Rules Guy: What do you do when you hit a provisional, but forget which ball is which?

What do the rules say about failing to identify your provisional before hitting 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.

During a recent round, my fellow competitor hooked his tee shot toward OB left. He announced that he’d hit a provisional, pulled a ball from his pocket, and did it on the same line. As we walked off the tee together, I asked him if he knew which ball was which. He shrugged and said he didn’t. Sure enough, one ball was OB and the other, which must have bounced off a tree, was in the fairway. He offered to declare that his first ball was OB and play his second. I countered that both balls are considered lost, since he couldn’t tell which was which. Who is right?
—Brett Coleman, Antananarivo, Madagascar

Your fellow competitor, while inordinately blasé about marking his balls, seems like a fine fellow — and his generous offer is the way the Rules see the situation as well.

While you’re not wrong that your ball would be lost if you can’t tell the difference between your own ball and a random one, when the two balls you’re deciding between are your original and provisional, Rule 18.3c(2) rules in this case that the ball found on the course is treated as your 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

On a par-4, my buddy hit a drive into the trees. He topped his provisional down the fairway but managed to knock his next shot onto the front of the green. While looking for my own wayward drive, I found his original ball. Sure enough, his second shot with this ball hits his provisional on the fly and ricochets to within a foot of the hole for a tap-in birdie … I think. Does his provisional ball count as an outside agency and get treated as a rub of the green, or would it be considered part of his equipment and so subject to a penalty?
—Sean Harvey, via e-mail

As the noted Scottish golf rules expert Rod Stewart once put it, “Some guys have all the luck/Some guys have all the pain/Some guys get all the breaks/Some guys do nothing but complain…” Which guy is your pal? The lucky one (which, if this was match play, makes you the pained one).

Since the provisional was no longer in play, Rule 19-5 doesn’t apply. In equity and by analogy to Rule 19-5a (check out Decision 19-5/5 if you’ve got a minute to kill) there’s no penalty and the ball is played as it lies. So it’s a strange bird, but a bird all the same.

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Got a question about the Rules? Ask the Rules Guy! Send your queries, confusions and comments to We promise he won’t throw the book at you.

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