Provisional Ball

I suspect every golfer who has ever played the game, at one time in his golfing life, has proceeded incorrectly when he cannot find his ball. We all know the correct procedure and the penalty for a lost ball. The player must take a stroke penalty and return to the spot from which he last hit a shot and hit again. We call it “stroke and distance.”

You know all the excuses – “I’ll just drop here and add a stroke to save time” – or “somebody coming down the other fairway must have picked it up” – or “I don’t want to walk all the way back there.”

If there has been virtual certainty that the ball has been moved by an outside agency, the player is entitled to drop on the spot from which it was moved. However, in the absence of that virtual certainty, the player is required to take the stroke and distance penalty. If he drops and plays from the spot from which he “thinks” his ball was moved by an outside agency (without virtual certainty), he has played from a wrong place. In match play, he just lost the hole. In stroke play, the player must add one stroke penalty for the lost ball, two strokes for playing from a wrong place, and he must go back to where he hit his last shot and correct his mistake or be disqualified.

That is the most severe penalty in golf and this is probably the most abused Rule in golf!  If all players would just play a provisional ball when they think their ball might be lost, this kind of situation can be avoided. But don’t forget to announce that you are playing a provisional, because if you do not announce it, then the ball you play is not a provisional, but is the ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance. “I’m going to re-load” or “That might be out of here,” or “That’s in the next zip code” do not constitute announcing! A player really has only two options in announcing. Since I have never heard a player say, “I am proceeding under Rule 27-2a,” which is the first option, I believe we are all stuck with actually saying the word “provisional.”

A player may play any number of shots with the provisional, until he reaches the place where the provisional ball is LIKELY TO BE. If he plays a shot with the provisional ball from the place where the original ball is likely to be or from a place nearer the hole than that place, the provisional ball becomes the ball in play, and the original ball is lost. If the provisional ball thus becomes the ball in play, and then the original ball is found, any further shot played with the original constitutes playing a wrong ball.

After playing a provisional, if you then find your original ball, and it is in bounds, you must abandon your provisional – you don’t get to choose. Even if the original ball is in a water hazard or unplayable (situations which include stroke and distance as one of the options), you must abandon the provisional. If you then select stroke and distance as an option for the ball that is in the water or unplayable, you must take the stroke penalty and go back to the place from which you hit your last shot. The provisional ball must be picked up.

Always remember though, that if you play a stellar provisional, you are under no obligation to look for your original ball. Holing out a provisional on a par-3, for a 3, will probably make the best of us blind when looking for the original or even keep us from wandering in the original’s direction at all!

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Jeanne Myers, Assistant Director – Rules & Competitions
Golf Association of Michigan