Provisional Ball in Golf

Provisional Ball in Golf: When is it Appropriate to Hit Another One?

Have you ever hit a tee shot that you think is in play, only to get there and figure out that it’s out of bounds? Or, sometimes even more frustrating, you can’t find it so it’s a lost ball? 

If there’s ever a doubt you might have a lost ball or hit it OB, it’s a good idea to hit a provisional ball in golf. This is an important rule in golf that we’ll break down in detail today. 

If you play in competitive events or just want to adhere to the rules of golf during causal rounds, this is a top five rule to know. Keep reading to learn how to use this rule, the penalty involved, and best practices.

What is a Provisional Ball in Golf 

Key Takeaways 

  • A provisional ball is an important rule in golf that can help you keep up the pace of play by hitting a second ball.
  • When a golfer hits a provisional, this is essentially a “backup” in case a player loses their original golf ball. This can happen on the tee box or anywhere else on the course if you think it’s OB or potentially lost. 
  • If you hit a provisional ball it’s important to identify how the ball is different from the original ball to avoid any rules situations.
  • There is one penalty stroke and distance relief by replaying the previous shot if the ball is considered lost or found out of bounds.

Keep reading to learn more now.

Understanding the Provisional Ball Rule

Let’s imagine you’re on a narrow par 4 with OB on the right side of the hole. You’ve been hitting driver good all day so you decide it’s the club to hit off the tee box. 

But a pesky slice happens and now you’re worried the ball might be out of bounds. Instead of getting in the cart and finding it outside the lines of play, it’s a good idea to hit a provisional ball. 

So, what is a provisional ball rule in golf?

It’s basically a backup shot in case your ball is lost or outside the area of play. If you can’t find your original or it’s OB, you can play this shot instead, without having to go back to the tee box. 

Here’s how the USGA defined it, “If your ball might be lost outside a penalty area or be out of bounds, to save time you may play another ball provisionally under penalty of stroke and distance.” 

You can also hit a provisional ball on your approach shot or any shot where it might be lost or out of bounds. It’s a way to speed up the pace of play and avoid having to backtrack on the hole. 

Required Reading: Read our article on the lost golf ball rule to make sure you completely understand the rule.

Golf Ball in Grass

Identifying a Provisional Ball 

On the first tee you should always identify your golf ball to fellow playing competitors. 

For example, you might say, “I’m playing a Titleist Pro V1X – #3 with a logo on the side.” Or, notate the marking you add with a Sharpie to help with alignment or identification purposes.

If you need to hit a provisional you need to identify how this ball is different from the original. It’s a good idea to normally use a different number ball, not just different markings. In this case it’s a good idea to hit a #1, #2, or #4 ball instead of using another #3 on your provisional. 

By playing a different numbered ball you can identify how it’s different in case they end up near each other. Or, you can add a different marking or use a different color Sharpie to clearly identify the provisional. 

If your second attempt is also possibly lost or OB, you can hit another provisional ball too. 

Another important rule when hitting a provisional is to make sure and clearly note that it’s a provisional. 

As the USGA clarified, “Before the stroke is made, you must announce that you are going to play a provisional ball. It is not enough for you only to say that you are playing another ball or are playing again. You must use the word ‘provisional’ or otherwise clearly indicate that you are playing the ball provisionally under Rule 18.3.”

Otherwise, you are forced to play the provisional – even if the first ball is in play and not lost. The USGA elaborated saying, “If you did not announce this (even if you intended to play a provisional ball) and played a ball from where the previous stroke was made, that ball is your ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance.” 

Don’t make this costly mistake!

How many Golf Balls should I Carry in my Bag

When to Not Hit a Provisional

While a provisional is a great option to avoid slowing down the pace of play, there is one situation where you can’t hit one. That’s when your ball is in or near a penalty area – not OB or lost. 

For example, if you hit a drive that you think ended up in a penalty area (which used to be referred to as a water hazard) you cannot hit a provisional. In this case, you would need to drop using the penalty area rule. This is typically a better option for a player as it’s not as penalizing as a lost ball off the course or one that is outside the white lines. 

