On The Rules – Provisionally Speaking

There are many reasons to play a provisional ball
There are many reasons to play a provisional ball
There are many 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.

/ Rich McLean @LobWedge

Rich McLean is Golf Canada Level 4 Referee from Kanata, Ontario.