Provisional Ball in Golf: Your Ace in the Hole

In golf, a provisional ball serves as a backup and is hit after a golfer suspects their original shot might be lost or out of bounds. This strategic option can save time and maintain the game’s flow by preventing golfers from returning to the previous spot to replay a shot. By adhering to certain rules for declaring a provisional ball, players can ensure they comply with golf regulations while keeping their momentum intact.

Provisional Ball in GolFeatured Image

Key Takeaways

  • Provisional ball in golf is a backup shot for potential lost or out-of-bounds shots, saving time and avoiding penalties.
  • Using a provisional ball is a strategic practice that respects golf rules and maintains the game’s flow.
  • Properly declare a provisional ball immediately and ensure everyone in the group is aware.
  • A provisional ball can impact a golfer’s score, avoiding penalties and allowing play to continue if the original ball is found.
  • Use these tips for effective provisional ball use: take time, signal clearly, follow etiquette, and use the same club.


Even the best golfers sometimes hit an errant shot that ends up in an unfavorable position. When this happens, golfers have to decide whether to play the ball as it lies or take a penalty stroke and re-hit from the same spot. But there’s another option—using a provisional ball.

A provisional ball is a secondary ball that golfers hit in case their original shot is lost or out of bounds. It’s a backup plan that can prevent you from having to go back and replay your previous shot, which can be time-consuming and frustrating for you and other players on the course.

Using a provisional ball is not only helpful for keeping up the momentum of your game, but it’s also an authentic way to play by the rules of golf. The guidelines for using a provisional ball are straightforward and allow you to confirm which ball you’re playing without receiving any punishment.

"It's a backup plan that can prevent you from having to go back and replay your previous shot, which can be time-consuming and frustrating for you and other players on the course."

This flowchart below illustrates the systematic decision-making process a golfer undergoes when determining whether to use a provisional ball or not, providing a clear, visual guide through the various steps and potential outcomes based on the game’s circumstances.

Hitting one can give you peace of mind knowing that if your primary ball has vanished or is deemed unplayable, you have a secondary ball ready to go without having to backtrack or interrupt anyone else’s pace around the course. It’s important to note that there are specific regulations for when and how to declare a provisional ball properly.

Doing so within the right timeframe ensures that you’ll receive any applicable penalty strokes or relief options if needed. So let’s dive into more detail about what exactly a provisional ball is and how it works within the rules of golf.

Check out this video below from the United States Golf Association (USGA)‘s Youtube channel:

What is a Provisional Ball in Golf?

If you’re a golfer, you have probably experienced the frustration of hitting a shot only to realize that your ball has vanished into the danger zone, such as out of bounds or in a water hazard.

In this case, you have two options: take stroke-and-distance relief or hit another shot from where you originally played. Both of these options come with penalties and can significantly impact your golf score.

This is where the provisional ball comes into play. A provisional ball is like a backup ball that golfers strike after hitting their first shot that might be lost.

The idea behind using a provisional ball is to avoid stroke-and-distance relief and maximize the chance of finding your original ball without holding up other golfers on the course. USGA Rule 18.3 explains how and when to use a provisional ball in golf.

"A provisional ball is like a backup ball that golfers strike after hitting their first shot that might be lost."

USGA Rule18.3 states 

"Rule 18.3 states that a provisional ball may be played if a ball might be lost outside a penalty area or be out of bounds. The player must announce the intention to play a provisional ball. The player may continue to play the provisional ball so long as it's from the same distance or farther from the hole than where the original ball is estimated to be. The provisional ball becomes the player's ball in play if the original ball is lost anywhere on the course except in a penalty area, or is out of bounds, or if the provisional ball is played from a spot nearer to the hole than where the original ball is estimated to be. If the original ball is found on the course outside a penalty area before the end of the three-minute search time, or is found in a penalty area, the provisional ball must be abandoned."

This diagram below simplifies the process of determining when to use a provisional ball in golf, according to USGA rules.

Provisional Ball Diagram USGA

Source: USGA

Using a provisional ball has become widely accepted as an etiquette standard among many golfers who participate in sanctioned tournaments or casual rounds with friends. It’s about avoiding penalties, keeping up with the pace of play, and showing respect for other players on the course.

Overall, using a provisional ball in golf can be an effective way to minimize risks and fines while improving your rate of play and maintaining good manners during a round of golf. However, it’s important to understand when and how to use one correctly, so make sure you familiarize yourself with USGA Rule 18.3 before heading out onto the course!

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Golf ball sitting near hole on golf course

The Rules of Using a Provisional Ball

If you’re new to the sport of golf or even if you’ve been hitting the greens for a while, understanding the rules around a provisional ball can be a game-changer. Whether you’re trying to improve your score or just want to play more efficiently, the provisional ball is your best friend when your initial shot goes rogue.

