Here is something that is often heard from amateur golfers, “I’ll go back and play a provisional, while you carry on searching for my ball”. Their hope is that, even if they have put a provisional ball in play from where they played their last stroke, someone will find their original ball within five minutes of search starting for it and they can therefore continue to play with it and abandon the provisional ball. Wrong! Part of Rule 27-2a states;
The player must inform his opponent in match play or his marker or a fellow-competitor in stroke play that he intends to play a provisional ball, and he must play it before he or his partner goes forward to search for the original ball.So, once the player has dropped a ball at the point where they last played from (or played another ball from the teeing ground if it was their tee shot that is lost) that is now the ball in play. It cannot be a provisional ball, even if it is announced as such, and it is irrelevant whether or not the original ball is found, as it may not be played.
Decision 27-2a/1.5 clarifies what is meant by ‘goes forward to search’, (Edit: This Decision was revised at 1st January 2014. It now reads;)
Q.Under Rule 27-2a, when is a player considered to have gone forward to search for the original ball such that a provisional ball cannot be played?
A. A player will be considered to have gone forward to search when he has proceeded more than a short distance towards the place where his original ball is likely to be. As the purpose of Rule 27-2a is to save time, the player is permitted to go forward a short distance before determining that it would save time to return promptly to play a provisional ball. As a guideline, a player should be considered to have proceeded more than a short distance, and therefore to have gone forward to search, if he has proceeded more than approximately 50 yards. However, this guideline does not preclude a player from playing a provisional ball when he has proceeded more than a short distance for another specific purpose, such as to retrieve a ball or a different club to play a provisional ball, or to confer with a referee. (Revised)
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