Our Rules of Golf expert finds himself constantly tearing out what's left of his hair when hearing of people declaring a golf ball lost. So here's what you absolutely must know

Lost Golf Ball Rules

This is probably golf’s biggest myth. It just refuses to die, no matter how much you shout about it, or just scream into a mirror. It’s a belief that’s just so widespread on our fairways that it will probably always have legs.

But let’s have a go at squelching it anyway – because the more of you that read this and pass it on, the more we’ll have a chance of finally silencing one of the sport’s largest misunderstandings…

Lost golf ball rules: Can you declare a ball lost?


One more time: No.

Simple, isn’t it? But I get so many emails telling me that’s exactly what someone has done in a particular rules situation, and it’s dominated how they’ve then proceeded on the course.

When I’m out playing too, people will often say to me, after hitting a shocker, “I’ll declare that lost”.

But you can’t say that, and you haven’t been able to for quite some time.

I think one of the reasons this has stuck as long as it has is that back in the dim and distant rules past you were indeed able to consider that your ball was beyond salvation and say so.

It was right there in the definitions, like this one from the 1960 Rules of Golf: “A ball is ‘lost’ if… it be declared lost by the player without searching for five minutes.”

That book is pretty significant, actually. Because it was the last time that assertion appeared in print. Fast forward four years to 1964 and it was completely gone. You’ve not been able to declare a ball lost since.

In the 2019 Rules of Golf, there was an interpretation to the definition of lost that explicitly said ‘Ball May Not Be Declared Lost’.

It stated: “A player may not make a ball lost by declaration. A ball is only lost when it has not been found within three minutes after the player or his or her caddie or partner begins to search for it.”

But maybe the message hadn’t got through as the R&A and USGA have addressed it again the 2023 Rules of Golf. Now, it has been written into the definition of lost.

For the avoidance of any further doubt, it states: “A ball does not become lost as a result of the player declaring it to be lost”.

Why does it matter?

You always have the option of taking stroke and distance relief – no matter where your ball is on the course. Sometimes you’ll hit one so badly you won’t even look.

It’s because there are occasions where thinking you can make such a declaration, when you can’t, can get you into trouble.

There was a great example of this in the 2019 interpretation. While that might be scrubbed clean in the new rule book, the example is still very relevant.

It outlined a player who is searching for their ball and spends two minutes doing so. They get fed up, declare it lost, and start walking back to put another ball into play.

Before that happens, and within the three-minute search time, their original ball is found. That ball is still in play. The player has to return to that ball.

And what if you announce a provisional? Yep, it becomes the ball in play after the end of the three-minute search time, or when that provisional is played from a spot nearer the hole than where the original ball is estimated to be.

So, once and for all, put any thoughts of declaring a ball lost out of your minds.

More on the 2023 Rules of Golf update

We’ve painstakingly been through every update to make sure you have everything you need to know about the biggest changes, from penalties in Stableford, handicaps on scorecards, back-on-the-line relief, and much, much more.

Rules of Golf podcast

Steve Carroll and Tom Irwin sat down to discuss the 2023 updates on the From the Clubhouse podcast.

Listen in the player below, or on your preferred podcast platform.

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 23 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former captain and committee member, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the national Tournament Administrators and Referee's Seminar. He has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying and the PGA Fourball Championship. A member of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap.

Handicap: 10.9

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