Lost Golf Ball Rule

Avoid the Confusion: The Lost Golf Ball Rule 101

Is there anything worse than losing a golf ball? Not only are you out $4 or $5, you have to deal with the penalty strokes and the frustration that comes with it.

Losing a golf ball is a frustrating part of the game and happens for a variety of reasons. Maybe the ball got stuck in the trees, went in a pond, or hit the cart path and went out of bounds. Or, maybe you hit a good shot but another group picked it up. 

Keep reading to learn more about this important rule to avoid any confusion and rules issues on the golf course. 

Lost Ball Rule in Golf 

When your original ball is lost – but not in a penalty area – here’s what to do according to the USGA

“If you hit your ball out of bounds or lose it (you have three minutes to search for your ball before it becomes lost), your only option is to go back to the spot of your previous stroke to play under stroke and distance. There are only a few exceptions to this when it is known or virtually certain what happened to your ball.” 

There is also a local rule which is different from the main rule which we’ll cover later in this article. 

Key Takeaways 

  • Losing golf balls is an unfortunate part of the game and knowing the rules is important for scoring and pace of play. 
  • The most common way to deal with a lost ball is to replay the shot with a two-stroke penalty – known as stroke and distance relief. 
  • If you think your ball might be out of bounds or lost it’s best to play a provisional ball which is a “backup ball.” 
  • But there is a new local rule that helps speed up the round with a new drop and no provisional balls. 

Dealing with a Lost Ball 

Lost Golf Ball Rule

Let’s go through a few examples of this potential issue to help you understand it and not let it ruin your round.

Lost Ball (not out of bounds)

For the first example let’s assume you sliced your tee shot right in the trees but think it’s in play. You get up to where the ball should be but cannot find it anywhere. The rules of golf allow you three minutes to search for the ball – down from five minutes in the past to speed up the pace of play.

If a player delays the search – possibly waiting for a friend/family member to come help look for it – the search time starts when the player should have begun searching. If the search is interrupted by a player hitting or identifying the wrong golf ball, the time between interruption does not count. 

Additionally, you must look for the ball – even if you don’t want to find it or like your provisional ball instead. 

According to Golf Digest you cannot declare it lost if you haven’t searched for it for the full three minutes. “Unfortunately, according to the Rules of Golf, a ball is not officially lost until a player, his or her caddie or partner searches for it for a full three minutes. 

And if someone finds it within the three-minute search period—even if you desperately don’t want them to—before you make a stroke with another ball, that ball is still in play.” 

If after three minutes you can’t find it, the ball is now declared a lost ball. If you’re in a formal event and/or playing by the rules of golf you will need to head back to the tee box and hit another shot. You’ll take a stroke and distance penalty which means you’re hitting your third shot off the tee now. 

Provisional Golf Ball 

If you’re in a golf tournament and think a golf ball might be lost or out of bounds it’s a good idea to play provisional ball. A lot of golfers refer to this as a “reload” or a backup ball. 

For example, if you think the ball is lost (but not in a penalty area) or out of bounds, declare to your group you’re hitting a provisional ball. This is where you’ll hit the same shot and play it if your first ball is out of bounds or a lost ball. 

If you find your original ball, you can pick up the provisional without any issue. The goal of a provisional is to speed up the pace of play so you don’t have to go back to your original spot and play again. You can also hit several provisional balls if needed – just make sure to describe how each ball is different from the original ball and any others.

Click here to learn more about provisional golf balls. 

Lost Ball in Penalty Area 

If you think your ball is lost in a penalty area, you cannot hit a provisional ball.

A provisional ball only applies to shots you think are OB and/or lost in bushes, desert, etc. If your ball is in a penalty area – commonly referred to as water hazards – you must drop using the penalty area rules. 

When your ball is lost in a penalty area you have a few options:

  • Replay the shot from the previous spot. 
  • Drop as far back as you’d like within the original spot and penalty area. 
  • Drop within two club lengths of the line where the ball went in the penalty area. 

New Local Rule

If the local rule is in effect you can play a lost ball slightly differently than the normal rule. If you lose a ball that isn’t in a penalty area or out of bounds there is a different rule to avoid a two shot penalty. 

When a provisional ball has not been played, significant issues with pace of play can result for a player needing to take stroke-and-distance relief for a ball that is out of bounds or cannot be found.”

This is why the USGA implemented this new local rule. 

“The purpose of this Local Rule is to allow a Committee to provide an extra relief option that allows a player to play on without returning to the location of the previous stroke.”

