What Is a 'Provisional Ball'?

Plus how provisionals are addressed in the Rules of Golf

Jordan Spieth signals a wayward drive during a PGA Tour tournament
'The ball went that-a-way!' Uh-oh, Jordan Spieth might need to play a provisional ball. Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

A "provisional ball," often shortened just to "provisional," is a second golf ball played by a golfer who believes his first ball (the stroke he just played) may be lost (but not in a water hazard) or out of bounds.

Official Definition in the Rule Book

The USGA and R&A, golf's rule-making bodies, provide this official definition in the Rules of Golf:

"A 'provisional ball' is a ball played under Rule 27-2 for a ball that may be lost outside a water hazard or may be out of bounds."

Which doesn't expand on what we already said above, so let's ... expand!

Say you hit your drive and, whoops, it's way left, deep into woods. You think, "I'll never find that ball, it's probably lost." The penalty for a lost ball (or a ball hit out of bounds) is stroke-and-distance. The "and distance" part means that - if you are strictly adhering to the rules - after walking forward and searching for your ball, and confirming that it is lost or OB, you'd have to trudge all the way back to the spot of that previous stroke and play another shot.

Or, before you go forward to search, you can play a provisional ball. The purpose of the provisional, really, is saving time: Now, after hitting the provisional, if you go forward and search and can't find that first shot, well, you've already put another ball into play. You don't have to trudge back and re-play the shot, because you've already hit that provisional.

Rule 27-2 Covers Provisional Balls

In the rule book, provisional balls are covered by Rule 27-2. There are three sections under Rule 27-2, and you should read the full rule for the full details. But here is the gist of the rule:

a. Procedure

  • Provisionals are played only when a ball is likely to be lost or out of bounds, not when a ball is likely to be a water hazard.
  • You must announce to your playing partners or marker that you intend to play a provisional before hitting again.
  • You must play the provisional before you or your partner goes forward to search for the first ball.

b. When Provisional Ball Becomes Ball in Play

  • You keep playing the provisional until you reach the spot the first ball is likely to be. Continuing to hit the provisional ball past that point renders the first ball lost and the provisional ball is the ball in play (make sure to add the penalty stroke for the lost ball).
  • If you confirm the original ball is lost (outside a water hazard) or OB, the provisional is the ball in play (again, add that penalty stroke!).

c. When Provisional Ball to be Abandoned

  • If you find the original ball - it is not lost nor out of bounds - then you must abandon the provisional and play the first ball.
  • If you become convinced that the original ball wound up in a water hazard, then you must abandon the provisional and proceed under Rule 26-1 covering water hazards.

Again, this is just a summary of Rule 27-2, be sure to read the full rule for more detail.

But What If Your Stroke with a Provisional Ball Is a Great Shot?

Imagine you play a provisional ball, then when you walk forward to look for that errant original ball you do find it.

But it's in a terrible spot. Meanwhile, that provisional ball is sitting out there in the middle of the fairway, in perfect position.

Can't you just keep playing the provisional ball? The short answer is no, as the summary of Rule 27-2 above should have made clear. (The exception is if the original ball is found but is out of bounds.) However, we have another article that goes in-depth into this question and some different scenarios, such as refusing to search for the first ball at all:

Also known as: Provisional, provisional shot, playing a provisional, hitting a provisional

Usage examples: "That ball might be out of bounds, so I'm going to play a provisional."

"You might want to hit a provisional ball, not sure if you'll find that first one."