Having pulled his final drive of the third round into the trees, the number one ranked men’s player in the world must have felt some concern as he approached the area to the left side of the 18th fairway with no indication that his ball had been located.
Fortunately for Scottie Scheffler the news eventually filtered back to him that a ball had been found. However, with it being at rest deep into an area of dense trees, the potential for a big number and a significant dent to his overnight lead was still very much in play. The subsequent ruling which followed served as a great reminder to all golfers that whatever tricky situation you find yourself in on course, knowing the Rules and assessing your best options can ensure you end up taking the least-painful outcome for your scorecard.
With a marshal directing him towards the ball nestled amongst the undergrowth, the first task Scheffler had to do was to identify the ball and make sure it was actually his. Under Rule 7.3, if a ball might be a player’s but cannot be identified as it lies, the player is entitled to lift the ball to identify it. A couple of important points to note in this situation are that the spot of the ball must be marked before being lifted and the ball itself must not be cleaned any more than is needed to identify it (except when on the putting green).
Having made certain that the ball was indeed his and returned it to its original spot, Scheffler then had to consider his options. It became clear that attempting to play the ball as it lay would be an exceptionally risky choice so, after a discussion with his caddie, he chose to take unplayable ball relief under Rule 19 for one penalty stroke. When a player takes unplayable relief in the general area, they have three options:
- They can take stroke-and-distance relief, which in this case would have involved him going back to the teeing area to play once again from there
- They have the option to take back-on-the-line relief which would have involved going straight back on a line from the hole keeping the spot where the original lay on a direct line between them and the hole, which would have involved going back deeper into the trees
- Or, they may take lateral relief which permits the player to drop a ball within two club lengths no closer to the hole from the spot where their original ball is at rest.
Opting to take lateral relief using Rule 19.2c, Scheffler was able to drop another ball within two club lengths of where his original ball lay, no closer to the hole, for a penalty of one stroke. Interestingly, however, those watching will have noticed that Scheffler was very thorough in how he approached taking his drop to ensure that he would get the best possible outcome by using all of the options available to him under the Rules.
Firstly, prior to dropping the ball within his relief area, and not wanting to risk a potential injury, Scheffler asked to check for tree roots around the area where he was about to drop. This is something which is permitted anywhere on the course provided that the player does not improve any of the conditions affecting the stroke. When doing so, a player may probe the area around their ball with a tee or other similar object to see whether their club may potentially strike a tree root, a rock or any other obstruction below the surface of the ground when actually making the stroke.
Scheffler then asked the Rules official whether he could remove loose impediments from the area around where he was intending to drop. This again is permitted under Rule 15.1, which states that when a ball is to be dropped or placed, the ball is not being put back in a specific spot and therefore removing loose impediments before dropping or placing a ball is permitted. Importantly, when informing him of this, the referee highlighted that whilst he was entitled to remove any leaves and pine straw, he should be careful to pick these up rather than simply brushing them away as beneath them was loose soil which is not considered to be loose impediment and which moving could risk a potential penalty.
When removing loose impediments, Rule 8.1b does allow a player to take reasonable actions to remove them, but crucially does not give the player carte blanch to carelessly sweep up other loose soil in the process. Should a player take an action that improves the conditions affecting the stroke when doing this, they would be on the receiving end of the general penalty – what could have been two very expensive strokes.
After finally being satisfied that he’d done everything possible under the Rules to give him the best chance of a good lie, Scheffler dropped the ball within his relief area only to see the dropped ball roll outside the relief area. When this happens, Rule 14.3c(2) covers what to do and the player is simply required to drop the ball a second time within their relief area.
When the ball again failed to come to rest within the relief area, he was then required to place the ball on the spot where the ball first struck the ground on his second drop.
With the ball seemingly restless, even when placed on this spot in the pine straw it would not stay at rest. So Scheffler was required to try and place it on the same spot again for a second time. As the ball still wouldn’t stay at rest on this spot, he was then required to find the nearest spot where it would remain at rest (even if outside the relief area) and place it there.
With the ball now back in play, Scheffler managed to escape with a bogey five on his final hole, signing for a one-under-par 71 and a three-shot lead heading into a final round that would ultimately see him finish the week sporting a Green Jacket.