Last Sunday’s telecast of the Open Championship showed that even well-respected PGA Tour pros and announcers don’t know the most basic rules of golf. At one point Paul Azinger opined that Tiger Woods should take an unplayable lie in a greenside bunker and drop it outside the bunker. Even I know you have to drop it in the sand (Rule 28); fortunately someone in the truck corrected ‘Zinger’s error.
As troubling — and what prompted me to kick off an e-mail exchange that culminated in this write-up — was what happened to Brandt Snedeker on Sunday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. The former Pub Links champion hooked his tee shot on no. 7 into the gorse and promptly played a provisional ball, which he pushed right and into a bunker. What happened next caught my ire. According to the announcer — I believe it was Andy North — Snedeker’s caddie then found his boss’s first ball in bounds, but after “briefly consider(ing)” the matter they decided not to play it because it was apparently in a world of trouble. Snedeker then played out his provisional ball as his ball in play, made double bogey and ended up tied for third.
I was always under the impression that a player was required to play his ball if he found it. If so, Snedeker played that hole incorrectly.
Turns out I was correct.
Under Rule 27(c), “(i)f the original ball is neither lost nor out of bounds, the player must abandon the provisional ball and continue playing the original ball. If he makes any further strokes at the provisional ball he is playing the wrong ball and the provisions of rule 15-3 apply.” (Emphasis added.) The “must” language is pretty clear.
So why didn’t Snedeker get DQ’ed for signing an incorrect scorecard? Turns out Andy North had his facts wrong. Snedeker’s caddie had indeed found a ball in the gorse, but it wasn’t his boss’s. Kind of an important fact. Obviously, then, Snedeker couldn’t have played that ball even if he’d wanted to.
A few interesting rubs on this scenario, and ones that happen now and again to Greenspanners or their playing companions. Suppose that Snedeker had whacked his provisional ball into even more trouble — say OB. At that point he’d be feeling some serious heat hitting his third ball from the tee, his first likely toast and his second certainly toast. He might not be in as much trouble as he thought. According to the USGA, once that first ball is found not only is it now the in-play ball, but all other previously-hit provisionals are out of play and abandoned. Thus, so long as Snedeker had found his original ball, what he did with his provisional ball(s) no longer mattered. Snedeker could play the ball at it lies or take an unplayable, in which case his available modes of relief would be (1) two club lengths no nearer the hole, (2) dropping as far back as he wants keeping that point between him and the hole, or (3) rehitting from where he last hit his shot — in that case, from the tee.
Suppose instead that Snedeker knew his first ball was in big trouble — so much trouble that he wanted no part of it. What then? Could be instruct his playing partners not to look for it? This is basically what happened to Phil Mickelson at the 2001 Buick Classic at Torrey Pines. The folks at Leaderboard.com described the incident (more), but basically Phil hit one out, hit a good provisional, and decided he didn’t want to find his first ball. He was overheard instructing a Tour official to prevent spectators from looking for his ball. Someone found it anyway and Phil was required to play it. Leaderboard.com goes a step further:
You can decline to look for the full five minutes. However, if your opponent (or even a spectator who favors your opponent) wishes to look for your ball you have no choice but to wait the allotted five minutes. If they find your ball, you are stuck playing it.
Thumbs up to Greenspan Cup veteran Adam Waalkes and Sand Point CC assistant club pro Brandon Bemis for their research on this issue. The latter called the USGA to clarify the Snedeker matter.