However, if you didn’t know there was a penalty area on the hole and you hit a provisional ball, you likely won’t get into any issues. This happened to one of my playing partners in a recent tournament.

Off the tee he pulled his drive left into the desert. He thought it might be lost since it was thick desert terrain so he re-loaded and hit a provisional. When we got up there and started looking, we realized it was a red penalty area. 

But this wasn’t clear from the tee box. We couldn’t find the original ball, but the rules official had him drop using the penalty area rule, instead of his provisional. Since we didn’t know it was marked as a red penalty area, he did not have to take a penalty for playing a provisional.

Bottom line – you can only hit a provisional if you think the ball is lost or is out of bounds. You can’t hit a provisional if you think it might be in a penalty area. 

Free Drop Rules of Golf

FAQs About Provisional Golf Balls

Do you have more questions about the most used rules in golf? If so, keep reading to avoid any frustrating rules issues on the golf course.

How long do you have to look for golf balls?

The rules of golf allow you to look for a ball for three minutes. The previous rules previously allowed five minutes to search but shortened it to keep up the pace of play. 

Once you start looking for a ball you have three minutes to find it. If you can’t find it after three minutes you need to play from your provisional. Or, if you didn’t hit one, go back to your previous location and replay the shot. 

Can you hit more than one provisional?

Yes, you can hit more than one provisional as long as you announce each one to the group. You also need to identify each golf ball and how they’re different to avoid any confusion when looking for the ball(s). 

How many strokes is a provisional ball?

A provisional is a stroke and distance penalty. Meaning, if you lose your tee ball (your first shot on the hole), your provisional is your third shot on the hole. This is the same penalty as if you lost the ball or it ends up out of bounds. 

Can you play a provisional ball in golf?

Yes, it’s encouraged to play provisional balls – especially in competitive events – to speed up the pace of play. As long as you announce it’s a provisional ball to the group you’re good to go. 

Can I declare a ball lost if I don’t want to find it?

This is a good question because sometimes you might hit such a bad shot you don’t want to find it in the first place. Because sometimes the drop might be so bad it’s better off to simply replay the original shot for a chance at a lower score. 

But according to Golf Digest you cannot declare it lost if you haven’t searched for it for the full three minutes. Here’s what they said, “Unfortunately, according to the Rules of Golf, a ball is not officially lost until a player, his or her caddie or partner searches for it for a full three minutes. And if someone finds it within the three-minute search period—even if you desperately don’t want them to—before you make a stroke with another ball, that ball is still in play.” 

Golf Match Play

Can you use a provisional ball in match play?

Yes, you can hit a provisional ball in match play or stroke play events. But you must hit your provisional ball after your playing partners have hit – not immediately afteward.

My Experience

As someone that plays in a lot of tournaments every year I can say the provisional rule is one you should utilize often. If there is ever a doubt that your ball might be out of bounds or lost, hit an extra one – whether it’s from the tee shot or approach shot. 

Otherwise, you run the risk of having to go back to your original spot and hitting again. If you’re in a tournament, this might mean having to run back (if it’s a walking only event). 

Or, if a rules official is nearby, they can drive you back to the original site. But it will slow down the pace of play and might get into some slow play issues as well.

Always make sure you clearly identify your provisional to avoid any potential rule issues. When you do have to hit a second shot, make sure to stick to your pre-shot routine and not get flustered or annoyed. 

When in doubt, hit a provisional so you don’t avoid this awkward situation on the golf course. Trust me, the groups behind you will thank you! 

Final Thoughts 

While there are a lot of golf rules, a provisional shot is one of the most important and most commonly used. The only ones that are used similarly are a lost ball rule, penalty area, and cart path relief.

When playing a provisional ball make sure you have the same distance and shot as before. Plus, always announce the provisional ball and what ball played for each shot. This will ensure you don’t have any issues on the next shot and don’t play the wrong ball either. 

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