On The Rules – Provisionally Speaking

There are plenty of good reasons to play a provisional ball
There are plenty of good reasons to play a provisional ball

There are plenty of good reasons to play a provisional ball

Let’s talk about one of golf’s most underused and misunderstood rules. Rule 27-2, Provisional Ball.

The opening text of 27-2 reads, “If a ball may be lost outside a water hazard or may be out of bounds, to save time the player may play another ball provisionally in accordance with Rule 27-1.”

Now you may be thinking, “Tour pros don’t play provisionals, so why should I?” Firstly, touring professionals actually do play the occasional provisional ball. However, they’ve also got the advantage of thousands of extra pairs of eyes (spectators) to help spot their errant shots for them. We amateurs don’t have that luxury. I would go so far as to say that a player should always play a provisional ball when circumstances permit. It can make things a lot easier for you.

But playing a provisional is a waste of time.

Before we get in too deeply, let’s have a look at a key phrase that largely gets overlooked in the text of the Rule, “to save time…” Yes, believe it or not, playing a provisional ball actually does save you time. If you are playing by the rules (and I assume that you are), 30-40 extra seconds spent on the tee can save you, a) time spent searching for the original ball – up to 5 minutes, b) time spent travelling back to the tee if your original ball is lost, and c) time spent kicking yourself for not playing a provisional in the first place, which could in turn affect your score because your mood has soured and now you’re stressed about having to make the “walk of shame” back to where you last played from to play another ball. Hey, a provisional ball helps keep you happy, and reduces stress? I’m in!

Playing a provisional is a sign of weakness.

You can usually hear that statement echoing through the trees on any given day at your local golf course… because it’s being muttered by the players in the woods searching for their errant shots, and slowing things down.

Playing a provisional ball is a sign of a high Golf IQ. Many really good players will actually use a provisional to their advantage, specifically when their original ball may be in big trouble. By declaring and putting a provisional in play, a smart player will often ignore the search for the original ball and carry on with the provisional. Remember, there’s nothing in the Rules that requires a player to actually search for the original ball. And, if the original ball is found, the player is required to abandon the provisional ball and deal with the original one. Sometimes that can be more costly than it’s worth. Who knows what kind of trouble you may find? Unplayable lie? Multiple strokes just to escape from trouble? It all adds up. Hey, I understand the desire to pull off the hero shot. The problem is, a 10 doesn’t look very heroic on your scorecard. Sometimes it’s just good golf to take your lumps, add a penalty stroke, and live to fight another day.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t search for a ball but, there’s times when it’s a disadvantage to do so.

When are you permitted to play a provisional ball?

The answer is in the first part of the statement, “If a ball may be lost outside a water hazard, or may be out of bounds…”

Basically, if common sense tells you that there’s a reasonable chance that your ball isn’t in a water hazard, or out of bounds, you can proceed with a provisional. Disclaimer: There’s a bit more to this “burden of proof” stuff (aka, Knowledge or Virtual Certainty) that we’ll get in to at a later time, Let’s just leave it at “let common sense prevail” for the time being…

How does it work?

If your situation meets the criteria above, you must first declare your intention to the fellow players in your group that you intend to play a provisional ball, before you proceed ahead. Remember, you need to be specific and call it a “provisional ball”. No beating around the bush with vague statements like, “Reload”, or “I’ll play another one.” (Don’t worry if there’s no one around to hear you, the Rules cover that too)

Once you’ve hit the provisional ball, you can go ahead to search for the original ball… or not. It’s up to you. Keep in mind, if one of your fellow competitors, opponents, or (soon to be former) friends goes ahead to search for the ball – even if you don’t want to – and they find one, you’re required to go identify it before you proceed further, and if it is the original ball, the provisional has to be abandoned and you need to proceed with the original ball. (Usually a polite request from you to not look for the ball is enough. After all, the shoe may be on the other foot at some point)

Another neat thing about a provisional is that you’re allowed to keep playing it right up to the distance from the hole that you think your original ball is likely to be. Be careful though. If you still want to search for your original ball, make sure you don’t play the provisional from a point closer to the hole than the original ball. Once you do that, the original ball is now lost, and the provisional ball is now the ball in play.

One final thought…

I’ve also learned, over my many years of playing this game, that playing a provisional ball can also help you with course management. More often than not in a familiar situation, you’ll find yourself reaching for the club that you used to put your provisional down the middle, rather than pulling the club that got you in to trouble in the first place.

by Rich McLean 

Rich McLean is Golf Canada Level 4 Referee from Kanata, Ontario. He calls himself “a lifelong player, and fan of this great game.” You can find him on Twitter, @LobWedge.

“Golf has given me so much joy, and this is my small way of giving back.  Have fun. Play smart. Play well.”

14 Comments on "On The Rules – Provisionally Speaking"

  1. You’re correct about this being one of the most misunderstood rules. Unfortunately, there are rules officials who do not fully understand how it works!
    In my amateur career in tournament golf, THREE times I have been involved in the following situation (twice in USGA qualifiers, and once in a GAO qualifier):
    Myself or my playing partner hits a shot that looks like it possibly could be lost, or out of bounds (we are unfamiliar with the course). We declare and hit a provisional ball. When we arrive at the spot where the original ball could be, we find out that in fact it is a lateral hazard…we were unaware of this when we hit our provisional ball. In all three situations, we were told by the rules official that we weren’t allowed to hit a provisional ball for a ball in a hazard, so we must abandon our original ball and play the provisional ball. Fortunately, in two of the three situations we ultimately were able to get the correct ruling….abandon the provisional ball, and deal with the ball in the lateral hazard (in the third case, I gave up arguing after a while since the player wasn’t going to qualify anyways).

