The Etiquetteist: How long should you assist in your partner’s lost-ball search?
Nick in San Diego asks: Am I really required to help my playing partner look for a lost ball? If so, how long do I have to spend on the search?
Like the governing bodies, the Etiquetteist has a strict rule on lost balls. The rule is: It’s not lost. It’s out there somewhere, so drop one, pronto, and move one. But the Etiquetteist is also an antsy pace-of-play obsessive who believes that saving time is more important than saving strokes or money (as in, the relatively small amount of dough he spends on beat-up golf balls), and he realizes that many golfers are not wired that way.
Many golfers insist on looking long and hard for their errant shots.
If you’re paired with such a person, yes, it’s true: helping them search for at least part of the legally allotted three minutes is the right thing to do. The more serious the match, the more not helping comes off as poor sportsmanship of the pettiest kind.
That’s the short answer.
The slightly longer answer is that there are caveats.
Let’s say you’re on the decisive hole of a cutthroat Nassau with your buddy, and he or she slices one wayward. In that instance, the right thing to do is to spend the full three minutes assisting in recovering the ball. No one wants to win a match because a Bridgestone rolled under a bush.
Or let’s say you’ve been stuck with a wild-swinging stranger who couldn’t find a fairway with a laser-guided ball. In that case, you should be nice and help with them look once or twice, maybe even three, four or five times. But there are limits, especially if your group starts holding up the course or if the searches keep taking you into rattlesnake-territory or tick-infested tall grasses. Etiquette requirements end where six-hour rounds and the risk of viper bites and Lime disease begin.
If you’re lucky, after the 11th wayward drive, your hapless partner will be conscientious enough to wave you off. “Don’t worry about it,” they’ll say. “I’ll just have a quick look and drop one if I don’t find it.”
If they’re too oblivious to do that, you’re within your right not to join the search party. An effective tactic here is to walk past the general area where the ball went missing, scanning the tall grasses in a performative gesture without slowing down or coming to a stop. From there, veer off and head to your ball while saying something along the lines of: “I’m going to go ahead and hit so we can keep up with the group ahead of us.”
Your partner might get peeved. Your partner might not ever want to play with you again. So be it. Like the Pinnacle they just whacked into the woods, it’s no great loss.