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2013 is shaping up to be the Year of the Tree on the PGA Tour.   And while they say trees are 90% air, we all know that’s not really true.

At the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March, Tiger Woods’ tee shot on the 17th hole sailed into a palm tree and became lodged in the branches.   Woods was able to identify the ball with binoculars and dropped a ball by the tree with a 1-stroke penalty under the unplayable ball rule.

Sergio Garcia took a more aggressive approach when his ball came to rest in a tree about 10 feet above the ground during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill later that month.   The agile Spaniard climbed into the tree and played a remarkable shot, although he seemed to injure his leg slightly in the process.   Don’t try this at home.

Of course, if Garcia isn’t playing shots from trees, he’s complaining about distractions from competitors who are in the trees.   Yesterday on the second hole of the Players Championship, Garcia hit an errant shot from the fairway and later contended that he was distracted during his backswing by commotion in the trees where Woods was preparing to hit his second shot.   Woods explained that he had been told Garcia had already hit, and commented: “I’m really not surprised he was complaining about something.”    Garcia’s rejoinder:  “At least I’m true to myself.”  There is no love fest between these two competitors at Sawgrass.

Meanwhile, Hunter Mahan became the latest tree victim when his tee shot on the 15th hole yesterday became ensnared in branches.   Mahan was able to identify the ball with the assistance of a photographer with a zoom lens.     “The wind started really blowing.  I was hoping it would blow my ball out,” said Mahan.   No such luck.  Mahan took a double bogey after the 1-stroke penalty.

What is the procedure if your ball becomes lodged in a tree?    Unless you can find your ball in the tree, you must treat it as lost.  This means that, under the stroke-and-distance rule, you must go back to the spot where you played the shot, take a penalty stroke, and play another ball.  (Rule 27-1c.)  The unplayable ball rule (Rule 28), which provides additional options, is not applicable.

If you see a ball in the tree, can you assume it is yours and avoid the lost ball penalty?  While this might seem to be a reasonable assumption, unfortunately you must treat your ball as lost unless you can positively identify the ball in the tree as yours.   If you are able to identify your ball (e.g., by climbing the tree or using binoculars), you are entitled to invoke the unplayable ball rule.   One option under that rule is to drop a ball within two club-lengths of the point on the ground that is directly below the ball.  You will incur a penalty stroke.   But if you don’t carry binoculars in your bag along with your bug spray and suntan lotion, you’re probably looking at the stroke-and-distance rule.

Of course, if you’re feeling particularly nimble, you’re free to emulate Garcia, climb the tree, and attempt to play the ball.   In most cases, you’re probably best to take the penalty stroke and live to fight another battle on the course where your chances of success are greater.    Like that patented low burner from the woods that miraculously avoids a dozen trees and finds the fairway.  Sometimes.

Jack Ross is the editor of Ross’ Rulings.  He has never attempted to climb a tree to  identify a ball.

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