The Time Limit on Searching for a Lost Golf Ball

The Time Allowed for a Ball Search and the Coming Change to the Rule

Golfers and fans searching for a lost golf during a Walker Cup match
Where, oh where, can that golf ball be? You have five minutes to try to find it. Clint Hughes/Getty Images

Under the Rules of Golf, you have five minutes to search for a golf ball. If you don't find it within five minutes after beginning your search, the ball is deemed lost.

(Beginning in 2019, however, that time limit will be reduced to three minutes.)

As many people as you can gather can help look for the ball—yourself, your caddie, your mother-in-law, your hunting dog, your imaginary friend—but if your golf ball is not found within five minutes from the start of the search, you must apply the penalty for a lost ball (stroke and distance) and move on.

The Search Limit in the Rules of Golf

Where in the Official Rules of Golf is the 5-minute time limit on searching for a ball spelled out? In Rule 27, which covers balls lost or out of bounds and provisional balls.

Specifically, Rule 27-1(c) says this:

"If a ball is lost as a result of not being found or identified as his by the player within five minutes after the player's side or his or their caddies have begun to search for it, the player must play a ball, under penalty of one stroke, as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played (see Rule 20-5)."

Note, however, that the 5-minute time limit applies to the search, not to identifying your ball. Say someone who is helping with the search finds a ball within the five minutes, but it takes you a minute to get over to them and make the positive ID. That's OK. The ball was found inside of five minutes even though the identification fell beyond the time limit.

Also, the clock on the five minutes begins when your search begins, not when you played the stroke that might have resulted in a lost ball. And "when your search begins" refers to you, your partner, your caddie or your partner's caddie beginning the search.

The USGA and R&A Decisions on Rule 27-1 are quite interesting and cover some scenarios you probably have never considered.

Just Because You Can Use 5 Minutes to Search Doesn't Mean You Should

The 5-minute time limit for a possibly lost golf ball applies to all play conducted under the Rules of Golf, including rounds posted for handicap purposes. If you are playing in a tournament, playing a round that will be posted for handicap purposes, playing for money with a group of golfers who are sticklers about the rules, you can use the full five minutes for a search.

But just because you can doesn't mean you should. Always be aware of groups behind yours that might be waiting on your search. If you insist on taking the full five minutes, be prepared to allow a group behind to play through, and be quick about waving them forward.

But in recreational play—a group of buddies out on the course, having fun, playing loose with the rules (or ignoring them)—you should never, ever use the full five minutes. Please, for the love of Arnold Palmer, give up and move on so play isn't held up for everyone behind you.

Coming in 2019: Time Limit on Golf Ball Search Drops to 3 Minutes

In 2019, the R&A and USGA switch to a revamped version of the Rules of Golf. Among the goals in the new golf rules is maintaining pace of play and maybe cutting a few minutes off the time it takes to play. To that end, one of the changes taking effect as of Jan. 1, 2019, is a reduction in the time allowed to search for a golf ball from five minutes to three minutes. That will be included in the new Rule 18-2.

"Limiting the search period to 3 minutes is more consistent with the underlying principle that golf is to be played in a prompt and continuous way, without long pauses in play. In most cases, if the ball is going to be found, it will be found within the first three minutes. Although this change may increase the number of lost balls, on average the overall impact should be to speed up play. Knowing that the search time is limited to three minutes should encourage players to play a provisional ball when they believe there is a chance their ball may not be found."