Perhaps you've watched the PGA Tour players on TV play their shots out of sand traps (called bunkers in the old days and today as well by real golfers) and thought, "That looks pretty damn easy." Then perhaps you found yourself out on a golf course somewhere, after hitting your golf ball into a sand trap, only to discover that it really isn't that easy after all. Maybe you found yourself being watched by onlookers as if you were a monkey with a crude stick beating the sand in the midst of some sort of inexplicable tantrum. Mayhaps you watched them recoil as you looked up to see them watching you, as if you were going to throw feces at them and snarl your teeth at any minute. Well, the reason for your discomfort was because there is a series of tricks to playing out of sand traps. The pros know these tricks and you do not. That is why you should not hit your golf ball into these sand traps when playing golf, even though you might hear Ken Venturi say on TV, "You know, Jack, Tiger is really better off in that bunker than he would have been in the rough. He'll be able to get it up and down from there with no problem." When it's you on the course, unless your handicap is less than 10, take the rough. That's where you'll be better off, and bogey is not a bad score for a hacker.
When it comes to the ease with which the pros play out of traps these days, the main problem is the perfectly manicured courses. The sand traps are all pretty much the same consistency and are nicely raked to a level lie at all times. Some courses have even begun mixing foreign materials such as ground up glass in with the sand in order to make for a coarser texture. The finer the sand the deeper the ball can nestle if it comes into the trap from a high trajectory. This can cause what is called a "buried lie." (And we are NOT talking about Vince Foster here, even though Bill Clinton was the biggest hacker ever to hold the office of President of the United States.) Trying to extricate a golf ball from a buried lie in a sand trap is a much riskier proposition than doing so from a flat lie. Obviously, since you have to hit way behind the ball in a buried lie, you cannot even touch the ball with the grooves of your club. Thus, there will be little or no spin when the ball hits the surface of the green. Just imagine trying to do this to a downhill green which falls off into a water hazard. That's how an otherwise good round of golf can turn into a nightmare which leaves you downing shots of tequila off of a barmaid's tits in the Nineteenth Hole Lounge. You rarely see today's pros playing out of buried lies, and that's all the sadder for a game which really should see even the best players struggling to break par.
Now in the Old Country where golf began, you will see plenty of bunker play which drives even the pros to drink (more than they already do). That's one of the reasons you seldom see anyone winning the British Open with some ridiculous 4-day total of 30 under par like you might see on a video golfing game or at the Reno-Tahoe Open later in the year.
Sand traps are usually found around the greens and often are the signature feature of a golf course. Some are even in shapes that can only be appreciated from overhead camera shots, as with a course in Orlando I played a few times. This course (which is a stop on the PGA Tour called the "Disney Open," usually won with some aforementioned ridiculously low score) has a trap in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. You don't really appreciate that fact when you're in that trap trying to save par or face losing a couple of hundred bucks, but when you see it from the Goodyear Blimp, you can point to the TV and say, "Hey, look! That's that fucking bunker that cost me last November's house payment! Screw you, Mouse!" And your wife will be quite amused when you've pointed this fact out to her. She might also find this a good time to question that tequila bill which arrived at the hotel room the morning after that round. That was the day you had to explain that the kids wouldn't be going to Universal Studios, that lunch would be mom's bologna sandwiches and that the rental car had to go back a day early. Remember?
Sometimes sand traps are found in the fairways of par 4's or par 5's. These are usually placed in such a way as to trap the slightly errant tee shot on a par 4 or either the tee shot or the second shot on a par 5. This is meant to penalize the slicers and hookers. You see, if you're a "real golfer" you should be able to work the ball either from right to left or left to right, depending on the shape of the hole. After all, it's only a clubhead the size of a fist on a flexible stick around 45" long traveling at the speed of 100 mph or so when it makes contact. You certainly should be able to tweak your grip just slightly one way or the other, or bring the clubhead down a little more from the inside or the outside, or move your hips out of the way just a millisecond sooner or later in order to achieve this delicate spin on the little ball which will cause it to go just slightly left or right off of the clubhead once it's around 150 yards away from you. Shouldn't you? Well, answer me, dammit! So why are you in this fairway bunker (another common term for what we all know in the real world as a sand trap)?
When in a fairway bunker, you usually do not have a buried lie since the shot that came into the bunker was likely only a few feet off of the ground on entry. Thus, you should be able to advance the ball a good distance, perhaps even putting it on the green if you've sacrificed a howler monkey in your hotel room the night before. (Immigrant housekeepers usually don't ask questions.) When playing the ball out of a fairway bunker, the trick is to keep your legs very still. Your right shoulder should feel like it remains stationary to begin the downswing. Take one or two extra clubs (a 5 wood instead of a 5 iron or a 6 iron instead of an 8 iron, for example). You should place the ball a little further back in your stance than usual in order to make sure you hit the ball first. If the club hits the sand first, you can forget about the "advancing" part. Dig your feet in until your feet don't slip around in the practice swing, and choke up on the club to compensate for the distance you've lowered yourself into this pit of doom. Then just try to keep the lower body as still as possible. As with all shots (unless you're Annika Sorenstam), don't look up until the ball is well on its way to wherever it's going. And tip your housekeeper. (Monkey blood is not easily removable from shower curtains.)
Since all sand traps are usually classified as hazards, it is illegal to touch the ball or the sand with the clubface prior to the actual shot. You can dig your feet in to get a good stance, but you cannot do anything to improve the lie of the ball, such as smoothing out an area just behind the ball in order to make clean contact easier. Yeah, I've seen folks do that and then even get all indignant when you whack off one of their ears with a downward blow from your lob wedge with the sharpened flange. People just don’t respect the rules (or my authority) these days.
So, what are those tricks that the pros know and you don't about making these shots look so easy? The best way to begin is to lay a dollar bill (or a Benjamin, if you're serious) down in the sand. Now, try to take a divot in the trap exactly the size of that bill. The point is, you have to let the force of the sand push the ball out. You might get a few grooves of your club on the ball, and the more it will spin when it lands if you do. It helps if you open up your stance; that means putting your front foot slightly in back of your back foot. Be sure and take a full swing and try to hit anywhere from 3 to 6 inches behind the ball. You must complete the swing with a good follow through, and (again) do NOT look up to see where the ball is going. Regardless of what Ms. Sorenstam does or how many times you've heard this, this is by far the biggest problem with the amateur's golf swing. They just can't wait, like a newly toilet trained kid, to "see what they've done."
Good luck with all this, and remember my advice: Leave this game alone. It'll drive you fucking nuts.