    • Hi Michael. Officials are human too. We make mistakes, and hopefully we learn from them. I’m glad that you were able to get at least two of the three sorted out. Please remember we’re not gods, we’re there to assist. And, if you’re not comfortable with the information you’re getting at the time, you can always ask for a second opinion. All the best.

    • Lyle Alexander | February 23, 2016 at 2:55 pm |


      The Rules of Golf provide an alternate solution to the problem created by the incorrect ruling given to you by the official. By instructing your to play the provisional, the referee was essentially telling you to play a wrong ball. Because you were acting on his instructions, you would be absolved of penalty for doing so.

      Your score for the hole would be: one for the original tee shot, plus the strokes made with the provisional (wrong) ball, with no penalty strokes included. However, IF the original ball was eventually found in the water hazard, then one penalty stroke would have to be included.

      If you wish, you will find this information in Decision 34-3/3.7

      As Rich indicated, officials do make occasional errors and this one is not uncommon. We have been told that there are two kinds of rules officials: those who have made mistakes and those who will. Hope this helps.

  2. John Lanthier | February 19, 2016 at 12:32 pm |

    Hitting a provisional should be mandatory if any doubt is there regarding the ball’s whereabouts in order to help pace of play. But it also can work to your advantage: Playing (and leading) my flight in the GAO Public Player tournament years ago, I hit a tee shot on a par 3 that no one in the group saw land. Assuming it was in the hazard, I declared a provisional, re-teed and proceeded to hole it from the tee for a 3. Upon reaching the green, my ball could be seen over the green, in big trouble but playable. But because I’d declared my ball and had completed the hole with it, the 3 counted. Advantage, provisional ball and all within the rules.

    • Hi John. I apologize for not focusing more on your post earlier, but there’s a wrinkle that you would need to consider in the situation you described. It all depends on whether the original ball was found before, or after you actually removed the provisional from the hole. Decision 27-2b/2 covers it.

  3. I had a similar situation to Michael in a tournament…I hit my first tee shot left towards a marshy area, I had no idea it was a red staked area so I couldn’t tell if it was lost or not so I said I would play a provisional…the provisional was hooked so far left in the marshy area that I announced I’d play another provisional – the third found the fairway.

    As I looked for my 1st ball I found it just inside a red painted line completely playable – wouldn’t even have had to take a stroke. But the rules official said I had to play my ball in the fairway because by playing a provisional I was saying I wasn’t virtually certain my ball was in a hazard. When I protested I had no idea it was red staked, he said I should have come down and figured it out and gone back to the tee if necessary. So I was hitting my sixth shot. I was pretty inexperienced so I just took his word and played on.

    I guess maybe I should have played two balls and appealed to the officials after. But I did ask two other rules officials after the round and they both said that I had to play the provisional.

  4. Robert Galpin | February 19, 2016 at 2:39 pm |

    So Rich Mclean?? Re Fofrenchys situation (above)… What’s the correct answer? The first PROVISIONAL, is clearly in the hazard, should he hit a 2nd provisional, before searching for the 1st ball? Or,… by hitting the 2nd provisional does he eliminate the possibility of finding (and playing) the very 1st ball??
    Please clarify. Thx
    RG (GAO Mbr in Buffalo, NY)

    • Hi Robert. Firstly, fofrenchy was unaware that the area was a water hazard, so he proceeded correctly with both provisional balls. Once he got to where his original ball was he should have been able to proceed with it. Decisions 27-2a/2.2 and 27-2a/2.5 cover this situation. Regarding the relationship from ball-to-ball, each provisional ball only bears a direct relationship to the ball that precedes it, and not with any other ball.

  5. You state the following “Another neat thing about a provisional is that you’re allowed to keep playing it right up to the distance from the hole that you think your original ball is likely to be. Be careful though. If you still want to search for your original ball, make sure you don’t play the provisional from a point closer to the hole than the original ball. Once you do that, the original ball is now lost, and the provisional ball is now the ball in play.”

    What if your provisional ball goes past where you think your original landed. Are you required then to play the provisional?

    • Hi Duane. If you play a stroke at a provisional ball that lies further from the hole than the original, it can fly and land closer to the hole, no problem. The original ball will become “lost” once you make a stroke at the provisional if it’s lying closer to the hole at the time.

  6. Hi Rich
    We were attending the LPGA Manulife Classic in Ontario last year when a player from one of the final groups, in the final round hit a wayward T shot and then also hit a provisional ball. This was somewhere around the 16 or 17 hole. They looked for the original ball for it looked like roughly 5 minutes although we did not time it. She then surprisingly went back to the T to play another ball abandoning the provisional ball that was clearly in the middle of the fairway. We were on the other side of the fairway and could not see the outcome of the search. I later reviewed the televised coverage to find out what had happened but unfortunately they didn’t cover it. Can you please tell me under what conditions would a player be allowed or have to go back and hit a third T shot when the provisional was clearly in the fairway?

    • Hi Eric. The situation you describe is certainly odd. Certainly, as you describe it, the provisional ball would become the ball in play once the original was lost after 5 minutes of searching. I cannot guess as to why the player would go back to the tee instead, under these circumstances.

  7. Lyle Alexander | February 22, 2016 at 11:22 pm |

    Is it possible that the ball was actually found within the five minute search limit and was deemed unplayable? This would render the provisional ball out of play. One of the options under Rule 28 is stroke and distance.

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