Here’s what to do according to the USGA. 

  • Determine the spot where the ball is likely lost. 
  • Then find the nearest fairway edge from this spot that is no closer to the hole. 
  • Imagine a horozontial line between the original spot and the spot no closer in the fairway. You can then drop in this area and not nearer the hole (see image above). 

As the USGA noted this is a local rule that doesn’t apply to higher levels of play such as competitive amateur golf events. This is a rule implemented to speed up the pace of play by not having to hit provisional balls and worry about players going back to the original spot. 

The USGA has a graphic here that might help you visualize this a little better.

Lost Golf Ball Rule


Do you have more questions about losing a golf ball and other common rules? If so, keep reading through our most frequently asked questions and answers now.  

Is lost ball a 2-stroke penalty?

Yes, if you lose a ball you must replay the original shot with a two shot penalty – commonly known as stroke and distance. For instance, if you lose your tee shot (the first shot of the hole) when you replay the shot you’ll be hitting your third shot. 

What is the relief from a lost ball?

Here’s what the USGA said about losing a golf ball. “If you can’t find your ball within three minutes, it is lost. Because it is lost, you must return to the spot of your previous stroke and play another ball from there for one penalty stroke (see Rule 18.2b).”

How many strokes is a lost ball on a golf course?

Losing a golf ball is two penalty strokes. For example, if you lose your second shot on a par 5 you’ll need to replay from the same spot and are hitting your 4th shot. 

What happens if you lose your ball off the tee?

If you think you lost your golf ball off the tee you should hit a provisional before going to look for it. A provisional will help you speed up the pace of play and if you find the original you can pick up the provisional. 

Can you declare a golf ball lost without looking for it?

Unfortunately no – you cannot declare a ball lost without looking for it for the full three minutes. A ball does not become lost if a player simply chooses not to look for the ball. 

Once declared lost, you’ll need to hit a second ball or play your provisional.

Do I have to look for other players’ golf balls?

No, it’s not technically required to look for a player’s ball by the rules of golf but highly recommended speeding up the pace of play and a best practice. Plus, if you hit a wayward drive you might need help looking for your ball in the future.

Can I move an out-of-bounds stake?

No, objects that mark the boundaries of the golf course cannot be moved. Similarly, if you’re up against an out-of-bounds fence or retaining wall, you do not get relief either. You must play it as it lies or take an unplayable lie and play it from a new spot with a one stroke penalty. 

Can I hit a ball from a penalty area?

Yes, you can hit a ball from a penalty area – even if it’s partly submerged in water. Check out our guide to learn how to hit a shot from water here

If you’re not in water but still in a penalty area you can also play the shot without penalty. You can also ground the club too – a new rule that didn’t exist until a few years ago. 

What if my golf ball gets stuck in a tree?

This happens more than you might think. Sometimes you hit a wayward shot toward the trees but the ball never drops from the branches… Now what do you do?

You have a few options.

First, you can climb the tree and attempt to play it if possible. This is obviously dangerous at times and something you’d see more in professional golf where millions of dollars are on the line.

The second option is if you can identify it you can take lateral relief or back on the line relief with one stroke penalty. If you can’t find it in the trees after three minutes it’s declared lost and you’ll need to re tee and continue playing.

Provisional Ball in Golf

My Experience

Losing golf balls is frustrating but happens for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you hit a good shot and have a bad bounce. Other times it might get stuck in a tree or some other situation that’s beyond your control. 

If you think your ball is lost, always hit a provisional golf shot – as long as the ball didn’t likely end up in a penalty area. Provisional speed up the pace of play significantly and there’s nothing worse than having to go back to the previous location to hit again. 

Then you’re most likely flustered, the group behind you is annoyed, and it’s just a bad experience for everyone. Not to mention the rest of the hole and maybe the next few holes you’ll be rushed too.

Bottom line – take advantage of hitting provisional balls to avoid this and speed up the pace of play.

Final Thoughts 

There are a lot of golf rules in stroke play and match play competition which can feel a little overwhelming for newer golfers. But if you want to play in more golf tournaments, it’s vital to know the rules of golf to avoid any scoring issues.

If a ball is lost and there is no local rule you must take stroke and distance relief from where the ball played originally. Then play from the same distance hitting

If it’s a casual round with friends you can use the local rule or drop like you would lateral relief. Some groups will allow a free drop – especially if you hit it good but you can’t find it. Other groups use different rules and might add one penalty stroke instead of two strokes.