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How Far Is Too Far?

Posted: 2/27/2014

How far can a player proceed in a search for their ball before hitting a provisional ball is no longer an option?

When a player’s ball is lost outside a water hazard or is out of bounds, Rule 27-1 – Ball Lost or Out of Bounds provides the player only one way to continue play of the hole. The player must return to the spot from where he just played, play again and include a one-stroke penalty. This is known as proceeding under stroke and distance. Since a player may have to return to the tee, which could entail a walk of 250 yards or more each way, the amount of time lost can be considerable in proceeding under this Rule.

Because of this, Rule 27-2 – Provisional Ball gives the player the opportunity to play a ball provisionally to save the time involved in going back and forth. Playing a provisional ball means that he will use this ball if it is determined that the original ball went out of bounds or he is unable to find it and it is definitively not in a water hazard.  You can learn more about the Rules regarding provisional balls by reading this Experts Explain article from 2011.

Since the purpose of playing a provisional ball is to save time, it would not make sense for a player to walk all the way to where his ball might be, then go back to play the provisional. Therefore, Rule 27-1 places two requirements on the player: the player must declare that he wishes to play a “provisional ball,” and he must play it before going forward to search for the original ball.

The second of these requirements has been strictly interpreted over time. Historically, Decision 27-2a/1.5 – Meaning of “Goes Forward to Search” has given some guidance, which most committees and officials tended to interpret quite stringently, typically saying that if the player went forward from the immediate area of the teeing ground, the opportunity to play a provisional ball was lost.

Starting in 2014, Decision 27-2a/1.5 has been modified to give more specific guidance and increased leeway in the distance the player can move forward. There are times when the player might not realize their ball could be lost until they have gone forward a short distance. At that point, going back to play a provisional ball could still save significant time. The primary guidance that the updated Decision provides to the player and the committee is, “As a guideline, a player should be considered to have proceeded more than a short distance, and therefore to have gone forward to search, if he has proceeded more than approximately 50 yards.” The Decision further states that a player could go even farther if it was for a specific purpose, such as getting another ball or consulting with a referee.

Hopefully, this modified Decision will clarify the parameters under which a player can play a provisional ball and continue to save time, which will lead to a better pace of play for all golfers.

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