Golf Rules Explained: Provisional Ball (Rule 18.3)

The provisional ball Rule is one of the most useful Rules in the book. If, after playing a shot, you think your ball may be lost, in a penalty area, or out of bounds you should play a provisional ball. The purpose of the Rule is to save time, hence the player must inform his opponent, marker or fellow-competitor that he intends to play a provisional ball, and he must play it before he goes forward to search for the original ball.

If the player fails to do so and he plays another ball, that ball is not a provisional ball; instead it becomes the ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance (Rule 18.3b).

Now there does seem to be some confusion around what phrases you can use to say you are playing a provisional.

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Rule 18.3 states; “You must use the word ‘provisional’…”, but then goes on to say, “or otherwise clearly indicate that you are playing a ball provisionally under 18.3”. This second statement seems to introduce an element of greyness into something that could be black and white.

In the Interpretations on the Rules, you’ll see that phrases implying doubt are good enough (e.g. I’m going to play another just in case). But whatever you say, it must be obvious that your intent is to hit a provisional ball.

We would advise just using the word provisional in most cases so that you can remove all doubt.

If it transpires that the original ball is lost, in a penalty area, or out of bounds, you must continue with the provisional ball, under penalty of one stroke. If the original ball is found in bounds, you must continue with that ball and stop playing the provisional ball.

Remember, you can continue to play your provisional ball until you reach the place where the original is likely to be. If you make a stroke at your provisional ball at that point, the provisional becomes the ball in play and the original is rendered lost.

You must stop playing your provisional when you get to where your ball is likely to be (Tom Miles)

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Lost Ball

When you hit your ball deep into the woods and then crush your provisional ball down the middle of the fairway it is worth remembering that you cannot render your original ball lost by declaration. Stating that “I’ll just declare that original ball lost” is meaningless. It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do.

A ball can only be considered lost when:

  1. It is not found or identified as his by the player within three minutes after the player’s side or his or their caddies have begun to search for it;
  2. The player has made a stroke at a provisional ball from the place where the original ball is likely to be or from a point nearer the hole than that place; or
  3. The player has put another ball into play under penalty of stroke and distance; or
  4. The player has put another ball into play because it is known or virtually certain that the ball, which has not been found, has been moved by an outside agency, is in an obstruction, is in an abnormal ground condition or is in a penalty area; or
  5. The player has made a stroke at a substituted ball.

This means that you are not obliged to look for your original ball if you don’t want to, but it can’t stop your opponent or fellow-competitor looking. That said, good etiquette would suggest that he would not go looking for your original if you have clearly stated your intention to abandon it.

Related: Golf Rules – Lost Ball