You Cannot Declare Your Ball Lost

Here is an interesting question that I recently received on my blog site:


“Hi Barry,

I’m confused over you saying that you cannot declare your ball lost. If it is reasonable to assume that it is not in a hazard or out of bounds, I was under the assumption that you could declare it lost without looking for it? And I actually thought Phil Mickelson did this once in a tournament?

So I play ball A and it’s so far in some junk that I know unplayable lie relief would get me no-where. So without looking for ball A, I declare that I’m hitting a provisional for my lost ball. I like my position of ball B and declare on the tee that ball A is lost. Are you saying I breached a rule, and if so — could you point me to something more than the definition of Lost Ball? Because I looked there, and didn’t come to the same conclusion.


“First, let me say that this is a common area of confusion amongst golfers. But please believe me that nothing a player says will render their ball lost. Decision 27/6 from the Rules of Golf helps to clarify this statement;

Q. A player searched for his ball for two minutes, declared it lost and started back to play another ball at the spot from which the original ball was played. Before he put another ball into play, his original ball was found within the five-minute period allowed for search. What is the ruling?

A. A player cannot render a ball lost by a declaration — see Definition of “Lost Ball.” The original ball remained in play — see Definition of “Ball in Play.”

You were right to look at the definition of ‘Lost Ball’ because this lists the only circumstances that a ball can be lost;

A ball is deemed “lost” if:

a. It is not found or identified as his by the player within five minutes after the player’s side or his or their caddies have begun to search for it; or

b. The player has made a stroke at a provisional ball from the place where the original ball is likely to be or from a point nearer the hole than that place (see Rule 27-2b); or

c. The player has put another ball into play under penalty of stroke and distance (see Rule 27-1a); or

d. The player has put another ball into play because it is known or virtually certain that the ball, which has not been found, has been moved by an outside agency (see Rule 18-1), is in an obstruction (see Rule 24-3), is in an abnormal ground condition (see Rule 25-1c) or is in a water hazard (see Rule 26-1); or

e. The player has made a stroke at a substituted ball. Time spent in playing a wrong ball is not counted in the five-minute period allowed for search.

Of course, the correct thing to do if you definitely do not want to search for your original ball is to put another ball into play as quickly as possible, without declaring it as a provisional ball. As soon as you have done this, under penalty of stroke and distance, it does not matter if the original ball is found, as it is no longer in play.

I hope that this has clarified the lost ball situation for you.


Barry Rhodes – Miscellaneous content on the Rules of Golf.

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Disclaimer: Whilst every attempt has been made to ensure the accuracy and reliability of this information on the Rules of Golf I am human and have been known to be wrong! Neither I, nor anyone connected with, shall be held responsible for any losses caused by reliance upon the accuracy or reliability of such information. Readers should refer to the full text of the rules and decisions as published in the official publications of the R&A and the USGA, The Rules of Golf 2008-2011 and Decisions on the Rules of Golf 2008-2009.

21 Responses to “You Cannot Declare Your Ball Lost”

  1. Don says:

    Okay, one more scenario: I hit my tee shot into a water hazard and drop at point of entry and take a stroke penalty. I proceed to hit my penalty ball then I find my first ball. What is the rule? Can I play my first ball that I thought was in the water but had actually skipped out?

  2. Barry Rhodes says:


    I am not sure that I have understood your question but cannot find any inconsistency in my answer to the original question, or my replies to Jules Lewicki and Tim Grover. In fact, I have re-read all three and am confident that my answers do reflect the Rules and Decisions.

    First, my reference to Decision 27/16 was to provide evidence from the Rules that a player cannot render a ball lost by a declaration, which was the heading for this blog item.

    Second, if a ball is found there is an obligation on the player to identify it as theirs, or not. They cannot refuse to identify it, as per Decision xxxxxxxxxx.

    Finally, let me summarise the main points of these questions and my answers;

    * A ball is only lost if one of the five requirements set-out in the definition of ‘Lost Ball’ has been met (which I listed in the original answer).
    * One of these requirements is that the player has put another ball in play before the original ball has been found.
    * If anyone finds the player’s ball before he has put another ball in play then he must abandon any provisional ball.
    * A player does not have to search for his ball.
    * A player may not deem his ball unplayable unless he has found and identified it.

    If I have not clarified this matter for you to your satisfaction please email me at rules at barryrhodes dot com.


  3. Barry Rhodes says:


    Yes, you offered the right rulings in this episode a) a player does not have to search for their ball (Rule 27-1a), b) they may not play their provisional ball once the original ball has been found on the course, even if it is unplayable (Rule 27-2c), and c) they are entitled to go back to where they last from when they declare their ball unplayable (Rule 28a).



