What is a Provisional Ball in Golf

Provisional Ball in Golf: A Complete Guide & Practical Tips

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When playing golf, it is so important to know the rules – these can make or break your game, so getting familiar with the rules can help prevent any faux pas on the green! 

There are always areas of confusion surrounding rules in golf that can get a bit technical, so in this article, we do our best to iron these out and explain with clear examples!

The provisional ball in golf keeps the game going seamlessly – not to mention saving strokes in your game. As such, it’s important to understand when and how to best utilize the provisional golf shot.

In this article, I’ll be breaking down:

  • What a provisional ball is in golf
  • The rules surrounding provisional balls in golf, with tips and examples so you’ll know how to use this rule.

Let’s get started!

What is a Provisional Ball in Golf?

when do you play a provisional ball in golf

The official rulebook states: 

“If a ball might be lost outside a penalty area or might be out of bounds, to save time the player may play another ball provisionally under penalty of stroke and distance.” (18.3)

A provisional ball is played when the ball in play has gone out of bounds or is otherwise suspected to be lost

This is most useful when the ball in play is further away than can be found during the permitted three-minute search time (say, 200 yards away). It’s in this situation the provisional golf shot comes in handy!

The provisional ball in golf must be announced and is subject to penalty under stroke and distance. 

You can continue to play the provisional ball, as long as it’s played within a certain restriction of distance – i.e., if it’s played from at least the same distance (or further) from the hole as where the ball in play is likely to be. 

The provisional ball changes status to ball in play if the original ball is confirmed lost (not in penalty or out of bounds), and thus no longer in play. 

It also becomes the ball in play if it is played from a spot closer to the hole than the original ball, even if that ball is then found within three minutes. 

If this second scenario occurs, the original ball will become a wrong ball and cannot be played. 

When do you play a Provisional Ball in Golf?

You Have To Declare Your Provisional Ball

You would play a provisional ball if the ball in play is potentially lost but not if it’s in a penalty area. 

If the ball in play is most likely out of bounds or lost, that’s when you announce you’re playing a provisional ball. If you suspect your ball in play is lost, that’s when the provisional ball shot comes in. 

To most efficiently use the provisional ball rule, it’s best to play the provisional ball before going to search for the ball in play. If you know that the ball in play is in a hazard, you cannot play a provisional ball. 

So, to break it down, the best times to play a provisional ball in golf are:

  • When you hit the ball in play into a hazard or out of bounds
  • When you hit the ball in play and are unsure of where it landed
  • When you hit the ball in play and it may have interfered with another player.

Clear Indication of Provisional Ball

One of the most crucial and overlooked things when it comes to provisional balls in golf is the announcement of a provisional ball shot. 

Once you determine that the ball in play is out of bounds or possibly lost, announcing to your playing group or opponent that you intend to play a provisional ball is necessary to commence.

Under rule 18.3b: if the provisional ball is not announced, the ball is then in play under penalty of stroke and distance, and the original ball is automatically deemed lost – even if subsequently found. 

To avoid this, it’s best to be clear with your announcement of the provisional ball; use the word ‘provisional’ to clearly indicate your intention. 

You can use expressions of doubt, as under the circumstances these are totally appropriate, but your intention must be clear. It’s simplest just to use the word ‘provisional’ before going ahead with the shot.

Lost Ball Scenario

What Happens When You Find Your First Ball

The definition of a lost ball, as stated by rule 18.2a, clarifies that “A ball is lost if not found in three minutes after the player or their caddie begins to search for it.” 

If the player’s ball is not found within three minutes of searching for it, it is deemed lost. 

If the ball is found, it must be played from where it lies. The ball that is found must also be identified as the player’s ball; this can be done without a time limit after the three-minute search. 

If the original ball is found within three minutes of searching on the course, you must play that ball as it lies. 

Alternatively, if it is found in a penalty area, or there is a certainty that it is in a penalty area (e.g. if you find that you have hit it into water), you must continue to play the original ball under penalty from the nearest relief point to where your ball entered that hazard. You may then pick up your provisional ball with no penalty. 

Essentially, you play with the provisional ball until you reach the spot your original ball was deemed to be. 

If the original ball is found, the provisional ball is no longer used! 

If you make a stroke at the provisional ball past the point where the original ball is deemed to be, the original ball is lost at penalty of stroke and distance. This makes the provisional ball then the ball in play.