Perceptive rules question by caddie unlocks Tour pro’s ‘dead zone’ relief

Xander Schauffele, Dave Donnelly, Austin Kaiser

Xander Schauffele, background, rules official Dave Donnelly and caddie Austin Kaiser on Thursday on the 8th hole.

Golf Channel

Austin Kaiser was pricked by a tree.

He was stung by a rock.

He then asked a question that helped leave his man without a scratch. 

“Is this not in our way?”

The PGA Tour ShotLink tower and its cables were, a Tour rules official deemed Thursday. And what followed was near-miraculous relief for Xander Schauffele at Quail Hollow Club, which he rode to the lead after the Wells Fargo Championship’s first round.  

“Maybe that’s the break that makes the difference this week,” analyst Frank Nobilo said on Golf Channel’s broadcast. 

The sequence started after Schauffele went right with his tee shot on the 356-yard par-4 8th hole, and after a search, the ball was found a few feet to the left of a chain-link fence, close to a couple of larger rocks and under dense tree coverage, all of which were in a red-marked penalty area. Questions ensued.    

Could Schauffele take penalty-stroke relief from there? He could, though it would be a long way backward. But couldn’t he also attempt a swing? He could try. Some work was needed. In the way were the rocks, and Schauffele called over Kaiser, his caddie, who worked his way into the tree area and moved them under the rules, though not before being hurt by the trees (“Ow, ow,” he shouted) and the rock (“That one sure f***ing hurts,” he said.). 

The player and caddie came out of the trees. They wondered about the shot, which would require a low punch-out. But Kaiser spotted the ShotLink tower, which under the rules is deemed a temporary immovable obstruction (TIO), and he asked his question to rules official Dave Donnelly, though that triggered another question.  

Can you get TIO relief from the penalty area?

You can, according to this USGA online explainer of TIOs, though only as long as the TIO was in the light of sight between the ball and the hole, and a reasonable play at the ball could be made. Were the tower or the tower’s cables in the way? Could Schauffele hit a shot toward the hole? Schauffele, Kaiser and Donnelly went back into the trees. They talked.    

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The relief was given. 

Said rules official Mark Dusbabek on the Golf Channel broadcast: “You can see the camera tower right there. It’s one of our ShotLink camera towers, and there’s a wire that comes down off of that. So the determination that Dave just made is that Xander — can Xander make it to that camera tower through the trees there? And Dave has made the decision that he can. So he’s going to get relief out of that. It’ll be free relief, even though he’s in the penalty area. He has to stay in that penalty area to take his full relief.”

Notably, the relief took Schauffele from the spot close to the fence and under the trees, to yards away from the fence and free from tree cover. From there, he pitched on, two-putted for a four, and he signed for a seven-under 64, good for a three-stroke advantage heading into Friday.

“It’s a great break for him right here,” Dusbabek said Golf Channel. “It’s all within the rules. And that’s why our officials on site there can help him with that so he doesn’t make a mistake. He knows that he can ask those questions and can you help him out and gave him the best answer that he could.”

How did Schauffele see it?

He said he knew he was lucky. 

“When we got there,” he said on Golf Channel, “it was pretty much dead, and I started touching the two rocks next to me, and I was like, OK, Austin, it’s fine, I can move them; they’re not embedded. I mean, they were big rocks. I don’t know if the camera caught Austin trying to move one of them, but there were worms and all kinds of nasty stuff on it. So we moved two rocks, and then, pretty much punching out backwards was impossible because the fence was like [gestured] this far from my ball so the only advancement, since the two rocks were moved, was actually punching it toward the green. 

“And so I brought the rules official in, and I was like, this is literally, either I go back to the tee or I try and force it forward, and if I force it forward, worst case is it gets stuck in there and then I can just punch it back it out and then I’d be grinding for a five. But he was like — I mean, the wire was perfectly in the way, the tower was in the luckiest spot possible, so then I can take equidistant either side of the tower, went left, the club length got me on the very edge of the pine straw, hit what I thought was an unbelievable pitch to bounce it up on the green and then it was a no-sweat two-putt. … It was super lucky, one, that they found it, and, two, to get that kind of relief out of the absolute dead zone.”

How did the on-site Golf Channel crew see it?

They also noted Kaiser’s question. 

Said announcer Terry Gannon: “He’s got a good caddie, too. I think it was Austin who first picked up on that tower being in the way.” 

Said analyst Curt Byrum: “I think you’re right.” 

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