Provisional Ball in Golf: When To Use & How It Speeds Play

According to the USGA, you can hit a provisional ball if your shot lands near the out-of-bounds line and you cannot see where it ended. This saves you from returning to your original position to hit another shot, but you will incur a penalty stroke.

I have hit thousands of provisionals during my 30 years on the golf course, and I welcome the practice for speeding up play. Although the concept is simple, several rules are attached to the practice.

At the end of this post answer this rules question, you will know when you can play a provisional, how to play it, and how many penalty strokes it carries.

What’s A Provisional Ball In Golf?

provisional ball in golf man hitting from rough on golf course
Source: In the rough by Hugh Craddock, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • A provisional golf ball is played if you suspect your initial ball is lost.
  • Provisionals are only allowed if you believe your ball is OB or outside a water hazard.
  • You have 3 minutes to find your original ball.
  • If you find your original ball, you pick up the provisional and do not take a penalty stroke.
  • A penalty stroke is added to your score when you play a provisional.
  • You must inform a fellow competitor in your group that you are hitting a provisional.
  • If your original ball definitely landed in the water, you cannot play a provisional.

I had to hit a provisional ball last Friday when I played in a club competition at my home course, Juan Bautista Segura. The 6th is a narrow par 5, with out-of-bounds running down the right side of the hole. I sliced my second shot from the middle of the fairway into the trees guarding the OB fence.

From experience, I knew the chances of finding my ball were slim, so I played a provisional. As per the USGA, I used the allotted 3 minutes to find my original ball. Unfortunately, I could not and it was a lost ball. Instead, I proceeded to play my provisional. The added penalty of stroke meant I was now hitting my fourth shot.

How To Play A Provisional Ball In Golf

provisional ball in golf ball in deep rough

If you suspect that your original ball is lost out of bounds or in a penalty area, tell your playing partners you will hit a provisional. You have 3 minutes to find your original ball; if you cannot, your provisional ball is in play.

I typically hit provisionals after a wayward tee shot or an inaccurate approach. Since these are long shots, I play the provisional shot to save time and speed up play. I avoid returning to my original lie to play another ball instead of continuing with my provisional ball.

The convenience comes at a cost because you must assign a one-stroke penalty to your score. So, if I lose my ball off the tee and take a provisional, I will play my third shot off the tee after adding the one penalty stroke to my scorecard.

Can You Hit Multiple Shots With A Provisional Ball?

provisional ball in golf golfer hitting from rough on a cloudy day
Source: Matthewwlloyd, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the R&A 18.3c provisional golf ball rule, you can hit multiple shots with a provisional ball. The original ball is thought to lie as long as the provisional ball is the same distance or farther from the hole.

For example, if you hit your provisional ball out of bounds, you must hit another one. Every provisional you hit and take as an in-play ball adds a penalty stroke to your total score.

This rule applied to me last week when I hit my second shot out of bounds on a par 5. After hitting my 3-wood toward the out-of-bounds fence, I decided to club down and swing a 3-iron on my provisional shot, which ended about 30 yards short of where my original ball landed.

I continued to play my provisional and knocked the new ball onto the green. I then walked towards my original ball and found it outside the OB fence. I informed my competitor partners that my ball was out of bounds and that my provisional was now in play as my official ball.

Since my second shot went out of bounds, my provisional ball counted as my fourth shot from the same spot. Then, I hit that down the fairway and put my fifth shot onto the green before two-putting for a double bogey. If I had found my original ball, I would have gotten onto the green for 3 or 4 and had a chance of saving par.

When Can’t You Play A Provisional?

The USGA Provisional ball rule dictates that a golfer cannot play a provisional that enters a water hazard. You must take a penalty stroke and play from the designated drop zone when this happens.

There is an exception to the rule. You can play a provisional if your ball lands near a water hazard but could be lost outside the area. In that case, you cannot guarantee it went into the water, which means you cannot hit from the drop zone, making a provisional a safer bet.

Read More: How Long Does A Round Of Golf Take


Can You Hit A Provisional From The Tee?

Yes, you can hit a provisional ball from the tee in golf. If you believe your original ball might be lost outside a penalty area or out of bounds, you can play a provisional ball under Rule 18.3. The provisional shot is played from the same spot as the original shot, ensuring the pace of play is maintained and potential lost ball penalties are managed. Remember, if you find your original ball within three minutes of searching and it's in play, you must continue with that ball and abandon the provisional.

Can You Hit A Provisional Ball Anytime?

No, you cannot hit a provisional ball anytime in golf. Provisional balls are only permitted under Rule 18.3 when there's a possibility that your original ball is lost outside a penalty area or out of bounds. If your ball is in a penalty area, lost inside it, or in another situation not covered by Rule 18.3, you can't play a provisional.

Can You Hit A Provisional Ball Twice?

Yes, you can hit a provisional ball twice if you think your first provisional ball is also lost. I once sliced my drive and my provisional close to the out-of-bounds fence. I played a second provisional just in case either of my first 2 were OB.

Can You Play A Provisional For A Lost Ball?

No, if you are certain that your ball is lost, you cannot play a provisional. Instead, you must take a penalty drop and play another ball from the same spot. You must hit your next shot from the designated drop zone if you lose your ball in a water hazard.

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Matt has played golf since he was 4 years old and has written over 150 articles at GolfSpan since 2021. Matt specializes in product reviews using his postgraduate degree in Sports Marketing from Johan Cruyff Institute. Matt has a handicap index of 10.8 and currently plays weekly at Pilar Golf Course near his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He also loves his Callaway Odyssey Exo Rossie putter and likes a pepper steak pie with curry gravy at the turn. You can connect with him on LinkedIn

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