Phil Mickelson’s gnarly encounter with the par-3 4th hole in the final round of the Masters yesterday derailed his efforts to capture a fourth green jacket.   His travails presented a textbook example of the options available under the unplayable ball rule, and left some observers wondering whether Mickelson made the right decision.

The hole on the 240-yard par-3 was cut on the left side of the green, a difficult flag to attack.  Mickelson tried to play a conservative cut shot to the left of the flag, but the ball sailed left of the green towards thick vegetation and, in one of the worst breaks of the tournament, struck a metal railing and deflected farther left.   “It happens out here,” he remarked after the round.

When he reached the ball nestled in thick vegetation, Mickelson had to lift it in order to identify it.  (This is permitted by Rule 12-2.)  He then considered his options.   He could have declared his ball unplayable under Rule 28, taken a penalty stroke, and dropped within two club lengths (no closer to the hole).  However, Mickelson was overheard remarking to his caddie, Jim Mackay, that in that case he would have had no backswing.   He also could have played again from the tee with a penalty stroke.   Assuming he hit the green, he would have been looking at a one-putt bogey (unlikely) or a two-putt double bogey.  (The third option available under the unplayable ball rule – dropping the ball on a line demarcated by the ball and the hole — afforded no relief.)

Mickelson decided to play the ball with an awkward right-handed stroke with the toe of his club, and the ball squirted forward a couple of feet and remained in the brush.  Another similar (and somewhat rushed) stroke advanced the ball about ten yards onto the hardpan, leaving no shot to the green.   Mickelson played into the bunker to the left of the green with his fourth shot, and fortunately played a great bunker shot to within three feet and sank the putt for a triple bogey.  

In one hole Mickelson, who virtually always excels at Augusta, dropped from second to sixth place, and never was able to challenge for the lead the rest of the day.   However, the three-time champion kept things in perspective.   “I hit a ton of good shots, a lot of good putts, but did not get the score I wanted,” he said.  “I’m certainly not satisfied just being in contention.  I love coming down the second nine with a chance to win the Masters, and it’s certainly disappointing not to get it done…   It doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy myself, that I didn’t enjoy the opportunity.” 

The CBS commentators were of the view that the most sensible decision on the 4th hole would have been to return to the tee.   Once Mickelson hit his second shot, he might have agreed with that assessment.  But hindsight is always 20:20, and Mickelson is a master at extricating himself from difficult positions.  

Phil’s encounter with the 4th hole does, however, highlight the importance of understanding the options available under the unplayable ball rule.   It is tempting to undertake heroic recovery shots, but often (particularly in the case of golfers less skilled than Mickelson) it is more prudent to invoke the unplayable ball rule and play a shot you realistically are capable of executing.  Of course, for most of us, such blunders only jeopardize our $5 Nassau – not a Masters championship.

Jack Ross is the editor of Ross’ Rulings.  He is a co-author of the recently-released book “Mastering Golf’s Toughest Shots,” in which he explains how rules knowledge can save strokes in difficult situations on the course.