The Peculiar Case of Jerry Kelly and the Palm Tree
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Jerry Kelly examines the picture taken of his ball lodged in a tree

When Jerry Kelly saw his ball headed left for a cluster of palm trees on No. 6 at PGA National, he said to his caddie, “I hope that doesn’t stick up there.” It did — Kelly’s ball (a Srixon marked with a green line) was lodged in the foliage about 30-40 feet in the air. Witnesses saw the ball fly into the tree and stop where it did (it was visible from the ground if you knew where to look), so there was no question that it was his, right? Not so fast. According to the rules of golf, Kelly, who is T2 going into the final round of the Honda Classic, must be able to identify his ball without a question of doubt.

Palm Beach Post photographer Allen Eyestone snapped a picture of the ball. “I shot the picture because that’s my job,” said Eyestone. At a marshal’s suggestion, he zoomed in the photo to take a closer look in attempt to solve the mystery of the Ball Swallowed by Palm Tree.

“I couldn’t quite see it clear enough with the binoculars,” said Kelly behind the 18th green. “So the guy got the camera on it and then we could magnify it with the camera and we could see it was a green line and that was enough.”

Or was it?

I was standing by the sixth green when I saw the commotion and rushed up to the crime scene to get a front-row seat of the absurd situation, which took about ten to fifteen minutes to resolve.

“Is this enough identification?” Kelly, pointing at a spot on the camera screen, asked PGA Tour rules official Dillard Pruitt.

Kelly took out another ball to show Pruitt his mark, which is a green line.

“I can see a little bit of the line,” said Kelly, with another ball that showed his unique mark, a green line. “What’s the chance that another ball has the same line up there? It’s sitting right there…you can see the dimple pattern and a little bit of the line.”

Pruitt said, “I don’t know if that’s enough of a mark.”

The crowd was baffled by the complicated process. “Give it to the guy, it’s his ball,” one fan hollered. Others chimed in, “C’mon! Are they being serious?”

Kelly asked Pruitt, “You can tell it is green, right?

“Yeah, I can,” he replied.

Kelly, who was making a strong case, said, “If you can see the line and green, you gotta give the benefit of the doubt…”

Pruitt changed his mind and said he couldn’t tell. That’s when he called in head official Slugger White for a second opinion.

Slugger White uses a magnifying glass to try and to identify Kelly's ball

White broke out his glasses to examine the camera screen. “I can’t see it,” he said. Then he pulled out a magnifying glass to get an even closer look.

For five minutes, it seemed like White was going to rule against Kelly and call it a lost ball, which would cost him a penalty shot and he’d have to return to where he hit the ball, 220 yards out. Fans continued to support Kelly and shouted at officials to rule in Kelly’s favor. White snapped at them to shut up. Meanwhile, Kelly politely told the crowd to let the officials do their job.

“It is visible. It is green and a line,” Kelly repeated.

White still wasn’t convinced, but turned back to Pruitt to ask for his opinion. Like a teenager caving to peer pressure, he finally said almost reluctantly, “Yes, I can see it.”

That was enough for White and the verdict allowed Kelly to take an unplayable and drop from 68 yards. He knocked it to about ten feet and rolled in the putt to save bogey.

“Coming out of there with a bogey with a penalty stroke, it felt awfully good,” said Kelly. “So even though it was a bogey, it was a damn good bogey.”

Disaster averted. Kelly has had his ball stuck in trees seven or eight times in his career, but this was the first time he was able to identify it, thanks to modern technology.

“Normally, you can’t get to them. luckily that camera man was there,” said Kelly. “If I was playing in one of the first couple of groups off, I wouldn’t have had that ability — he wouldn’t have been around to let me see it.”

Given there were witnesses, there was a 99% chance it was Kelly’s ball, but Eyestone showed several of us in the media room the photograph used to determine the ruling. I could make out what appeared to be a very small part of the “N” in “Srixon.” As for the green line?

“I looked at it myself, I didn’t see anything on it that I could identify as a mark,” said Eyestone.

Neither could I.

“We had two young eyes on that thing — no offense to Slugger,” said Kelly when asked about the contrary opinions from the officials. “That’s my mark. It’s a green line — that’s all there is to it.”