3 Rulings for When Your Golf Ball Is Stuck in a Tree

Golfer trying to hit golf ball that is stuck in a tree
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Consider this scenario: You play your drive, but your golf ball hits a tree next to the fairway. And it didn't come down — your golf ball is still up there, stuck in the branches. How do you proceed?

If you're like most golfers, you'll either curse your luck or get a good laugh out of the predicament. But what's the ruling? What are your options under the rules of golf?

There are three options for continuing play after your golf ball is stuck in a tree. You can play the ball as it lies, proceed under the unplayable ball rule, or proceed under a lost ball ruling.

Key Takeaways

  • The three options when a golf ball is stuck in a tree are to hit it out of the tree, declare an unplayable ball, or accept a lost ball penalty.
  • Playing it out of the tree is the only option that doesn't carry a penalty, but is the least likely option because it means climbing the tree.
  • Invoking the unplayable ball rule incurs a one-stroke penalty, and a lost ball results in the stroke-and-distance penalty.

Play It as It Lies (Hit Ball Out of the Tree)

What this means, of course, is that you're willing to climb up into the tree and take a swing at the ball. And if you did, you wouldn't be the first. Sergio Garcia and Bernhard Langer, among other well-known professional golfers, have climbed trees and played shots out of the tree.

But the odds of coming up with a decent shot in such a scenario are mighty slim. The odds of further messing up the hole are much greater. The possibility of slipping, falling and hurting yourself can't be ruled out. So while hitting a ball out of a tree is a possibility — and is the only possibility that does not carry any penalty strokes — this option is best left to golfers who are even crazier than you.

Declare Your Ball Stuck Up the Tree Unplayable

You can declare the ball unplayable under Rule 19, take a one-stroke penalty and, most likely, drop within two club-lengths of the ball (there are other options for continuing under the unplayable rule, but this is the most likely to be used in this scenario). The spot from which you measure the two club-lengths is that spot on the ground directly under where the ball rests in the tree.

But in order to use the unplayable option, you must be able to identify your ball. You can't just assume that it's up there somewhere, and you can't just assume that a ball you see in the tree is yours. You must positively identify your ball in the tree.

That might mean trying to shake it loose from the tree ​or climbing the tree simply to retrieve the ball for ID purposes. Before you do either, make sure you've announced your intention to treat the ball as unplayable. If you dislodge the ball without having made your intentions clear (to continue under the unplayable rule), you'll incur a penalty stroke under Rule 9.4 (Ball Lived or Moved By You) and will be required to put the ball back in the tree! (Failure to replace a ball such moved would result in an additional one-stroke penalty.)

So make sure you identify your ball before continuing under the unplayable option and make sure you declare your intentions before retrieving or dislodging the ball from the tree.

Implement Lost Ball Procedure

Alas, you may not be able to find a golf ball that has lodged in a tree, even if you know it's up there somewhere. The only option then is to accept the penalty for a lost ball and proceed under Rule 18.2 (Ball Lost or Out of Bounds). The lost ball penalty is stroke-and-distance; that means adding a one-stroke penalty to your score and returning to the spot of the previous stroke, where you must replay the shot.

Even if you see a ball up in the tree, you'll have to take a lost ball penalty unless you can positively identify it as yours, and you only have three minutes within which to find and identify a golf ball.