Rules of Golf explained: Can I play a provisional after I’ve started searching?

Stumped by something you’ve seen out on the course? Our Rules of Golf expert is here to help. In this edition, it’s a question that comes up again and again

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf at the beginning of 2019, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s level 2 rules exam with distinction, I am more than happy to help.

Margaret Joyce contacted me on email to issue the following poser: “Two players have hit their respective balls off the tee and moved forward to look for one of the player’s balls, which landed in the rough. If, after a short while, they decided they should have played a provisional ball, can they then go back and do that?”

Rules of Golf explained: Our expert says…

If I had a pound for every message I’ve received where someone says you can declare a ball lost I’d be able to coat my rules book in gold.

You haven’t been able to do it under the Rules of Golf for decades but it’s one of those things that’s just stuck around no matter how many times you try and counter it.

I mention it because there are some situations where it can hurt you to presume something and Margaret’s excellent question is one of those.

How many times have you seen a playing partner scoot around the rough for a minute before saying “it’s lost” and returning from whence they came and putting one in play under penalty of stroke-and-distance?

And yet, the rules say it’s perfectly acceptable to go back and hit a provisional.

It’s all in an interpretation to Rule 18.3a and is revealed under the very straight forward heading “Playing Provisional Ball After Search Has Started Is Allowed”.

It states: “A player may play a provisional ball for a ball that might be lost when the original ball has not been found and identified even if the three-minute search time has not yet ended.

“For example, if a player is able to return to the spot of his or her previous stroke and play a provisional before the three-minute search time has ended, the player is allowed to do so.

“If the player plays the provisional ball and the original ball is then found within the three-minute search time, the player must continue play with the original ball.”

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