Oh No, (Na)t a 16: Variations on the Unplayable Lie

If the sunlight can't reach the forest bottom, odds are your club won't find the ball either.

The Ball Unplayable rule is an escape hatch for a lot of mistakes, but sometimes it simply doesn’t go quite far enough to grant relief when you really need it.

Bogey golfers across America were likely spellbound watching Kevin Na battle through weeds and thorns en-route to a not-so-sweet 16 (we think) during the 2011 Valero Texas Open.  Na ran into trouble on the 9th hole of the TPC of Antonio AT&T Oaks Course when an errant tee shot strayed way right, into typical Texas scrub.   Finding the ball was remarkable enough, but Na then realized he didn’t have an open shot, so back to the tee he trod, and did exactly the same thing but this time played a provisional ball.  That went left, he abandoned the provisional because he couldn’t find it, then attempted to play his 2nd tee shot that lay deep in the woods.

And that, golf fans, was when he should have listened to his caddy, who afterwards admonished, “When I tell you to go back to the tee, go back to the tee.”

When did Na make his course management mistake?  Yes, we know he shouldn’t have hit it there in the first place.  After losing his provisional ball and then opting to play his 2nd tee shot, which was in a similar place as the original ball he picked up in favor of going back to the tee, Kevin made his first bad decision.  Everything else that happened after was a moot point.  Why?  Because, by electing to play that ball, he automatically minimized one very valuable option of Rule 28 – Ball Unplayable:  the choice to go back to where you had hit the previous shot, or in this case, back to an open shot from the tee yet again.  On his mind, no doubt, was holding up play with his third trek back to the tee, where he would be hitting 5, probably on his way to an 8.   But he didn’t.  After hitting from the woods, he was deeper and deeper in trouble and this time, there was no way out other than to keep on hittin’.

Not to make matters worse, but indeed more rules’ intriguing would have been this situation:  suppose after losing his Provisional ball, Na also wouldn’t have found his 2nd tee shot and had to go back yet again to hit a 4th tee shot, now hitting  7.  By finding and playing his 2nd tee shot, the Provisional is void;  but had he not found that ball, the lost Provisional becomes the ball in play, now lost, and it’s back to the drawing board.  However, even then, assuming his 4th tee shot found safety, he would still be better off, probably scoring an 11.


This is one area of Rule 28 that is a difficult call.   We all hit bad shots and when we do, the first rule is to get out of trouble on the next shot….or, don’t follow one bad shot with another.  When coupled with poor decision-making, ‘Ball Unplayable’ is sometimes misunderstood and not quite the panacea people think it is.   Golfers think they can use it anywhere and will always get a clear and open shot by taking the one-stroke penalty.  Not true.  What are the options of Rule 28?

1) Play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original was last played;

2) Drop a ball within two club-lengths of the spot where the ball lay, not nearer the hole;

3) Drop a ball behind the point where the ball lay, keeping that point directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit as to how far behind that point the ball may be dropped;

Note: With regard to option 3, many people think they can drop the ball back ad infinitum on a line from where the ball went into trouble, thus getting them back into the fairway.  Not so.  You must stand by your ball, face the hole, and take the ball back on THAT line as far as you wish.  Usually this option takes you deeper into trouble, but sometimes another fairway is parallel to the hole you’re playing, making this option more desirable.

The lesson here is this:  before hitting, look around to determine what the worst possible case scenario might be.  If you are in deep wabbage with trees and brambles everywhere,  as Na was, get out while the Rules still give you a clear shot because once you hit one in the junk, you are stuck there.  It would be nice if the Rules provided an alternative option, like a ‘two-and-out’ (hit two shots and then drop it out of the mess) but since I don’t see that happening anytime soon, you must know when to say ‘When’.

2 Responses to “Oh No, (Na)t a 16: Variations on the Unplayable Lie”

  1. court

    You left out the additional option of 28/2 – you are allowed to continue taking 2 club length unplayable lie drops until you are out of your trouble. Na’s ball looked to be less than 20 feet into the woods to start. Even if it took Na 4 or 5 drops, he still could have saved 4 or 5 strokes…but that is a 20/20 hindsight thought.

    But it’s nice of you to assume Na was worrying about holding up the groups behind him by not going back to the tee for a third time. Not many players with the “slow player” tag would get that consideration.

  2. Janina Jacobs

    Just so you know, there is no Rule 28/2; if it’s a decision from the USGA Decisions on the Rules of Golf you are referring to, it does not apply to this situation (Decision 28/2: Player Declares his First Ball from Tee Unplayable; Abandons Provisional and Claims He is Lying Three with Third Ball). In interpreting Rule 28, under the b. option, you are certainly allowed to do what you suggest, taking as many drops as you wish since the rule does not limit how many times you may invoke it. However, one must keep in mind that the drop(s) cannot be taken closer to the hole, thus a player would likely have to back up and out of the woods, which may not necessarily be the shortest way out of trouble. Plus, I’d have to think a touring professional would feel rather foolish doing that. My guess is he’d never hear the end of it from his cohorts!

    RE: Na not going back to the tee a third time. Thanks for assuming I’m nice (I am!!!) but I’m only guessing about his reasons for doing what he did. My two worst tournament rules scenarios were 1) hitting 3 balls in a row OB off the tee but that was quick and I didn’t hold up play by reloading. Pretty cut and dried rules-wise and my 11 was easy to count; 2) listening to another player tell me my options for….guess what…..an unplayable lie…..I made the mistake of heeding her advice and believed her when she told me I could re-trace my way back out of the woods from my drive and drop back into the fairway – NOT how I described it properly under Rule 28 c. As I was signing my scorecard, I checked with the officials who then informed me I had taken an improper drop. Since I would have had to correct it before playing the next hole (too late) and didn’t, I was DQ’d. That’s why I am now VERY familiar with Rule 28.

    In any rules matters, I am always very aware of holding up play as I’m sure most top players are. However, it is a fine line between doing things correctly yet expediently – especially when you are not sure of the rules. And by the way, you may think Tour players know the rules really well, but you’d be surprised that many don’t. That’s why you’ll see them get an official ruling for seemingly simple affairs like cart path drops or Ground Under Repair or water hazards. Reason is that if an official gives the player a ruling and it turns out to be incorrect later on, the player is in the clear; if the player took the same relief on his or her own and it was wrong, they are in a jam and susceptible to DQ or penalty strokes depending on the severity of the breach.

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