The Ten Greatest Bunker Shots

Mak Lok-lin finds inspiration at the bottom of a steep-sided pit, but does he discover enlightenment?

Get over the bunker, get over the bunker, get over the…Doh! Shoot! Straight in and – wouldn’t you believe it? – plugged again. Strolling towards my buried ball, the trap’s near vertical face casts a dispiritingly gloomy shadow, which does nothing but darken my already sombre mood, I start seeking inspiration from my memories of the best bunker shots of modern times. Unlike the shot I faced, it wasn’t too difficult to find my top 10.


1 Ernie Els, 2002 British Open, Muirfield

The Big Easy actually played two critical bunker shots enroute to winning his first – and so far only – Open Championship. After seeing off Steve Elkington and Robert Allenby in the 4-hole playoff, Els and Frenchman Thomas Levet went down the 18th again in sudden death. Bunkered in two, the South African got up and down for a winning par after Levet could only bogey. A great shot given the circumstances, certainly, but not the one that wins my vote. Instead, that accolade goes to the shot he hit earlier on in the day at the 13th. Leading by two, the South African found himself in an unenviable position at the bottom of a deep greenside pot bunker. With his left foot resting on the riveted wall, the face towering over his mighty frame, and with barely any green to work with, he somehow managed to deftly pop the ball up to 18 inches and save par. Given later dropped shots, this stunning effort kept him in the tournament and was quite rightly voted “Best of the Year” by the British Press.


2 Paul Azinger, 1993 Memorial Tournament, Muirfield Village


Adding to a fabulous last few months for the victorious US Ryder Cup skipper, Zinger finds two of his efforts from sand among our top 10. The pick of these is undoubtedly his blast to win Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament in 1993. Playing alongside good chum Payne Stewart, both players found the same bunker with their approaches to the 72nd hole. Despite playing poorly all day, Stewart still maintained a one-stroke lead over Azinger, and even after an indifferent shot to eight feet, he remained the favourite for the title. But up stepped Captain America. With the ball in the face, and with a lump of sand and grass stuck to the bottom of it, Azinger pulled off the impossible: barely clearing the lip, his shot landed as softly as a butterfly, barely a foot on the putting surface, before rolling into the centre of the cup. Sheer brilliance. What wasn’t quite so impressive was his Jim Carrey-esque celebration, which Stewart went on to mimic in jest until his timely death in 1999. In the event, Stewart proceeded to 3-putt for double bogey and slip to third, while Azinger was crowned champion. To his credit, Stewart never blamed Azinger’s over-reaction, saying: “On a good golf course like this, the cream comes to the top…I curdled.” Visit to watch the video.


3 Sandy Lyle, 1998 Masters, Augusta National


The Scotsman had been playing fairly erratically since giving up the lead halfway through the final round of the 1988 Masters. Needing a par at the 18th to tie clubhouse leader Mark Calcavecchia, he yanked his 1-iron tee shot into one of two fairway bunkers that protect the left side of the landing area. Seemingly out of the title hunt, Lyle hit a stunning 145-year 7-iron recovery to the heart of the green, which, thanks to Augusta’s severely contoured greens, rolled to within 12 feet of the cup. The only negative moment after he sank the lightning fast, snaking putt was the sad little dance he performed in lieu of a fist pump.


4 Seve Ballesteros, 1983 Ryder Cup, PGA National


Renowned for countless escape shots, the swashbuckling Spaniard nevertheless outdid even himself at the 1983 Ryder Cup at PGA National in West Palm Beach. Coming down the 18th in his match against Fuzzy Zoeller, he found his ball under the lip of a fairway bunker. Throwing caution to the wind, he took a 3-wood and somehow managed to launch the ball 245 yards to the fringe of the green, where he was able to get up and down for an improbable half. Unfortunately for Seve and the European team, the shot was in vain as the US fought back to defend the Cup by just one point.


5 Paul Azinger, 2002 Ryder Cup, The Belfry


There are some who think the most memorable Ryder moment in 2002 was when Winona Ryder got caught shoplifting during her “difficult time”. But not us at HK Golfer. Two holes down to Niclas Fasth, when a loss would hand the Cup to the Europeans, Azinger produced a sensational birdie, par, birdie finish to halve the game and keep the match alive. A gutsy 10-foot putt at the 17th kept the deficit to just one hole, before the coup de grace – an incredible 45-foot bunker shot at the 18th which nestled into the bottom of the hole for an unlikely win. With the ball below his feet and under the kind of pressure that only the Ryder Cup can induce, Azinger’s shot was perfect. Lee Westwood later called it the “best bunker shot I’ve ever seen.” Had the US been able to overturn the Europeans on that final day it would have been a legendary moment. As it was, it remains another example of Zinger’s amazing tenacity.


6 Bob Tway 1986 USPGA, Inverness Club


Tway became another Great White Shark killer when he took the 1986 USPGA from under the nose of Greg Norman by holing out from a greenside bunker for birdie on the 72nd hole at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. Perhaps unfairly seen as excessively lucky, many forget that Tway won four times on tour that season and was voted PGA Player of the Year. Further to our “Sensational Sawgrass” article [Sep/Oct 2008], Tway also holds the record for most shots on the infamous 17th at Sawgrass – a tasty 12 in the 2005 PLAYERS Championship.


