What’s the Smart Choice To Make When Your Golf Ball Is Unplayable?

I played dumb golf last week, and should have known better.

Here’s the lo down.

Take Our Travel for Golf SurveyI was playing in a friendly competition with members of my local league. On the 12th hole – a par 3 with an elevated green, I hit my tee shot to the right of the green into what I thought was just the edge of the woods… but just in case I could not find it, I hit a provisional. This second ball landed short of the green but in a perfectly safe spot. After everyone else had hit their tee shot I headed up toward the green to search for my first ball, and unfortunately I found it! It was under a bramble bush— a deep thicket with lots of thorns and nasty prickly things. I declared it unplayable

Here’s where things became interesting as I considered my options.

  • First, the provisional ball was out of play because I had found my first ball.
  • Second, —and I should have known this as I have played this hole many times— there were no stakes to indicate out of bounds.
  • Third, the thicket extended at least twenty feet to either side of my first ball’s position, and straight back into more thicket. The nearest point of relief, no nearer the hole, was about twenty feet to the right of the ball which would land me into some pine needles but at least I would have a shot.

So, thinking I knew the rule, I told my golf partners that I would pick up the ball, move to the nearest point of relief and then drop the ball there and hit in onto the green, taking a one stroke penalty.

One of the players disagreed. She insisted that I count off the number of club lengths it would take me to get to that point of relief and count a stroke for every two club lengths. As my driver shaft is about 3 1/2 feet long that would mean it would take roughly 6 club lengths to reach the point of relief… or an additional 3 stroke penalty…. !!!

She was insistent that she was correct and as the other players did not have a better solution, I simply declared myself out of the hole and they continued to play.

In hindsight I realize I should have just gone back to the tee box and hit another shot, taking a one stroke penalty… but by that time the group behind us were on the tee box listening to us trying to decide what to do.

But was the woman right? Would I have to count a stroke for every 2 club lengths until I got to a patch from which I could play????

We asked the pro at the club house when we got back and I checked with several golfers who are very rule savvy. The answer all relates to Rule 28 in the USGA Rule Book.

Bottom line: The woman was right. In the situation in which I found myself there was no “nearest point of relief.” I could not go back into the woods to hit, that left me with two choices… mark off two club lengths from the ball, no nearer the hole, drop the ball and then hit, taking a penalty stroke. If the ball was still unplayable I had to repeat the marking off, dropping and hitting and adding a stroke until the ball was finally playable! Or, the third choice— the smart choice was to go back to the tee, apologize to the group waiting, and hit the #$%@!# ball for three. Sigh. But I was embarassed by that time and just decided to move on. After all it was just a friendly tournament. Not as if we were playing for major money.

But I learned a great deal from the experience.

  • I need to bone up on the rules of golf!
  • I need to remember where the out of bound stakes are at my golf course!
  • and one other thing… if you are ever in such a situation and you suspect that your ball is in an unplayable position but not out of bounds, DO NOT LOOK FOR IT. And don’t let your golf buddies look for it. If you find it you have to play it. Immediately declare your ball unplayable and hit a provisional. Then go and hit the provisional, putting it into play. Once you do, your first ball is out of play, even if someone finds it later.
What do you think?

  6 comments for “What’s the Smart Choice To Make When Your Golf Ball Is Unplayable?

  1. Jim North
    October 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I have to admit, I’m a little confused over the scenario you described. It sounds to me like you already played a provisional from the tee box which you said, “landed in a perfectly safe spot.” Assume you didn’t pick this ball up before finding your ball in the prickly bush, and your partner protesting that you must pile up the penalty strokes, you already had your solution in hand. You abandon the ball in the bush, and you’re lying 3 with the ball in the perfectly safe spot. You did everything right!

    Another option which may have been viable (it’s hard to imagine your exact circumstances) would be to declare the ball in the bush unplayable, then drop it a very short distance behind the bush (along a theoretical straight line from the flag stick through your ball as it was lying in the bush) which would have you lying at 2. Then pop the ball out into the fairway, probably not advancing the ball toward the hole at all. Now you would be lying 3, and probably very close to the resting position of the provisional ball discussed above – which is only fair.

    A final consideration that I like to use when I’m scrambling, is to think through my optimal recovery. For instance, let’s assume this was a 300 yard par 4. Like you, I gambled and tried to drive the green (on a really good day with perfect contact I can sometimes do this). But alas, I hit my ball into the bush that is 40 yards from the hole. Now comes the interesting part. I don’t really want to hit my ball from where the bush is! For me this is a touchy shot from the rough that I’m likely to blow. If I incur a stroke penalty to drop near the bush, only to pitch the ball into a bunker, I’m starting to look at ‘saving’ double-bogey. Ugh. If I have any play at all at the ball in the bush, even if it involves hitting it 40 yards back down the fairway, I’ll take it! This would leave me hitting 3 from 80-100 yards out, which is a perfect setup for my game. If I can land it within 20 feet of the hole, I could still save par, but at least I’m not walking away with a double-bogey.

    My point is, if you know your ‘go to’ shot, factor it into the options available as you think your way through bad situations.

  2. Pat Johnson
    November 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    If you are immediately declaring your ball unplayable and hitting another ball from the same spot (in this case, the tee box), this is not a provisional ball. It’s the ball in play.

    I believe the only cases where you can hit a provisional ball is when you think your ball may be lost or OOB. In this example you are saying the ball is unplayable (not lost) before trying to find it.

    I’m like you, and trying to learn the rules to be a better golfer. Thanks for this example. It’s a good one!

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  5. Gail Jones
    November 15, 2011 at 10:49 am

    I have a question: A player decides to mark my ball on the,
    picking it up as she is asking me if it is okay, and then rolls it to me?

    • Pat
      November 15, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      Hi Gail. First, as far as I know, no player has the right to do anything with your ball unless you give them permission or ask them to do so. I understand that your ball might be in her line and that she doesn’t want to wait till you mark it yourself, but she needs to ask first, then mark it. Someone else might have a different opinion… but I think she is out of line.

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