Dustin Johnson found himself in trouble left of the par-4 10th hole in the final round of the Memorial Tournament on Sunday. Johnson was 3 under for the day, 16 under for the event, and very much in contention standing on the 10th tee. In conjunction with Johnson’s strategic decisions on this hole, the Rules of Golf would help determine his standing by the time he reached the 11th tee.
Johnson’s wayward tee shot was not in a water hazard, an abnormal ground condition, or out of bounds, so his only options were to play the ball as it lay or take relief for an unplayable ball. His three options for an unplayable ball are:
- Proceed under penalty of stroke and distance by returning to the tee.
- Drop a ball within two club lengths of where the ball lay, not closer to the hole.
- Drop a ball behind the point where the ball lay at any spot on a straight line from the hole through the position of the ball.
All three options come with a penalty of one stroke. The first one was not ideal since it involved returning all the way to the tee, the two club lengths in the second option were not enough to allow him to escape the trees, and the third option did not provide him any ground on which to drop the ball. Therefore, Johnson decided to play the ball.
His shot did not travel more than 1 or 2 yards but ended up coming to rest 48 yards closer to the hole after nearly 45 seconds of slow progress along the cart path. A cart path is classified as an immovable obstruction from which free relief is granted under the Rules. Had his ball ended up veering to the left edge of the path and stopping, Johnson would have been in a difficult situation where his nearest point of relief would have been in the trees.
The nearest point of relief is the point nearest to the ball’s position and not nearer the hole where the condition – in this case, the cart path – no longer interferes with the player’s stroke. When faced with a situation in which there are trees left of the cart path and grass right of the cart path, all players would prefer to take their drop right of the cart path. However, remember that it is the nearest point of relief, not the nicest point. Had this scenario occurred, some players might then choose to play their ball from the cart path rather than take relief.
Luckily for Johnson, his ball traveled all the way down the path, past the trees to a spot where his nearest point of relief offered an open area with no interference to his swing. After a free drop from the cart path and an excellent third shot onto the green, Johnson two-putted for a bogey, a score that could have been much worse if not for his choice to play the ball and the ensuing favorable roll down the cart path.
Jamie Wallace is the manager of Rules education and digital content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.