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Rules: Take Two - Australian Golf Digest Rules: Take Two - Australian Golf Digest

How to correctly play a provisional ball

At all levels of golf, the Provisional Ball Rule is very commonly used, yet it continues to confuse many players and occasionally tour referees.

You may play a ball provisionally if the ball you just played might be lost outside a penalty area or might be out-of-bounds. The rules provide this option in order to save time. If you didn’t play a provisional ball and then discover your ball is out-of-bounds, for example, you must proceed under stroke and distance and return to the spot where you played your last stroke from. Having a provisional ball ready to go – that you have already played – allows the game to flow better.

One of the more commonly misunderstood components of playing a provisional ball relates to what you must say in order to announce that you are doing so. First, you do not have to announce the brand and number of the provisional ball in order to distinguish it from the original ball. It can be good practice, however it is not a requirement of the rules.

However, if you find your original ball and provisional ball in close proximity and are unable to determine which is which, you have a problem. You can choose which ball to play, however it will be treated as the provisional ball, which is now in play. The other ball is treated as the original ball, which is no longer in play and must not be played. In other words, you automatically incur the stroke-and-distance penalty, even though you have found your original ball.

Next is what you do need to say. The sometimes-used, “I’m going to re-load,” or, “I’m going to play another,” do not satisfy the requirements of the rules in correctly announcing your intent to play a provisional ball. If you say something like this, then you will be putting a ball into play under stroke and distance, and not playing a provisional ball.

The easiest and safest thing to do is just use the word “provisional” in whatever announcement you make. There are other statements that make it clear that your intent is to play a provisional ball, for example, “I’m going to play another just in case.”

You are also permitted to play your provisional ball multiple times without losing its status of being a provisional, as long as the provisional ball is played from a spot that is the same distance or further from the hole than where the original ball is estimated to be.

If your ball might be lost in a penalty area but also might be lost somewhere else on the course outside the penalty area, then you are still permitted to play a provisional ball. If it is definitely in a penalty area, you cannot play a provisional.

Your provisional ball can never be an option for taking unplayable-ball relief. As soon as you find your original ball within three minutes, the provisional ball loses its status and is now a wrong ball.

A provisional ball becomes your ball in play, under penalty of stroke and distance, if the original ball is out-of-bounds or is lost anywhere on the course, except in a penalty area. It also becomes the ball in play if you play the provisional ball from a spot nearer the hole than where the original ball is estimated to be. In this situation, your original ball becomes a wrong ball and must not be played. 

Stuart McPhee is a rules official for the PGA Tour of Australasia and co-host of the No.1 podcast in the world dedicated solely to discussing the Rules of Golf: The Golf Rules Questions Podcast.

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