fixes: Move the ball forward in the stance, line up to the left, open the clubface, hit behind the ball, maintain club position through contact, et cetera, et cetera. Yet over and over again I would slip into the same pathetic pattern—hit a few good ones, miss a few, tense up, start driving the ball low and away.

Then it occurred to me. Why not try the Man himself?I fired off an e-mail to Dave Pelz’s PR rep, Carl Mickelson (no relation to Phil): Would Pelz be in L.A. anytime soon?The response was an immediate yes. “I’ll be in touch,” Mickelson wrote back, “once Dave’s calendar looks a little less fuzzy.” Just getting that positive response had a placebo effect. I felt better already.

Meanwhile, I continued to work on my own and found that my sand form improved somewhat. Despite my inability to find a cure, I had figured out some stuff along the way. I learned that when I get anxious, the muscles in my forearms tense up and my grip gets too tight, and that is no way to hit a smooth explosion, which requires relaxed forearms and “oily” wrists. And one day while practicing with a friend, we noticed something: The face of my wedge was open at address, but I had a habit of closing it with a cruel, self-destructive twist just prior to takeaway.

Through sheer obsession, I was starting to understand the methodology. What I came to realize was that to get out of one of these devastating slumps, you first need to go back to the basics.

I still hit bad sand shots as often as good ones, but the misses were no longer so one-dimensional. I was making progress.

Then I got the e-mail I had been waiting for. Pelz would be in Palm Springs the next day, but he had just one hour. I was swamped at work and had no business going, but I did what any self-respecting golf addict would do: I confirmed.

I met Pelz at the Cimarron Golf Resort in Cathedral City. At six-foot-five, he is an imposing figure, with big, expressive hands. He was a NASA engineer before he became a golf guru and speaks with scientific authority about the mechanics of the short game. And as we chatted about bunker play, it became clear to me I was not alone. “The sand shot is the most feared shot in golf,” Pelz told me. “Some people I see are frankly terrified.”

I knew what he was talking about. But as we headed out to the practice area I was actually feeling good. It might have been because we started on grass—Pelz first had me hit a few standard fifty-yard wedge shots on the range. Seemingly satisfied that I had a decent swing, he then moved me into the bunker. Suddenly I wasn’t quite so sanguine.

I’m not sure what I was expecting— a full-scale deconstruction, maybe—but to my surprise, Pelz pretty much ignored my swing. Rather, his primary focus was on ball position. According to Pelz, despite the fact that numerous instructors had previously told me I needed to move the ball forward, I was still hitting bunker shots from the middle of my stance. He had me advance the ball to the instep of my left foot, which immediately made a huge difference. By doing that and by keeping the face of my wedge open, the club could do its job and slide under the ball. Instead of aiming behind the ball, I simply needed to make this adjustment and take a regular swing. “Most golfers just don’t understand how important ball position is in the sand,” Pelz said. “They think they have to make a completely different swing. It’s simply not true.”

Now, I’m not going to exaggerate: With tight arms and a racing heart, I had my share of mis-hits under Pelz’s gaze. But within half an hour I was hitting graceful, lofted bunker shots that dropped safely with the desired spin. In the end, the keys were simple: Move the ball forward, keep the clubface open and make a controlled, regular swing with loose arms. Pelz explained that I had taken the explosion concept much too literally. I was just swinging too hard and trying to move more sand than I needed to.

But ultimately what stayed with me was something Pelz said not about technique but about determination. “Many people say they’re willing to confront their weaknesses,” he observed, “but only a small fraction actually do. And fewer still do the work to fix those weaknesses.”

That made me realize that although Pelz had provided a mechanical clue, it was the effort I made that mattered more than anything. The hours practicing, reading, taking lessons, trying new clubs—that wasn’t a waste of time, even if I often felt like I was spinning my wheels. Although I didn’t know it then, I was learning something, partly about the mechanics of the game but mostly about myself.

These days, I’m back to playing consistently from the sand, and although it’s still not the strongest part of my game, I approach bunkers with far more confidence than ever before.

Best of all, I feel like a real six again.