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Rules to Play By Did Lefty Break the Rules

Editor's note: Each week, Ray Herzog, a rules expert from the San Diego Golf Academy in Orlando, Fla., will be answering reader-submitted questions involving the Rules of Golf. Look for Ray's Q&A every Thursday on
In the first round of play at the Tour Championship Phil Mickelson hit his drive into the trees on number 5. He found his ball lying at the foot of some trees. He clearly identified the ball as his own and proceeded to take an unplayable lie and dropped a 2nd ball 40 feet back in the direction of his ball flight. After hitting his now 3rd shot after the penalty he walked out of the trees and left his original ball back next to the tree. I was under the impression once you start a hole with that ball you have to finish with the same ball, unless it is deemed damaged. Should he have picked up the first ball and dropped that and played it? In my eyes he should have been assessed a one stroke penalty for the unplayable and then a two stroke penalty for playing the wrong ball. What is the correct ruling? -- David A. Decker
As I watched the TOUR Championship and watched Phil leave his ball next to the tree it made me feel great. I have done the same thing on numerous occasions. All that tells me about Phil is that he is as superstitious as your average golfer. Somewhere deep down, he thought that ball had some bad Mojo and did not want to use it anymore, so he abandoned it next to the tree. Now that we know Phil is superstitious, the question is, did he break a rule of golf and deserve to get penalized. The answer is NO.
As you stated in your question, Phil used the second option under Rule 28. (Ball Unplayable) The wording in Part B of the rule states:
Drop a ball behind the point where the ball lay, keeping that point directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball dropped, with no limit to how far behind that point the ball may be dropped.
The rule states, drop a ball not drop the ball. That one little difference is why Phil was allowed to leave his golf ball next to the tree without receiving a penalty. In some situations, you will have to take an unplayable ball and not be able to retrieve your ball. Down here in Florida, it is not uncommon to hit a ball in a palm tree. You can look up and identify the ball in the tree but you cant get to it. In this situation you can abandon the ball in the tree and drop a different ball under the unplayable ball rule. That is basically what Phil did, except his ball was on the ground. If you read Rule 26 (Water Hazards) and Rule 27 (Out of Bounds) you will see the same wording under the relief portion of each rule.
-- Ray
I am confused. I saw a 'lesson' on TV provided by (David) Feherty during coverage of a PGA tournament. He was on the putting surface about three feet from the hole. He missed his putt and it rolled down and off the green to a position not shown by the cameras. He explained that his decision was to take an unplayable lie and replace the ball where he had putted from, take the penalty and putt the ball into the hole. His reasoning was that it was a very hot day and he didn't want to have to walk down and up the hill to play his ball where it lay. Is this within the rules? It seems as if it would give the player an unfair advantage to take this penalty and putt from three feet away versus who knows how many strokes it would take to hit the ball back up the hill and into the hole. ' William McQuade
I think I saw the same broadcast, but I think it was Gary McCord explaining the rule. The Ball Unplayable rule has Pros and Cons. In this situation, the pro is Gary did not have to walk all the way down the hill to play his ball. The con was he had to apply a one-stroke penalty to his score.
Part A of the rule states:
Play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.
One of Garys options was to place the ball back to its previous position. In this situation, that was three feet from the hole on the putting green. If he would have skulled his shot out of the bunker over the flag and into the woods, nobody would think twice if he would have to drop another ball in the bunker.
Another benefit of the rule as we learned in the previous question, if you are really lazy and dont want to walk down the hill, just abandon the ball and put another ball into play.
-- Ray
Just curious - not in a tournament or anything but my golf partner was dead behind a tree and had to come out to the left. He was right handed. He turned his wedge upside down and from the left, placed the face about two inches behind the ball and without any backswing moved the face forward until it scooped up the ball and propelled it out from behind the tree. The ball did not double hit the face and the chip out - if you can call it that - came off perfectly. We all felt impressed and wondered why we hadn't thought of that. Would this be a legitimate swing according to the rules? ' Stuart Clark
I am glad that you and your friends had not thought of his idea first. That tells me you are more in touch with your rule book that your unnamed friend. The answer to your question can be found in Rule 14 (Striking the Ball). Rule 14-1, states:
The ball must be fairly struck at with the head of the club and must not be pushed, scraped or spooned.
In this situation, your friend seemed to have pushed the ball out of the bad lie. There has to be some kind of backswing and striking motion to be considered a swing. As far as turning the wedge upside down, that is legal. A player may play a stroke with any part of the clubhead, provided the ball is fairly struck at. In this case, the penalty would be two strokes for pushing the ball out of the bad lie.
In the Decisions on The Rules of Golf, there is a similar ruling, 14-1/1. If you do not have a Decisions book, log onto and there is a copy online.
Thank you for your questions,
Ray Herzog
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