Category Archives: Free Drop

Golf Rules: Accidental Movement of A Ball – The Tree Incident

We received an email from Graham in Piedmont CA that described the following situation.  Graham and his opponent (let’s call him Bob) were playing a match.  On the seventh hole, Bob drove his ball into a set of trees lining the fairway.  They went to the area expecting to find the ball, but after looking for several minutes, there was no sign of Bob’s ball.  Suddenly, they heard a thump as Bob’s ball dislodged itself from the tree and fell to the ground.  Graham’s initial question was what would have happened if the ball had hit either Graham or Bob.  We’ll get to that shortly.  But first:

Was Bob’s Ball Technically a Lost Ball?

A player cannot declare a ball lost.  He can only take action that makes a ball lost.  First, he can run out of time looking for the ball.  From the time the player gets to the area he expects to find the ball, he has 5 minutes to locate the ball.  If he finds the ball in 5 minutes or less, he can play it as it lies.  If he finds the ball in more than 5 minutes – or never finds the ball – he has to go back to where he played that last shot, adding a one-stroke penalty, and play from there.  (It’s the same penalty as if he hit the ball out of bounds.)  USGA Rule 27-1

The second action a player can take that would make a ball lost would be if Bob played a provisional ball, and then played that provisional ball again from a point beyond the area that he would search for his lost ball.  So, let’s say Bob hits the ball into the trees off the tee, so he takes a provisional (which he can do as long as the trees are not marked as hazards), and smokes one down the fairway that comes to rest seventy yards past the trees into which the first ball disappeared.  Bob can sprint to his provisional ball and play his next shot (his 4th stroke) as quickly as he wishes, and once he makes that play – and the first ball is not located prior – the first ball is officially “lost”, even if it is found within the five minute limit. USGA Rule 27-2

According to Graham, the ball fell about four minutes into the search.   And if Bob was looking for the ball, it’s unlikely that he hit a provisional ball from a point beyond the lost ball.

Did Bob Cause the Ball to Become Dislodged?

If the ball came to rest in a tree, then the next play is either from that tree or as an unplayable lie with a penalty stroke.  Now a gust of wind could come up and blow the branches and leaves which causes the ball to become dislodged.  That’s OK, and Bob can play it from where it comes to rest on the ground without penalty. However, if Bob shakes the tree or the branches in any way (with his hand, with his club, by driving his cart into the tree), and the ball becomes dislodged, Bob’s looking at a two-stroke penalty, because he would end up playing his next shot from the wrong place.  Rule 18-2 and 20-7

When the Ball Fell, Who Did it Hit?

So let’s say that Bob didn’t cause the ball to fall to earth and it was within the 5 minute limit.  When the ball fell, and before it came to rest, did it hit Bob or Graham, or any part of their equipment (golf bag, golf club, caddie, cart)?  If so, what happens next depends on who the ball hit.

If Bob was hit by his own ball falling from the tree, he gets a one-stroke penalty (and possibly a sore head) and plays his next shot from where the ball came to rest.   USGA Rules 19-2

If Graham was hit by Bob’s ball falling from the tree, Bob has two options.  He can play his ball from where it came to rest without penalty.  His other option is that he can cancel the stroke and replay it from where he last played.  In other words, Bob can head back to the tee and take another drive without any penalty.   USGA Rule 19-3

Creative Implications

So I must say, I like the Rules of Golf because it seems that each time there is something I see that I failed to appreciate.  This option of canceling the stroke and replaying is just that for me.   I can recall being off the green on the 17th hole of a favorite course, attempting to chip the ball to the green and instead shanking the ball wide right and off an opponent’s bag.  (I played it as it lied and instead I should have canceled the stroke and re-chipped without penalty.)  Same hole, different time, I chipped the ball way long and it landed off the green and against an opponent’s extra clubs.  (I played it as it lied after moving the clubs, but I should have canceled the stroke and re-chipped without penalty.)

I am sure that my lack of fully knowing this rule at the time is not the difference between me being a scratch golfer or a 10 handicap.  But, on that day and in that moment, it could have been worth a few bucks – and, I dare say, the thorough enjoyment of an opponent sputtering and howling in denial of the rule.  Man, that would have been worth it.

As for Graham, sounds like Bob had a world-class break and you were on the other side of that.  Sorry.

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