The provisional ball Rule (18.3) is one of the most useful as it provides a sensible alternative to trudging back miles every time you lose a ball.
Reload? Play another? No, hit a provisional ball
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Used correctly, it is one of the biggest time-savers in golf, and on any shot where there is reasonable doubt as to whether or not the original ball is likely to be found or may have gone Out of Bounds (other than if it has clearly gone into a penalty area) you should play a provisional ball both for your sake and the sake of other golfers. Never be embarrassed to hit a provisional, especially if you are playing a medal where every shot counts.
If you wish to play a provisional ball. It is essential to ensure the other players in the group know you are playing a provisional ball - phrases like “I’ll just hit another” or “I'm going to reload” fail to cut the mustard in the eyes of the Rules. Whilst you can say that you are proceeding under Rule 18.3 or imply doubt as to whether the first ball is ok by saying something like, "I'll hit another just in case", we would advise you to say "I'll hit a provisional" - the more clarity you can provide the better.
If you fail to indicate that is it is a provisional ball or that you’re proceeding under Rule 18.3, the ball you then hit automatically becomes the ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance and the original ball is deemed lost even if you subsequently find it in the middle of the fairway.
If the original ball is lost (other than in a penalty area) or out of bounds, you must continue with the provisional ball, under penalty of one stroke.
If, however, 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, but if you make a stroke at it beyond that point, it becomes the ball in play and the original is rendered lost.
We’ve all played with people who seem reluctant to hit a provisional ball when everyone else is thinking “there’s no way we’re ever going to see that one again!” so don’t be afraid to prompt others into playing a provisional if you feel able to, as it will potentially save everybody time both in your group and the groups behind.
One final thing – at some stage you will find yourself playing with someone who thinks that you have a choice over which ball to play should the original be found in an unsavoury spot.
You don’t – if the original is found, the provisional ball is irrelevant and you must proceed with the original either by playing it or invoking one of the three options under the unplayable ball Rule (Rule 19)... and then politely pointing them in the direction of The R&A's online Rules Academy.
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Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly. He is an expert on the Rules of Golf having qualified through an R&A course to become a golf referee. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played 1,000 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts. He reached the 1,000 mark on his 60th birthday in October 2023 on Vale do Lobo's Ocean course. Put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.
Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf
Jeremy is currently playing...
Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft
3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft
Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft
Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts
Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts
Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)
Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response
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