A large portion of a tree fell across a cart path on the 3rd hole of the Riviera Country Club shortly before Round 2 of the 2017 Genesis Open was suspended due to high winds and heavy rains. Fortunately, no spectators were hurt, and the PGA Tour was able to mobilize a small battalion of greens keeping staff to restore the course to a playable condition after the storm for a timely finish of the event on Sunday.
This incident begs the question of what the PGA Head Golf Professional can do if a tree suddenly falls onto a fairway at his or her facility while play is underway during a club championship. Decision 25/9.5 [Tree Falls onto Fairway During Stipulated Round] provides guidance on this issue, setting forth four (4) options for the Committee, i.e., the PGA Head Golf Professional in most cases, to consider. As stated in this Decision, “The most appropriate course of action will depend on the circumstances in each case.”
The first option is to require play to continue, providing no additional relief from the tree. This option might be appropriate when it is highly unlikely that the fallen tree will come into play. For example, if the tree has fallen onto the fairway of a short par-3. If a player’s ball were to come to rest adjacent to the fallen tree, the player would have to suffer the consequences of his or her poor shot by incurring a penalty stroke under Rule 28 [Ball Unplayable].
The second option is to suspend play and have the tree removed. This option might be appropriate when the tree completely blocks play of the hole. For example, if the tree has fallen in front of the teeing ground or in front of the putting green. The Committee cannot simply divert the players to the next hole, reducing the stipulated round to 17 holes. As stated in Decision 33-1/2 [Number of Holes of Stroke-Play Competition Reduced During the Competition], “The Committee does not have the authority to reduce the number of holes of a stipulated round once play has commenced for that round.”
The third option is to declare the tree and the area covered by the tree to be ground under repair and may, as an additional option, establish a dropping zone. This option might be appropriate when the tree is in the vicinity of the landing area of the hole and, unlike the PGA Tour, the local Committee does not have the staff to quickly remove the tree. By declaring the fallen tree and the area covered by the tree as ground under repair, the player is entitled to relief without penalty pursuant to Rule 25-1 [Abnormal Ground Conditions]. However, this relief is available only when a ball lies within or touches the fallen tree, or when the fallen tree interferes with the player’s stance or the area of his intended swing. Note that Rule 25-1 does not provide relief to the player whose ball comes to rest behind the tree where the only interference by the fallen tree is to the player’s intended line of play, i.e., intervention interference.
In taking relief, the player must determine the nearest point of relief that eliminates any lie, stance and area of intended swing interference, and drop his or her ball within one club-length of and not nearer the hole than that point. In most cases, this will result in the player dropping his or her ball a short distance behind the fallen tree where the tree will be obstructing his or her line of play. Unfortunately, this result is not that beneficial to the player. This is why the USGA includes a dropping zone as an additional relief option should the Committee decide to declare the fallen tree as ground under repair. Under these circumstances, the Committee would do well to position the dropping zone to the side of the fallen tree in order to give the player an unobstructed line of play for his or her next stroke.
The fourth, and final, option is to adopt the relief procedures under the Local Rule for Temporary Obstructions. This option might be appropriate when the tree is in the vicinity of, or somewhat beyond, the landing area of the hole. This option provides relief for intervention interference. For example, if a player’s ball comes to rest five yards behind the fallen tree, he or she would be permitted to take relief even though there would be no interference to the lie of the ball, or to the player’s stance or area of intended swing. By designating the fallen tree as a temporary immovable obstruction, the Committee gives the player the option to drop his or her ball to the side of the fallen tree where the player will have an unobstructed line of play to the hole.
One final note: If the fallen tree is detached from its stump, then it is actually a loose impediment, and the player is permitted to break off a branch if it interferes with his or her swing. See Decision 23-1/4 [Breaking Off Part of Large Loose Impediment].