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The Provisional Ball

12 DEC 2016

By Peter Mumford

In casual play, most golfers don’t play a provisional ball. They just drop one somewhere near where the first one went missing and proceed merrily along their way. Sometimes they take a penalty stroke but not always.

As we all know, that’s not in accordance with the Rules of Golf.

Under Rule 27-1 if your ball is out of bounds or lost outside of a water hazard and can’t be found within five minutes, you are supposed to return to the spot where you last hit your shot and put a new ball into play from that point under penalty of one stroke.

Nobody likes going back to hit another shot which is why the Provisional Ball was invented. It saves time. However, there are specific procedures to be observed when using a provisional ball.

Rule 27-2. Provisional Ball

  1. Procedure If a ball may be lost outside a water hazard or may be out of bounds, to save time the player may play another ball provisionally in accordance with Rule 27-1. The player must inform his opponent in match play or his marker or a fellow-competitor in stroke play that he intends to play a provisional ball, and he must play it before he or his partner goes forward to search for the original ball. If he fails to do so and plays another ball, that ball is not a provisional ball and becomes the ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance (Rule 27-1); the original ball is lost.

As you can see, it’s very important to inform your playing partners that the second ball (or third or fourth etc) is a provisional ball, which will be abandoned if the original is found. If you don’t tell them, then the second ball is officially in play and the original is deemed to be lost – even if you find it later.

Another point that often causes confusion is that it’s OK to play your provisional until you get to the point where your original was lost. If your original tee shot is a booming 300 yard drive that disappears in the trees near the end of its journey and your provisional is a mere bunt to ensure you stay in play, then you can keep bunting the ball until you get to the point where your massive drive was lost to view. However, don’t play it any further than that point or then the provisional ball becomes the ball in play and the original is deemed to be lost – even if you find it later.

You may play as many provisional balls as required and they are all treated in the same manner as the first one. That is, if you find your original ball, then all the provisionals can be picked up with no penalty. If your original is lost and your first provisional is also lost, then the second provisional is in play. Of course, under the stroke and distance rule, that would mean you have already taken five strokes.

Years ago I played in the Ontario Mid Amateur at Brantford G&CC where one of my playing partners hit a tee shot and three provisional balls. All of them were sliced into the trees about the same spot but we never found any of them. It was sad to watch him trudge back to the tee to hit his 9th shot!

One final note about the provisional ball. If you think your ball is lost in a water hazard, you may NOT hit a provisional. The reason is that the relief options for a ball in a water hazard are significantly more lenient than for a lost ball or a ball out of bounds.

Greg Norman apparently wasn’t aware of this rule and in a 2004 tournament announced to playing partners Fred Couples and Thomas Howell III that he was going to play a provisional for a ball that he believed to be in a water hazard.

As noted above, a provisional ball can only be played for a ball that is believed to be lost outside of a water hazard or out of bounds, so by definition, the second ball that Norman played was not a provisional, it became the actual ball in play.

When Norman arrived at the spot where he thought his original tee shot might be, he actually found it in a bunker, not in the water. Then he picked up his so-called provisional and played the original from the bunker. The Rules Official advised that he was incorrect and must return to the spot where his second tee shot (the so-called provisional) had come to rest and play from there - adding a two stroke penalty for playing a wrong ball from the bunker and a one stroke penalty for lifting a ball that was in play – making his next shot on the hole his seventh.

Norman didn’t like that one bit and immediately disqualified himself and walked in. Sorry Greg. It pays to know the Rules.


Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag