On the first day of the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Phil Mickelson returned to the tee because his very first shot of the championship was lost in a tree. Did he have any other options?
Unfortunately in Phil’s case, returning to where he played his last stroke was his only option, but let’s back up a step to make our understanding of this rule clear.
When we hit a shot into the trees where it might be lost, we as the “intelligent woman player” should immediately think of playing a provisional ball (Rule 27-2) before we go forward to search for our original ball. This is a big time saver. If the first ball turns out to be lost, we already have a ball in play out on the course and do not have to waste time walking or driving back to where we last played.
Note that tour players never seem to play a provisional ball. With large galleries, I guess they always believe their golf ball will be found.
Your ball rattled around in a tree. Now what?
When a player gets to the tree where the ball is believed to be, she has 5 minutes to search for her ball. Everyone in the group should help with the search. If it is not found within 5 minutes the ball is lost. This was what happened to Phil Mickelson. But our player has played a provisional ball so she will now proceed with her provisional ball with a one-stroke penalty. Note: While we do not like to talk on a cell phone on the course, using one to time a five-minute search is a good thing. Timing begins when the player, partner or caddie arrives at the spot where the ball is likely to be. At an Open with lots of gallery, walk slowly if you are the player, and take advantage of those hundreds of pairs of eyes searching before you arrive at the spot and begin timing. For us average folks with no gallery, the five minutes begin when we reach the spot we think the ball is likely to be.
I can see “a” ball in the tree.
If you can see a ball high in the tree but cannot reach it, how do you proceed? If someone has binoculars (the rules official or a spectator at a tournament) the player can use those to try to identify her ball. If the branches obscure her personal identification mark on the ball, even though we see only one ball in the tree, the ball is lost and the player will go back and play from where she last played on the course – or she plays the provisional ball, which has now become the ball in play.
I can see my ball in the tree – the bright red initials I put on it are clear.
When a player can identify her ball in the tree but it is too high up to retrieve, how does she proceed? Decision 27/14 tells us that because we can identify the ball, it is not lost. Because we cannot play the ball as it lies, we must declare it unplayable and proceed under one of the options of Rule 28. Using the spot on the course immediately below the ball as the reference point, the player may: 1. Drop another ball within two club lengths of that point, no nearer the hole; 2. Keep that point between the hole location and the spot on which a ball is dropped, going as far back on the line as the player chooses; or 3. Return to the place where the last stroke was played and play from there. Important note: When the original ball is found, a provisional ball now has the same status as any other ball in your golf bag. You cannot play it even if your best option is returning to where you last played. Frustrating, but true!
I can see a ball in the tree but cannot identify it. I want to shake the tree or throw a club at it to try to knock it down. May I do that?
First, the player should tell her fellow-competitors what she intends to do and that if it is her ball she is declaring it unplayable. Without this statement, the player would be penalized one stroke for moving her ball in play (Rule 18) when she shakes the tree and it falls out, and then have to take another penalty stroke under Rule 28 Ball Unplayable. Communication here saves our “intelligent player” an unneeded penalty stroke.
We all hit the occasional shot toward a tree. Knowing how to proceed keeps us in the game.