Lost Golf Ball: Here’s what to do (2024 Rules)

Tree Lined Green on Golf Course

It doesn’t matter if it’s your first round of golf, or if you’re Tiger Woods: you’re going to lose a golf ball.

When you have a lost ball situation, it’s important to know exactly what to do- especially if you’re in a match! There is always a penalty for a lost ball in golf, but you may not know exactly what that is. We’re going to lay out a few possible scenarios to help navigate what to do when you lose your golf ball.

What to Do When your golf ball is lost

First thing is first, what is a lost golf ball? Simply put, any time you cannot find your ball within the allotted time, it is considered a lost ball. Sometimes this is obvious, like when you shank one into the trees, or see a splash in a water hazard.

Other times you’re fairly certain you’ll find your ball, and for whatever reason, the course has swallowed it up. Painful.

Decide on a Provisional

If you hit your shot off the tee and think you may not be able to find the ball, you’re allowed to hit a provisional ball that you can play in the event your first ball is lost. Once you decide to hit a provisional, you have to announce to your group that you’re hitting the provisional. This ball is to only be used in the event you cant find your lost ball.

If you use your provisional, know that you’ve technically taken your 3rd stroke, and your next stroke will be considered your 4th.

Look for your lost ball

According to the official ruling, once you reach the area you lost your golf ball in, you have 3 minutes from when you start searching to find the ball. If you do not find your ball in the allotted 3 minutes, the ball must be declared lost. Just to be clear- if you hit one in the water, you don’t need to spend 3 minutes looking for it. 3 minutes is just the maximum time you can spend.

Now, if you find a ball, you are allowed to take another minute or two and make sure that ball is yours.

If you haven’t found your own ball within this 3 minute timespan, your golf ball is considered lost.

Take the Appropriate penalty

Once you know for a fact your ball is lost, you need to take the appropriate penalty. In many situations, players can be confused on exactly which penalty best applies to their situation. Let’s break them down.

USGA Rule 18: Ball Lost Or Out Of Bounds Rules

For a long time the Lost Ball Rule was 27.1, but thanks to a revamp of the USGA rules it is now Rule 18: Ball Lost or Out of Bounds. There are now a few different scenarios, we’ll explain each of them and what to do.

Stroke and Distance Penalty

After you’ve determined that you’ve got a lost golf ball, you must take what the USGA calls stroke-and-distance relief. Effectively, this means you take one penalty stroke, and play the ball from where the previous stroke was made. For example, if you lost your ball from your tee shot, you would now need to go back to the tee, and you would be hitting your 3rd shot.

While these are the official rules, most casual golfers out playing don’t normally take these steps. Most of the time golfers who are out there playing to have a good time will just drop a ball where they presume they lost it, and add a penalty stroke. If we all played by the true rules, you’d technically be taking two strokes penalty by doing this!

Back On the Line Relief

Now, stroke and distance isn’t the only possible option when you have a lost golf ball. There’s another form of relief the USGA outlines, called back on the line relief.

This rule comes into play when you hit your ball into a penalty area (a body of water, or any other area lined with red or yellow stakes). If you are “virtually certain” that your ball came to rest in a penalty area, you can use this rule to your advantage.

You may drop either your original ball or another golf ball in a relief area. This area will be determined based off of where your ball when out of bounds, combined with a reference line from the hole that intersects where you went out of bounds.

It’s worth noting, you can’t drop your ball any closer to the hole. You can however go as far back as you want on this line. Here’s a diagram the USGA put together to demonstrate:

Relief for ball in yellow penalty area USGA diagram

Lateral Relief (Only Red Staked Areas)

This is the 3rd and final potential penalty for a lost ball in golf, lateral relief. If you hit your ball into a red staked area, you’re allowed to drop your golf ball laterally from where your ball crossed into the hazard. From the point of entry you’re allowed to drop your ball within 2 club lengths. Taking lateral relief will incur one penalty stroke for this lost ball.

New Local Rule (Not Always Applicable)

The local rule isn’t universal, and the golf course you’re playing at will have to state whether they allow this rule or not. For two penalty strokes you can essentially drop your ball in the fairway.

First, identify where your ball likely was lost. From there move laterally to the fairway, no closer to the hole. You’re allowed to drop within two clubs lengths of the fairway edge, and anywhere between this spot and where your ball went out.

The caveat to this rule is that you can’t do this if you’ve lost your ball in a hazard or penalty area, or if you’ve already played a provisional.

Final thoughts

Depending on how you lost your golf ball, there are a few ways to play it. You will always incur a penalty for a lost ball in golf, but often times you have options as to what that looks like. It usually makes most sense to back on the line relief, or lateral relief. It pays to know the rules of golf, so hopefully this article helped navigate what to do when you lose your ball!

Related Posts