Golf Rules: How To Handle A Lost Ball In Golf

The rules of golf can be complicated, but you can learn them. You don’t need to be intimidated, we can help!

Today we are going to take a look at how to handle a lost ball in golf. How you put a new ball in play and how it impacts your scorecard.

Learning how to deal with a lost ball in golf will help you make the right choice and will improve your pace of play.

You will also have the knowledge to help other players in your group.

Let’s get started!

lost ball in golf

Lost Ball In Golf: Where Does It Happen?

At first blush, this may seem like a silly question.

A lost ball in golf happens anytime I can’t find my ball. Well, not exactly.

If you lose a golf ball because it lands in a penalty area (hazard), you must follow the rules for a hazard.

A hazard can be a lake, a creek, a marsh, or high grass. The key is how the area is marked. Hazards are marked with red or yellow stakes/paint.

What if your golf ball finishes out of bounds? Although the rules are similar, you must follow the “out of bounds” rules, not the lost ball rules.

Out of bounds defines the edges of the golf course and will be marked with white stakes or white paint.

lost ball in golf

Let’s go back to where we started this section. Where does a lost ball in golf happen?

It is any time you cannot locate your golf ball AND you cannot confirm it went in a hazard or out of bounds.

This will typically happen in the woods or unmarked high grass but can happen anywhere. Oddly, sometimes that little white ball seems to just disappear.

If you have played golf, it has probably happened to you. You hit a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway and never find it.

Where did it go? Did it get a terrible bounce or did a squirrel grab it and stash it with their acorns?

You may never find out the answer, but you now need to proceed under the rules of a lost ball in golf.

lost ball in golf

Golf Rules: How To Proceed From A Lost Ball In Golf

First things first, did you know that you don’t have an unlimited amount of time to find your golf ball?

Once you arrive at the approximate location of where your ball ended up and start looking for it, you only have 3 minutes to find it.

If you are playing in a tournament, it is possible your competitors or a rules official will start a stopwatch to track the length of your search.

In a casual round of golf, this is less important, but you should limit your search to approximately 3 minutes.

If you have been playing golf for years, you may think you can search for 5 minutes, but this rule changed in 2019.

You have completed your search and determined that you do in fact have a lost ball. What’s next?

lost ball in golf

A lost ball in golf comes with a “stroke & distance” penalty. This means that you must return to the original spot, take a drop, and add a penalty stroke.

Let’s walk through a couple of examples.

You tee up your driver, hit a duck hook into the woods, and can’t find your ball.

You must re-tee from the same spot (tee box), add 1-stroke, and you are now hitting your 3rd shot.

What happens if you shank your approach shot into a large bush and can’t find it?

You follow the same procedure. If you lost your second shot from the fairway, you return back to that location, drop another ball, add a stroke, and hit your fourth shot.

As you can see, a lost ball in golf can quickly ruin your score!

lost ball in golf

Save Time & Energy – Play A Provisional

A lost ball in golf can be painful for a golfer for a couple of reasons. First, it quickly adds two strokes to your score.

Second, you have to return back to the original spot to replay the shot. This can mean walking 300 yards back to the tee box. No fun on a hot, summer day.

You can avoid this painful walk by using that golf rule that allows a “provisional shot”.

This allows you to hit an extra shot just in case your ball cannot be found.

The Process Of Hitting A provisional

The rules of golf state that you can hit a provisional anytime you are concerned you might not be able to find your last shot.

The process is fairly simple:

  • You hit a shot that you might not be able to find – you decide to hit a provisional in case the ball is lost
  • You must announce your intention to the other players in your group – “hey guys, I am going to hit a provisional”
  • Let them know how the ball is different from the first one – “the first one was a Titleist 1 and this one will be a Titleist 3”
  • Hit your provisional shot

Now you head to where your first shot finished and spend your three minutes searching for your ball.

If you find it, great. Play the ball as you normally would and you can pick up your provisional ball and put it back in your golf bag.

If you can’t find your first ball, you can play your provisional ball. The penalty still applies, so you will be hitting your third shot.

The provisional shot does not save you any strokes, but it prevents you from having to walk back to the original location.

lost ball in golf

When Is Your Provisional Ball “dead”?

There is a confusing part of the lost ball in golf rule that we need to cover quickly. Golfers often get this part wrong.

You can use your provisional shot if you never find your ball or if you find your ball out of bounds.

Here is the caveat. If you find your ball in bounds, you cannot choose to play the provisional instead.

This comes into play when you find your ball in a bad location (dead behind a tree or in a giant bush).

If you can’t play the shot, you can use the “unplayable lie” golf rules, but you cannot use the provisional shot you have already hit.

Once you find your original shot in bounds, the provisional shot is “dead”.

Be Smart –> Don’t Lose Your Golf Ball

We understand. No one tries to lose a golf ball, but you might make decisions that make it more likely you will need the “lost ball in golf” rule.

It is simple math. You can’t consistently break 80 if you are losing multiple golf balls a round. The two-stroke penalty is too impactful to your score.

Here is a secret all scratch golfers know. To shoot lower scores you need to improve your course management.

Just because you are playing a par 4 doesn’t mean you have to hit your driver off the tee. Distance is great, but you want to find a way to hit the fairway.

When you are playing a tight hole or the tee shot doesn’t “suit your eye”, leave the headcover on your driver and hit a 3-wood or a long iron.

Yes, it is great to reach a par 5 in two, but you always need to consider the risk/reward.

The reward might be a two-putt birdie, but the risk could be a lost ball. You can still make a birdie with a layup and a solid wedge shot.

The key is to learn the right times to be aggressive and the correct times to be conservative. You don’t have to always hit the “hero” shot.

Our goal for you. Learn the “lost ball in golf” rule, but rarely use it.

Up Next: The Crazy Rules Of Golf

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Ray has been playing golf for 35+ years, including being part of his High School and College golf teams. While he still enjoys playing in amateur tournaments, Ray now focuses on growing the game of golf through teaching and coaching. He has two sons that both play golf competitively and loves spending time watching them compete. Ray continues to play in local amateur golf events and currently has a +2 handicap.

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