7 Brian Watts, 1998 Open Championship, Royal Birkdale


Watts was a relative unknown when he arrived at the Open in 1998. A journeyman who plied his trade on the Japan Tour, where he won 12 events in the three years leading up to the championship, the Canadian-born American played brilliant golf on his way to a narrow playoff loss to veteran compatriot Mark O’Meara. He earns his place on this list thanks to his magnificent bunker shot on the final hole of regulation play. Needing a par to force extra holes, Watts, standing with one leg out of the deep greenside pit and his ball on a downhill lie, somehow conjured the ball up over the face of the bunker and onto the green where it very nearly tricked into the hole for a birdie and an outright win. After his Birkdale bravery, Watts finished the season inside the world’s top-20, but has since faded into obscurity. He is, of course, also noted for his 1993 victory at the Hong Kong Open.


8 Birdie Kim 2005 US Women’s Open, Cherry Hills Village


When people talked about Kim winning the 2005 US Women’s Open, most were referring to Kim Clijsters, the Belgian tennis ace, who triumphed at Flushing Meadow that year. No-one gave the self-named Birdie Kim a chance when the LPGA arrived at Cherry Hills, but she surprised all and sundry, including Michelle Wie, her playing partner, by holing a 30-foot blast on the very last hole of the tournament to claim the title by two-strokes from Morgan Pressel to become the third Korean to win a major. Like Watts, Kim has since disappeared off the radar screen but is exempt on tour until 2011 by virtue of her solitary victory.



9 John Daly 2004 Buick Invitational, Torrey Pines


This was Daly’s “comeback” win after a series of traumatic incidents in his personal and professional lives. He himself called it his “biggest win ever, given all that I’ve been through”. In the first playoff hole, a beast of over 600 yards, Big John almost holed his 100-foot bunker shot, leaving a six-inch birdie tap in to secure victory over Luke Donald and Chris Riley. Appropriately, Daly also led the field in sand saves that week, recording 13 from 15 up and downs. The Wild Thing had also just signed a deal with Dunlop, and posed afterwards, to the delight of his new sponsors, saying “Who needs fitness when you’ve got great equipment?”


10 Tiger Woods, 2002 USPGA, Hazeltine

No show without Punch, the Great One had to appear on this list somewhere! Fittingly, it is a shot he himself describes as the “best I’ve ever hit”. In what was an annus mirabilis for bunker shots, Woods found himself under the lip of a fairway trap with an awkward stance and over 200 yards to go. Hitting against a 30 mph wind, Tiger unbelievably found the green with a 3-iron. Although he didn’t win the USPGA that year (Rich Beem had the temerity to hold him off), his shot deserves its place among modern golf’s best.


Phew! Well, there they are. Inspirational reading perhaps but, sadly, not so helpful to me on the course at the time. After flailing ineffectually several times and getting nowhere, I took a leaf out of the Winona Ryder playbook. I looked around to make sure no-one was watching, then stealthily put the ball into my bag and walked away.


…and a few of the worst


The worst bunker shots? Well, apart from my own regular disasters, there are only too many examples of spectacular meltdowns. Any duffer can hit bad bunker shots, so it’s perhaps only fair to focus on three major moments when very good players did very, very bad things.

Top of the list is, of course, Tsuneyuki “Tommy” Nakajima. I say “of course” because Nakajima is in fact an excellent player, one of the finest golfers Japan has ever produced. Having posted top-10 finishes in all four majors, his consistent play continues even now having racked up three Japan Senior Opens and a Senior PGA title between 2006 and 2008. Even moore impressive, perhaps, was his victory at the regular Japan PGA Championship just two years ago at the age of 52 with Sergio Garcia in the field. I also say “of course”, because Tommy is infamous for taking a very, very bad nine at the 17th at St Andrews (the dreaded Road Hole) when contending in the third round of the Open Championship in 1978. Having played a great “safety” shot by not risking landing on the road beyond the green, whilst avoiding the notorious bunker and having a chance for a three, he then managed to somehow put his birdie attempt into the bunker. The culprit was a swale guarding the pin which gathers up less than perfectly hit shots. His first attempt escaped from the bunker, up the swale…and back down into the trap once more. He failed to get out twice more before blasting out beyond the hole and two putts later was signing for a quintuple bogey. The press immediately christened the bunker “The Sands of Nakajima”, after the 1949 movie “Sands of Iwo Jima”.

Twenty-two years later another outstanding talent, albeit with less long-term consistency, came a cropper in the same tournament, on the same hole, in the same bunker. In the 2000 Open, David Duval was the closest thing to a threat to a rampant Tiger Woods who was replacing Duval as the world’s number one player. Going for a minor miracle on the 17th, Duval went into the Road Hole bunker on the fly with his approach. Four shots later – including a sloppy back-handed effort that almost hit him – he escaped and putted out for a ghastly snowman – 8 – that took him from second place to eleventh. Interestingly, the R&A has since lowered the face of the Road Hole bunker by approximately eight inches since Duval’s one-man excavation project.

Finally, when Thomas Bjorn blew a three shot lead with four holes to play at the 2003 Open at Royal St. Georges (won by Ben Curtis), people may recall that he bogeyed the 15th after being in a fairway bunker. They almost certainly remember that he took three to get out of the greenside bunker on the 16th for a double bogey. He also bogeyed 17 and finally missed a five-foot putt on the last that would have forced a playoff. What fewer people recall is that he did astonishingly well to lead the tournament at all. In the opening round, Bjorn had a run-in with a pot bunker on the 17th where he left the ball in a bunker for what he said later was the first time in ten years. He then hit the sand with his club, incurring a two-stroke penalty and eventually walked away with a quadruple bogey 8.


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