They say trees are 90% air, but from my experience the solid 10% comes into play quite frequently.
While most golf balls that encounter trees deflect into the fairway, rough, or more inhospitable areas, occasionally a ball becomes lodged in a tree. Let’s say you hit a shot into the heart of a bushy evergreen lining the fairway and don’t see it emerge. A search of the surrounding fairway and rough yields nothing. You’re sure it must be lodged somewhere in the tree. What are your options?
Unless you can find your ball in the tree, you must treat it as lost. (See definition of Lost Ball.) 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, which provides additional options, is not applicable.
What 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 identify the ball in the tree as yours. (Decision 27/15.)
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. (Decision 27/14.) 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. (Decision 28/11.) You will still incur a penalty stroke.
This situation arose at the Honda Classic when Jerry Kelly’s ball became lodged high in a palm tree. Kelly was not able to identify the ball using binoculars. However, a photographer took a picture of the ball with a zoom lens, and officials were able to detect Kelly’s mark: a green line on the ball. He was permitted him to drop a ball under the unplayable ball rule.
The Kelly incident raises the question of how certain the identification must be. Conceivably, the ball could have belonged to another player who used a similar marking technique. However, as David Staebler, Director of Rules Education for the USGA, commented: “The game is one of integrity. The Rules want to rely on a player’s identification of a ball as his.”
So, carry a pair of binoculars or a good camera. It beats climbing trees.