Knowing all your options, and picking the right one, when you declare your ball unplayable can make a big difference in your score.
Kevin Na ended up with a 19 on his scorecard in the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio earlier this year because he unwisely tried to play from a wooded area instead of taking his medicine and going back to the tee, hitting three with stroke and distance penalty. Once he tried playing from the trees, he gave up the option of going back to the tee. Then when he did determine he had unplayable lie later, he was stuck in the woods.
Going back to where the last ball was played is one of your options for a ball unplayable. That’s exactly what Sergio Garcia did in a similar situation last fall, going back to spot in the fairway where he had hit the ball into trouble.
When using this option, the ball could be closer to the hole like in the case of a ball striking a rock and going backwards into a place where it is unplayable.
Another option is to drop a ball behind where the ball lay, keeping that point directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind that point it is dropped. That’s what J.B. Holmes did in the playoff lost to Bubba Watson in the World Match Play.
Players need to be careful using this option and not take another drop if the ball happens to roll forward. I recall a player in the Texas State Open thought he had to re-drop it and was penalized two strokes for playing from the wrong position. The ball when dropped is still not closer to the hole like it would be in other cases.
The third option is to drop a ball with two club lengths of where the ball lay, but not closer to the hole. A player needs to be careful in this case as the ball could roll back into the same lie or in another unplayable lie. If this happens, he would be penalized another stroke, but can use the option of returning to where the original spot was played since he did not make a stroke at the ball.
When the ball is unplayable in a bunker, it must be dropped in the bunker unless the player decides to use the first option, going back to where he last played from outside the bunker. Of course, he gives up some distance.
A player is the sole judge of whether a ball is unplayable. If another player told him that the ball was unplayable, he would be considered giving advice and be penalized. Of course, explaining his options if he elects to declare the ball unplayable would not be advice.
Looking in the decisions, I found it interesting that a player may declare a ball unplayable even if he does not find it and proceed under the first option, taking stroke and distance. Of course, that is same penalty for a lost ball.
In one event, a player hit his drive into deep woods. He then hit his provisional into the same woods. He wanted to declare the first ball unplayable and abandon the provisional ball. When he hit a third tee ball, the rules committee ruled he was laying five and said the provisional ball was in play unless the original was found. This is part of the decisions now.