Here are the key points to remember:

  • A provisional ball is your backup when there’s a risk that your first shot might have gone out of bounds or been lost.
  • To save time, rather than scouring the course for your original ball, you can hit a provisional one. But remember, if you find your original ball, the provisional one just counts as practice.
  • Announce your intention to hit a provisional ball immediately after deciding to do so. Phrases like “I’m going back to hit another shot” or “I’m hitting another one just in case” make your intentions clear.
  • Once you’ve said you’re going to hit a provisional, you should swing straight away. There’s no time for further strategizing.
  • After locating either your original or provisional ball, the first one found becomes your active ball. All subsequent shots with this ball will count towards your score.

Understanding these rules is more than just about improving your game. It’s also about respecting the sport and its etiquette. By using a provisional ball correctly, you can maintain the rhythm of your game, avoid unnecessary penalties, and even save yourself from disqualification. So, next time you’re on the course and your ball decides to take a detour, remember these rules and let the provisional ball come to your rescue.

Golf ball sitting on edge of golf hole

How to Properly Declare a Provisional Ball

When declaring a provisional ball, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind. First of all, you must clearly state that you are hitting a provisional ball. This can be done by saying something like, “I’m going to hit an alternative ball in case my first one is lost“. It’s essential to ensure everyone in your group knows what’s happening.

Once you’ve declared your intention to hit a provisional ball, it’s time to actually do it. Make sure you don’t touch your primary ball, as this would be considered a penalty.

Instead, take another ball out of your bag and tee it up in the same spot where you hit the first one. When hitting your provisional ball, try to do so at the same speed and tempo as your initial swing.

This will help maintain the momentum of the game and prevent any unnecessary delays. You should also make sure that everyone is clear on which ball is which; mark both balls with different symbols or numbers if necessary.

It’s important to remember that declaring a provisional ball only applies when your primary one may have been misplaced or lost out of bounds. If it’s simply in danger but still playable (such as landing in heavy rough), you should follow normal golf rules and continue playing with your initial shot.

Overall, using a provisional ball can be a helpful guideline for keeping pace on the course while avoiding unnecessary punishment from rulings or golf score terms like penalties or additional strokes. Just remember to proclaim it properly and follow the proper rules for using it.

Common Mistakes When Using a Provisional Ball

When it comes to golf, provisional balls are an important part of the game. But, like any other rule or directive, there are common mistakes that golfers make when using them. Here are a few:

  • One of the most common mistakes is forgetting to declare the provisional ball in the first place. This can happen if golfers get caught up in the moment and forget to follow this all-important guideline. If you hit your initial shot and suspect that it might be lost or out of bounds, it’s crucial to declare that you’re hitting a provisional ball before hitting your second shot. Failure to do so will result in unnecessary confusion for both you and your playing partners.
  • Another common mistake is hitting both balls too quickly without waiting for an interval between shots. While using a provisional ball can help avoid unnecessary penalties and keep your score on track, hitting two balls at once can also be risky. Golfers need to take their time between shots to avoid confusion about which ball is which.
  • Another mistake golfers make when using a provisional ball is failing to identify which one they want as their official scorecard entry if both balls are found. This can cause problems later on when tallying scores, especially if both balls were hit with different golf equipment or at varying speeds. Some people forget that once they’ve decided on their official scorecard entry from either their initial shot or provisional ball, they must pick up the other one immediately.

Failing to do so will result in an additional penalty stroke being added to their score. By keeping these common mistakes in mind when using a provisional ball during play, golfers can ensure they’re following the rules correctly while also avoiding any confusion about their score at the end of each round.

Check out this video below from Jay Roberts Golf‘s Youtube channel:

The Impact of Provisional Balls on Your Score

When you hit a shot that might be lost or out-of-bounds, taking a provisional ball can have a significant impact on your score. First and foremost, it can help you avoid the penalty of stroke and distance, which can cost you several strokes. By using a provisional ball, you are essentially giving yourself an alternative ball to play with if your initial shot is deemed lost or out-of-bounds.

This means that if you manage to find your original ball without having hit the provisional, you can simply continue playing with your authentic ball without any consequence. However, if your initial shot does end up being lost or out-of-bounds and you didn’t take a provisional ball, it will result in a penalty stroke and force you to replay the shot from where it was last played.

This can cost you valuable time and put you in jeopardy of falling behind other golfers on the course. On the other hand, engaging in the use of a provisional ball has its risks as well.

"This means that if you manage to find your original ball without having hit the provisional, you can simply continue playing with your authentic ball without any consequence."

  • The principle is simple: announcing that you’re hitting one before doing so when uncertain about finding your first shot allows for an alternative option while searching for the original golf equipment. 
  • The ruling is clear: if both balls end up being found, then only one officially counts towards scorekeeping; typically, it would be the authentic one.

The duration of time spent searching for both balls can slow down the tempo and put players at risk of taking too much time per hole, there is usually a maximum period allowed per hole designated by each golf course. Moreover, declaring or failing to declare, whether or not to engage with provisional shots correctly could mean peril; using them wrongfully could lead to penalties.

