They never found his golf ball. So why’d Carl Yuan get a free drop?

Carl Yuan hit his ball into no-man's land.

Carl Yuan hit his ball into no-man's land.

NBC Sports

Carl Yuan already felt lucky to be here.

Before he took the 36-hole lead and before he lost that lead and before he rallied on Sunday and before a strange scene played out on his 72nd hole, he was grateful just to be in the field at this week’s Sony Open.

After all, Yuan was No. 126 in the FedEx Cup standings at the conclusion of the PGA Tour’s fall season, one spot shy of his full card for the 2024 PGA Tour season. But then Jon Rahm left the Tour for LIV, bumping everyone on the points list up one spot and boosting Yuan into full status after all. No matter the result this week, he was beginning the season a winner.

Fast forward to the par-5 18th, then. Yuan was one shot back of the lead when he found the left fairway bunker off the tee, leaving himself some 239 yards to the hole.

Yuan pulled hybrid. He took his characteristic lash at the ball. Then came the yell. “Fore right!”

Initially NBC Sports announcer Dan Hicks said that he thought it had gone over the stands. By his side, commentator Curt Byrum was concerned.

“There’s out of bounds over there, if you hit it far enough to the right,” he mused.

A search party followed; Hicks assumed the ball had gone over the tent based on where a small crowd had been looking.

But just a few minutes later there was Yuan, checking out his options for a drop in the fairway on the friendly side of the bleachers, just 45 yards from the hole. He sent his approach just left of the pin, where it checked up some 14 feet from the hole. Now, improbably, he was putting for birdie.

The drama was not without consequence; as Yuan finished up on No. 18, Russell Henley made bogey behind him, boosting Yuan into a five-way tie for the lead at 16 under par.

“This is certainly a good break,” Byrum said.

Ultimately Yuan’s putt missed wide left, leaving him to settle for a tap-in par and a final-round seven-under 63 to post 16 under par and making himself leader in the clubhouse. He was pleased post-round even as he knew that likely wouldn’t hold.

“I’ll probably come up just a little bit short,” he said. “Yeah, I’m proud with how I played this week and trying to keep the momentum going into the next couple weeks.”

So why the relief, given so much uncertainty? The plot thickened after he’d signed for his card when Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis reported in on his conversation with the Tour’s Chief Referee Ken Tackett, revealing something interesting: they’d never actually found Yuan’s ball.

“After looking at video evidence they determined with virtual certainty that the ball went into that hospitality area, that temporary immovable obstruction (TIO),” Lewis said. “They also had some testimony from the folks in those hospitality suites, so it was determined that the ball was lost in those tents, and that’s why he was able to get that relief without penalty.”

Per the USGA’s rules on TIO relief, a player is entitled to relief if his ball “has not been found but is known or virtually certain to have come to rest in a TIO.”

Relief is then taken at the estimated point where the ball last crossed the edge of the TIO.

So, per the determination that Yuan’s ball settled in the stands, the ruling was given correctly. All good. Just a nice break to start the season.

Ultimately Yuan finished T4, one shot outside a three-man playoff. He’s in strong position to earn a spot in the first two Signature Events of the Tour season. So when he was asked if there was a shot he’d like back, he wisely deflected the question.

“I mean, there are just so many shots for everybody,” he said. His missed birdie try on 18 would be an easy one to regret, for instance. But that would mean ignoring the larger picture. “Y’know, that’s the way golf works. I made a lot of 40-footers. I mean, I don’t want to hit those again.”

Yuan described the day as a “free roll.” Unlike his most recent event, the RSM Classic, where he was playing for his job, on Sunday he felt like he had nothing to lose.

“I knew if I put up a good score I can climb up the leaderboard. If I don’t, not much difference,” he said.

Some days the rolls go your way.

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