Confusing Golf Rule #5: Unplayable Lies

A few years back I was playing at a beautiful ocean-front course in California in the final round of an amateur tournament put on by the NCGA.  I had a quality round going, and I began to think about finishing in the top 10.  On the 18th, modest-sized dogleg left, I put my drive through the fairway and into a bush that was not marked as a hazard.  When I got to the bush I could see my ball stuck in it’s arms about two feet above the ground.   Unsure of my options — and certainly not thinking very clearly at that moment — I took a hack at the ball and got it to drop to the ground, and then took another bush-limited swing to get it out into the rough, lying three strokes at that moment.  Or so I thought.  As I stood over the ball preparing to hit my fourth shot from the rough I noticed that it wasn’t my ball.  Let’s see, two 2-stroke penalties for hitting the wrong ball twice plus I still need to find my original ball.  Let’s just say I finished with a big number that sent me tumbling down to a humble finishing position.  All for the lack of knowing what my options were.

Steps in taking an Unplayable Lie

First, identify your ball.  Take the time to make sure the ball you think is yours is, in fact, yours.  No doubt, you may be steaming and clear thinking can be at a premium in times like this, but identification is critical.  This is why it is important to mark your ball in some way.  If you can see your mark, you know it’s yours.  There may be 10 Titleist Pro V’s in that bush, but only one is going to carry your mark.

Second, assess your situation.  Are you better off anywhere within two-club length (but no closer to the hole) than hitting from where your ball is currently positioned?   In my case, it certainly would have been easier to hit the ball from a flat lie than from in the bush — and when I reached into the bush to grab my ball, it would have become clear it wasn’t my ball at all.

Third, take the unplayable, if that’s the best option.  Only you get to decide if a ball is unplayable and you don’t need to announce it or get “permission” from your paying partners to proceed with the unplayable. Here’s how.  You have three options (similar to if you put the ball into a yellow-staked hazard):

*  Go back to where you last hit the ball and replay it, adding a penalty stroke.

* Pull out your driver and measure out two-club lengths from where your ball came to rest, but no closer to the hole.  Basically this is a semi-circle with a radius of 6-feet from the location of the ball.  Decide where you want to drop it, measure the two-club lengths again and put a tee in the ground there.  Now you just need to drop the ball so it initially lands between the original location of the ball and the tee you just put in the ground (i.e., within two-club lengths), and add a penalty stroke.

*  Draw an imaginary line from where the pin is to where the ball currently lay.  Then extend that line as far back as you want.  You can drop the ball anywhere on that line and play, taking a penalty stroke of course.  (Sometimes this is a great option.  In my case, that line would have put me on adjoining fairway with a mid-iron to the green.)  The exception here is that if your ball is in an area considered a sand bunker, the line extends only as far back as the back edge of the bunker.  Yes, you would need to drop it in the bunker.

Fourth, take your penalty stroke and keep playing.  Yes, taking an unplayable lie is a costly one stroke.  But it can save you many strokes in the end.  For example, if I had taken the unplayable lie from that bush, I would likely have ended up with a bogey or double bogey instead of the double-digit disaster it became.

USGA Rule 28

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