Under Decision 1-4/10 of the Rules of Golf, when a ball that comes to rest in a dangerous situation—near an alligator, for example—a player may, without penalty, drop a ball on the nearest spot not nearer the hole that is not dangerous.
But the USGA also has decided (in Decision 1-4/11) that the same rule does not apply to patches of poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac.
Clearly, the overlords of golf need to get out past the finely manicured lawns of their tony country clubs. Here on the public courses of Michigan (and other locations), these plants all too frequently border our fairways and greens.
And they’re clearly a threat to a player’s health. For many, even casual exposure to those plants can result in severe illness. For others, the result is a severe rash that can result in infection. Even mild cases are annoying and not to be wished on your enemies.
So until the USGA changes it’s ridiculous ruling, golfers in the real world need to keep a sharp eye out for the big three of poisonous plants in North America: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.
For identifying these plants, the best rule of thumb is “leaves of three, let it be” (that won’t help you with sumac, however).
Poison Ivy appears as a shrub or vine along the ground, or climbing on trees or poles. The leaves come in groups of three, are pointed and glossy. The edges can be either smooth or toothed. They start red in the spring, turn green in the summer, and then to various fall colors as the weather gets colder. You may also notice greenish-white flowers and white-yellow fruit in hanging clusters.
Poison Oak looks like poison ivy, except that its leaves are lobed.
Poison Sumac is a little tricker. It appears as a tall shrub or small tree with alternate leaves with 7-11 leaflets arranged in pairs, and an additional single leaflet at the end of the midrib. Yellowish green flowers and whitish green fruits hang in loose clusters. You may confuse this with the more common and harmless staghorn sumac.
The best solution for exposure is immediate treatment. The traditional treatment is to wash the area with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, and then with soap and water. Exposed clothing should be washed, since the urushiol from the plants can last for years. There also are quite a large number of commercially available products that work to prevent a rash.
If you get a rash, your doctor ls likely to prescribe a hydrocortisone creme, or even an oral antihistamine. I’ve always had luck with calamine lotion (the pink stuff). Some traditional treatments have also included oatmeal baths, and baking soda salves.
It’s best just to avoid the pants altogether. When your ball lands in a suspected patch, leave it there (the urushiol will be on the ball), ignore the stupid USGA ruling, and play it as though you had landed in a herd of alligators.