Taking a provisional ball when necessary could save players valuable strokes, as long as they understand how to use them properly. The primary goal is always to keep those numbers low while staying efficient on each hole!

Hole flag on golf green on golf course

Provisional Ball vs. Lost Ball: What's the Difference?

When it comes to golf, one of the most frustrating experiences is losing your ball. It not only impacts your score, but it can also slow down the pace of play for everyone else on the course. This is where the provisional ball comes in handy. 

But how does it differ from a lost ball?

  • A lost ball is pretty self-explanatory: you hit your shot and can’t find it anywhere on the course. This means you must take a penalty stroke and go back to where you hit your last shot from.

It’s a major setback, especially if you were playing well leading up to that point. On the other hand, a provisional ball is used when you suspect that your initial shot may be out of bounds or lost but are not entirely sure. You hit another ball (the backup ball) before going off in search of the first one, just in case it cannot be found or is indeed out of bounds. 

So why use a provisional ball instead of just searching for your initial shot?

Well, for starters, it speeds up play considerably, as you don’t have to spend time looking for balls that may never be found. Additionally, if your initial shot was indeed lost or out of bounds, using a backup (provisional) ball means that you’re not penalized with an extra stroke for having to return to where you previously played.

It’s important to note, though, that using a provisional ball does come with some risks. If you’re unsure whether your initial shot was lost or out of bounds and decide not to use a provisional ball, there’s always the risk that upon searching for your first shot and potentially discovering that it can’t be found, someone else playing behind you could move or otherwise interfere with your second attempt at hitting the same spot, which could cause all sorts of complications!

Close up shot of golfer putting ball

Tips for Effectively Using a Provisional Ball

Now that you know what a provisional ball is and how to declare one, it’s important to know how to use it effectively. Here are some tips that can help you make the most of your provisional ball and avoid any possible penalties:

  • Take your time: Before hitting your provisional ball, take a moment to gather yourself and assess the situation. Look for landmarks or markers that can help you determine where your original ball may have landed. Don’t rush into hitting a provisional ball without completely thinking through the possible outcomes.
  • Signal clearly: When declaring a provisional ball, make sure to signal clearly to other golfers on the course. Raise your hand and say “provisional” loudly so everyone around can hear you, even if they’re not in your group. It’s important not to participate in any confusion or ambiguity during this process.
  • Be mindful of etiquette: Using a provisional ball is an important aspect of golf etiquette, but there are rules around its usage, such as not holding up play with an unnecessary amount of search time if your first shot may have been found. If there are players waiting behind you or in other groups, let them play through before searching for lost balls.
  • Use the same club as before: Using the same club as for your original shot will help maintain some momentum on the course rather than switching clubs, which could throw off tempo and cadence during play.

By following these tips while using a provisional ball, you’ll be well-equipped to handle any situation in which one may be necessary without putting yourself in danger of receiving penalties or fines from tournament sanctioning bodies such as Club Golf Academy or USGA officials present at events with participants of all levels from amateur golfers up to professionals on tour circuits worldwide


Knowing how to use a provisional ball in golf is an important part of the game. By following the guidelines and principles set forth by the rules of golf, you can avoid unnecessary penalties and keep your score on track.

Remember that declaring a provisional ball should be done immediately after hitting one out of bounds or into a water hazard. This will save you time and frustration, as you won’t have to go back to where you hit your previous shot.

It’s also worth noting that using a provisional ball can help speed up play on the course. Rather than spending time searching for a missing or misplaced ball, players can quickly hit their secondary ball and move on with their round. 

This not only keeps up the pace of play but also reduces stress levels for all players involved. Overall, using a provisional ball in golf is an effective way to mitigate penalties and improve your score.

By announcing your intention to hit one and following the rules surrounding its use, you can confidently move forward with your round knowing that you are playing within regulation. So next time you hit one out of bounds or into a water hazard, don’t hesitate to declare a provisional ball; it may just be the stroke-and-distance relief you need to keep your tempo steady throughout the duration of your game!


You’ll get an additional stroke, and it can be used if your original ball is lost or out of bounds.

Yes, playing a provisional ball counts as a stroke.

You should hit a provisional when you think your original ball may be lost (except in a water hazard) or out of bounds.

Hitting a provisional ball means playing a second ball in case the first one is lost or out of bounds.

Yes, each hit, including a provisional ball, counts as a stroke.

You can hit a provisional ball as many times as needed until you reach the place where you think your original ball may be.

If you end up playing it, you’ll count all the strokes with the provisional ball plus one penalty stroke.

You can hit another provisional ball with an additional penalty stroke.

No, a provisional ball is not allowed if your original ball is in a penalty area.

Yes, but you should declare it as a provisional ball to avoid it becoming the ball in play.

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