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 outside of a penalty area or out of bounds, you should play a provisional ball. The purpose of the Rule is to save time, hence the best time to play a provisional ball is before you go forward to search for the original ball, especially if it is some 200-250 yards away.
However, Clarification 18.3a/2 confirms that the player has up to three minutes from starting their search in which to play a provisional ball, which may come in handy if you've topped it a short distance into thick rough off the tee and are trying desperately to keep an eye on where you think it is, but is unlikely to be practical if you've already searched for, say, two minutes and still have that 250-yard walk to make!
If the player fails to make it clear that he intends to play a provisional ball and 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).
There does seem to be a little confusion around what phrases you may use to clearly indicate that you are playing a provisional ball.
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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.
As confusing as this is, we would just advise using the word provisional so that you can remove all doubt.
If it transpires that the original ball is lost outside of a penalty area or out of bounds, you must continue with the provisional ball, under penalty of stroke and distance. 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 or beyond that point, the provisional becomes the ball in play and the original is considered lost.
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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 declare your original ball to be lost. In fact, saying, “I’ll just declare that original ball lost,” is meaningless under the Rules! It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do.
Under the definitions section of the 2019 Rule book, the definition of the term 'lost' has been streamlined significantly, and now simply states: "The status of a ball that is not found in three minutes after you or your caddie (or your partner or partner’s caddie) begin to search for it."
You are not, however, obliged to look for your original ball if you don’t want to, but you can’t actually stop your opponent or anyone else from looking, even if most golfers would consider it good etiquette to not go looking for a ball if someone has clearly stated their desire to abandon it.
But if that does happen and the ball is found, you will have to proceed using that ball even if you had declared it to be lost, as the Rules do not allow you to declare a ball lost!
Related: Golf Rules - Lost Ball
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In July 2023, Neil became just the 9th editor in Golf Monthly's 112-year history. Originally working with the best coaches in the UK to produce instruction content, he has also presented many Golf Monthly videos looking at all areas of the game from Tour player interviews to the rules of golf.
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