  4. Alex G says:

    Here’s another twist on this rule I saw yesterday. On a par 3. A player hit his first shot into the woods, so he hit a provisional and hit it onto the green. He searched for the first and found it in an unplayable position. His best play turned out to be to go back and hit from the teeing ground because neither two club lengths or straight back keeping the original point between him and the flag were good options. He questioned the provisional – can it come into play sitting 3? Two of us said no, once he found his first ball the provisional came out of play. So he returned to the teeing ground to be told (incorrectly) by the foursome there that he couldn’t come back to play his next shot after declaring an unplayable. We said he could, but by then he was so flustered he just dropped in the woods behind where he originally found it and scored an 8.

    When he got up to the green I asked him why he didn’t just choose to not look for the first ball and take his provisional sitting 3 on the green. He told me he thought he had to make a reasonable effort to find his ball. I told him that is not the case at all. He disagreed with me, but after reading this article I KNOW I was right – he most likely would have taken a 5 with a two-putt if he had done so.

  5. Chris Pett says:

    Aren’t you contradicting yourself with this answer as compared to what you said to Tim Grover several answers ago? Tim Grover’s question and this latest one are asking the same point. Decision 27/6 doesn’t apply to the same situation outlined by your questioner, as a provisional hadn’t been played and the player was looking for the original. If a player is under no obligation to look for his ball, and only he can ultimately identify it (without which it is deemed ‘lost’), he surely can declare it lost whenever he likes if he has played a great shot with his provisional and he chooses not to look for or identify the first? Even if his fellow competitors find a ball, unless the player clearly identifies it as his, surely it must technically remain ‘lost’?

  6. Barry Rhodes says:


    Nice try, but no, you would be playing five off the tee!. Decision 28/2 explains;

    “Q. A player hit his tee shot deep into the woods on the right. The player then hit a provisional ball into the same woods. The player did not search for either ball.

    The player deemed his first ball unplayable, said he was abandoning his provisional ball and hit a third ball from the tee. The player maintained that his third ball was in play and that he was lying 3. He based his argument on Rule 28, which states that the player is the sole judge as to whether his ball is unplayable, and on Decision 28/1, which says in effect that a player may proceed under the stroke-and-distance option of the unplayable ball Rule without finding his ball. The Committee ruled that the player’s stroke with the third ball was his fifth stroke, but the wording of Decision 28/1 leaves a little doubt. Did the Committee rule correctly?

    A. Yes. The player may not deem the first ball from the tee unplayable, disregard the provisional ball and put another ball into play under a stroke-and-distance penalty because, having played the provisional ball, he must find the original ball before he can declare it unplayable. Unless the original ball was found, the provisional ball would automatically become the ball in play.”



  7. Jules Lewicki says:

    What is the situation if i play my tee shot into thick rough with little hope of finding it. I play a provisional ball but this stroke is even worse. The ball advances only a few feet. Can I now call the first ball unplayable and put a new ball into play, totally ignoring my provisional ball. Would I still be three off the tee?

  8. Barry Rhodes says:


    You are absolutely right. Well summarised. Your last point is important, as it is an illustration of the principle that a player shall not have a choice as to which ball to play.


  9. John Heanaghan says:

    The person who is confused has confused me. He states he has hit his ball into thick junk and is definitely unplayable and relief would “get him nowhere” and yet he then declares he is playing a “PROVISIONAL BALL” “WHY”. I would declare it unplayable from where he hit it and merely put another ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance and then it does not matter whether the original ball is found or is lost as it is no longer the ball in play. Once he declares “Provisional Ball” the original is in play if found or is visible and is in play [not out of bounds]. However I can see nothing in rules that states you have to go and look for a ball, you can just walk up and carry on with your provisional ball without looking for the original, unless someone else finds it before you get to hit it [at least from a place nearer the hole than the original ball is believed to be. I would say if you don’t want your original ball found or to be in play, don’t declare “Provisional Ball” The downside, if you hit another bad shot [into the junk ect.] you are stuck with it and it counts, you can’t have an each way bet.

  10. Barry Rhodes says:


    Yes, a player may always put another ball into play under penalty of stroke and distance. As you say, in the circumstance that you describe the second ball played from the teeing ground would be the player’s third stroke on that hole and would be the ball in play. The original ball is now lost, even if it is subsequently found within the boundaries of the course.


  11. Randy says:


    If a hit my tee shot into the rough, can I just hit another ball under the stroke and penalty rule without declaring it a provisional in case it is lost or O.B. or unplayable?
    Does that mean that the second (third) shot from the tee box becomes the ball-in-play as soon as I hit it without declaring it a provisional and for no apparent reason?

    Thank you in advance for clarifying this point.


