If what happened to Branden Grace Saturday would have happened at Augusta National, well, the stump would never have stood a chance against the maintenance staff. But it happened at the Zurich Classic, down at TPC Louisiana, where perhaps old, decaying tree stumps are just part of the charm at this two-man team event. This is golf, after all, and there’s a lot of bad luck in this crazy game.
Enter Grace and his fellow South African teammate Garrick Higgo. The two had played their way into contention mid-day Saturday at the Zurich, and were just a few strokes back at 21 under for the week. They were playing in the best ball format, so each player plays his own ball and the team takes the best of the two scores.
Despite the scoring-friendly format, they had just made their first bogey of the tournament – a brutal reality in a game that requires spotless scorecards – when Grace’s tee shot veered toward the corner of the dogleg on the par-4 13th. It was well clear of the tree that protects the corner, which was a good thing. No cause for concern, really, so Grace bent over to scoop up his tee.
To him, nothing bad could have happened. His ball would be bound through the rough, surely, and into the fairway for a good look into the green. But what he didn’t notice when he bent over and lost sight of his ball was that it didn’t bound through the rough at all. It didn’t even hit the rough once. In fact, it didn’t reach the turf.
But Grace’s tee shot failed to cut the corner because it got stuck in the corner, squarely impaling itself into an old, rotting tree stump.
“Uh oh,” Dottie Pepper said on the broadcast. She didn’t really know what had happened, but could tell from the no-bounce result that it wasn’t going to be good. The next frame of what is now a PGA Tour highlight like we’ve never seen is Grace, crouching down into a squat, 287 yards up the hole, inspecting if what he had heard was true. Indeed, his ball was stuck in the stump. With aid from a Tour rules official, he peeled away one big clump of dead wood and identified his ball. Could there be any worse luck?
This is the absolute definition of an unplayable lie. Since Grace’s ball was found, and was in play, he had a few options he could take to proceed. None of them were very good, though.
1. He could have returned to the tee box and wailed away at another drive. It would be his third stroke, though, so he wouldn’t gain much in terms of advancing up the hole.
2. He could move backward, away from the green, back up the hole on the same through line that his ball rested on. That’s called back-on-the-line relief, and meant Grace would have to hit over the stump, and around another larger, livelier tree, from further away. No good.
3. Lastly, he could take a drop anywhere within two club lengths of where his ball came to rest, no nearer the hole. Luckily for him, the stump was so close to the corner edge of the fairway that he was able to drop in the short grass. A minor victory, for sure, but still incurring a penalty stroke.
He took the third option here, accepted his absurd fate and played a shot into the green from 91 yards.
“That’s so unlucky,” Ian Baker-Finch said on the broadcast. “Three inches either way and he’s got a lob wedge for his second.”
Dottie Pepper put the finishing touches on the ruling, saying, “This is just plain ol’ bad luck. ” We tend to agree.
We’d feel a lot worse if that bad luck greatly impacted his team’s scoring ability, but after all that the golf gods were looking down on Grace and Higgo. At least that’s what we like to think. Higgo’s drive bounded through the corner, past the tree and the dead stump, over 340 yards, leaving just a flip wedge in. He nipped it cleanly and held enough spin to leave him 10 feet for birdie, which he made.
A simple circle on the scorecard and a ruling they’ll never forget.