Written by Joyce McCann, 18ers Rules Chair.  First published in 2017. Updated to conform to the new Rules.  

Provisional balls – Do’s and Don’ts

The fact that the Rules of Golf allow one to hit a provisional ball (Rule 18.3) is a very good thing. It is intended to speed up play. But it’s important to know the ins and outs of applying this option because it can only happen in certain circumstances, and there is a right and wrong way to do it. 

  1. A provisional ball is only an option if you think the original ball may be out of bounds (OB), or lost outside a penalty area (Rule 18.3a). 
  2. You must inform your playing partners that you intend to hit a provisional before you hit it (Rule 18.3b). 
  3. Before you hit your provisional, you must wait until all others in your group have hit their shots (Rule 6.4c). 
  4. Even after you have moved forward to start to search for your ball, you can still decide to run back to where you hit the previous shot to hit a provisional, as long as the 3-minute search time has not expired by the time you hit the provisional (Rule 18.3a/2).  
  5. Once you have hit the provisional, you have 3 minutes to find your original ball after you arrive in the area where you think it is. Prior to the 3-minute limit, you can keep hitting the provisional ball till it is even with the place you think your original ball may be. But, the second you hit the provisional from a position past where your original ball may be, and your original ball is subsequently found within the 3-minute limit, the provisional becomes the ball in play and the original ball is deemed lost. 
  6. You may also find yourself in the position of liking where your provisional ball ended up a whole lot better than your original ball. In this case, you have the option of not even searching for your original ball, but playing the provisional (with stroke and distance penalty, of course). Worth knowing also, that others (e.g., competitors) can also search for your original ball, and if they find it within the 3-minute limit, you will have to play that ball. Hence, if your tee shot on #10 hooks hopelessly into the woods to the left, and your provisional ends up 6-inches from the hole, you should run to the green and tap the ball into the hole (for a 4) before your competitor finds your ball not OB but deep in the woods.