  12. Tim Grover says:

    Thanks Barry

  13. Barry Rhodes says:


    No you acted perfectly within the letter and spirit of the Rules. You do not have to look for your ball, nor do you have to invite your opponent(s) or fellow competitor(s) to look for it. Of course, they may decide to go and look for it of their own accord, even if you ask them not to.

    There is one point that I should mention. You used the word opponent, indicating that you were playing match play. If you played your provisional ball out of turn then your opponent had the right to recall your stroke. However, by playing your provisional you had put that ball in play thereby changing the status of your original ball to a lost ball. In stroke play a fellow competitor may not recall a stroke played out of turn.


  14. Tim Grover says:

    Hi Barry, Le Touquet La Mer course, 3 ball on holiday, stableford play.. we’re unfamiliar with the course……I hit a bad teeshot to the left -it might be lost -I can’t tell from the tee as the terrain is out of view so I declare a prov. – it’s a cracker! I stride off ahead of the others …. it soon becomes apparent my ball is in dense shrubbery where I would have no chance of a drop and if I did find the ball would have to go back to the tee.. ie I don’t want to find it-nor do I want my opponents to find it! I stride past the likely lost site without even going over to the shrubbery..oblivious the opponents play their balls… and then I put my provisional in play. Then (out of courtesy) I tell them I have put my provisional in play-I proceed to score a point and consequently win the front 9 !
    Upon holing out it is realised that I didn’t even look for my first ball -my opponents contend I should have looked or invited them to look for it and that I gained an unfair advantage (thinking I wouldn’t have hit such a good shot again had I found the first ball and gone back to the tee). I believe I have played to the rules. What’s your opinion please- was I a) obliged to search for my ball and b) give my opponents the opportunity to do so? Indeed would I have been acting within the spirit of the game in asking my opponents not to look for my ball had they wished to do so?

  15. Barry Rhodes says:


    What you say above is not quite correct. If the player played a provisional ball (i.e. he had declared it a provisional before making his stroke at it) then if the original ball is found within 5 minutes of searching for it, the provisional ball is no longer in play and must be picked-up. It is only when a player does NOT declare that the next ball he is playing is a provisional ball that the original ball is lost under the Rules as soon as the stroke is made, and it cannot then be played even if it is found in bounds.


  16. Bob says:

    It is a very intresting article and poses a number of points for discussion and also the question of players honesty.
    On occasion I have had the misfortune to be paired with people who have blatently disregarded the rules and declared their ball lost just because they have hit it into the woods or some other difficult location etc and then played a provisional ball.
    They have then gone and retreived their original shot.
    I have pointed out on situations that if the ball is lost it is LOST and you cannot go and retrieve it.
    I hope that other golfers who know the rules would also enlighten others.

  17. Barry Rhodes says:


    You don’t even have to deem your ball unplayable. As soon as you put another ball in play, under penalty of stroke and distance, without calling it a provisional ball, the original ball is lost under the Rules, even if it is subsequently found in bounds.

    Regarding your last paragraph I certainly recommend playing a provisional ball whenever your ball may be out of bounds, or lost outside of a water hazard. But if a player has not done this and cannot find their ball, I see nothing wrong in inviting the following group to play through while you return to the place where you had played your last stroke. If you fail to do this in a strokes competition you are immediately disqualifying yourself from the round.


  18. Barry Rhodes says:

    John Hendricks,

    Yes, but this doesn’t help in match play,. where your competitor would rather you had to play your original ball and goes off in search of it, or in circumstance where someone other than a fellow competitor (e.g. a player in another group) does their good deed for the day by spotting your ball.

    The best way is to immediately put another ball in play, under stroke and distance penalty, without calling it a provisional ball.


  19. Simon Leach says:

    A provisional ball is for one that is either lost or out of bounds so if ball A is found, this is the ball in play and you cannot play the provisional – the rules, quite rightly do not allow a choice of two balls. You cannot declare your ball lost but you can declare your ball unplayable at any time and your are the sole judge. So, if after a poor shot, you think you won’t be able to drop back in line with the pin or two clubs sideways, you can declare the ball unplayable immediately. Otherwise you find your unplayable ball and then have to walk back to where the shot was played.
    There is a lot of pressure to avoid slow play (to be applauded) and golfers naturally try to avoid walking back to prevent delaying play for your fellow competitors. Walking back to replay a shot is a “luxury” only considered in a fiercely competitive round I think.

  20. John Hendricks says:

    The easiest thing to do is to ask your fellow competors not to look for the ball, hit a provisional and then hit it again (that is your ball in play)

  21. Larry Quah says:

    Barry and Andy,
    Thanks very much for this question and the many that you have shared recently. I have found them most informative and useful.

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