Rules Guy: I hit a provisional, but forgot to mark it. Now I can’t tell which ball is which. What now?

looking for ball

What do the rules say about hitting a provisional but forgetting to mark it?

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The Rules of Golf are tricky! Thankfully, we’ve got the guru. Our Rules Guy knows the book front to back. Got a question? He’s got all the answers.

My friend drives wide right. Presuming it is lost, he hits a provisional, which also goes far right. We eventually found both balls in-bounds. Problem: the balls were identical, and neither was marked, so we couldn’t determine which was the original and which was the provisional. He was advised to play the one further from the hole as his first ball, then take a two-stroke penalty at the end of the hole. Was that correct? —Bart Calvanese, Denver, Colo.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we neglect to mark our golf balls differently.

Bart, when a player can’t distinguish between original and provisional, and both balls are found on the course, the player must choose one — either one — and treat it as the provisional, under Rule 18.3c(2).

Thus, your friend would have been taking his fourth stroke with the ball of his choosing. To anticipate the follow-up question, were one ball in bounds and the other OB, you’d play the in-bounds ball as the provisional.

For more provisional-ball guidance from our guru, read on …

golfer teeing up ball
Rules Guy: Do you have to take a penalty if you hit a provisional with a different-brand ball?
By: Rules Guy

A player has a 70-yard third shot on a par-5. He hits it over the green, and it is likely lost in high grass. He plays a provisional ball and holes it. Since the provisional is in for a 5, and getting up-and-down for a 5 on his original ball is very unlikely should he find it, he opts to abandon the original without even looking for it. Can he do this, or must he look for his original ball — and if the latter, how hard does he have to look? My guess is that you’re going to cite a Rule that says something to the effect that the player must make a “reasonable attempt” to find the original ball. If so, please provide the specific Rule — my friends will want to see it in writing. —Tim Wiegand, via email

So, you think I’m becoming a bit predictable, eh? You sound like Mrs. Rules Guy. Well, you’re in for a surprise, Timmy. There is in fact no requirement that a player look for his ball.

That said, this situation brings an interesting — dare I say hilarious — scenario into play. Your opponent takes it upon himself to try to find your “lost” ball, given the strong likelihood that indeed you’ll make at best the same 5 or probably higher. Oh no! What must our Second-Team All-American hero do? Demand your opponent not look for the ball? No, you can’t do that, only beg and plead. Pray that the ball is really, really buried? No! Hurry up — Run! Run! — and take your provisional out of the cup, pronto! Only then does that ball officially become the ball in play and your play on the hole considered complete.

Until then, if your opponent finds the original within his three-minute search, you have to go identify and play it if it’s in fact your ball. (Your dubious friends can check out Interpretations 18.3c(2)/3 and 18.3c(2)/4.)   

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