The Englishman suffered a calamitous 9 after a fan found a ball in the trees. Could he have ignored it and played his provisional? Our rules expert looks at when you must identify a golf ball

We just love to help, don’t we? We’re all such eager beavers when trying to find a golf ball that we’re basically like dogs playing fetch.

Sometimes, though, as Matthew Fitzpatrick found out to his cost, that willingness to provide a helping hand can really hurt.

The Englishman’s tournament took a near fatal turn at just the 3rd hole on the first round when a spectator intervention eventually resulted in a 9 at the 417-yard hole.

According to Golfweek, Fitzpatrick fired his tee shot deep into the trees, announced a provisional ball and – isn’t this always the case? – safely found the shorter stuff.

But as he got down towards the area of his original tee shot, he learned a spectator had found a ball that might be his. He asked a rules official if he had to go and check the other ball.

Told he must, it turned out to be his. He had to abandon his provisional and then went back to the tee under penalty of stroke and distance. After that, via a penalty area, a drop, a trio of pitches and chips and two putts, he finally holed out for a quintuple bogey.

Key to the whole malaise seemed to be the fan finding a ball, and Fitzpatrick not being able to ignore it. So let’s break down the rules that ultimately contributed to Doctor’s Orders and missed cut misery…

A golf ball can be identified in a number of ways and you’ll find them all tied up in a nice little bow in Rule 7.2.

– It can be done by the player themselves or “anyone else seeing a ball come to rest in circumstances where it is known to be the player’s ball”

– By seeing the player’s identifying mark on the ball or by finding a ball that’s the same brand, mode, number and condition as their ball in an area where it is expected to be.

You can’t declare a ball lost and Rule 18.3c (3) says that when the original ball is found on the course – outside of a penalty area – before the end of the three-minute search time, the player must play the original ball as it lies. The provisional ball must be abandoned.

On your own weekend rounds, you can ask others not to search for your original ball if you’d like to continue with the provisional instead but they don’t have to listen to you. In match play, your opponent might do everything they can to try and find it!

If the provisional isn’t yet in play, which is the case either if the search time hasn’t ended or you haven’t yet hit it from a position nearer the hole than the original ball was estimated to be, then your round might fall apart pretty quickly – as Fitzpatrick found out.

That’s because if a ball is found that might be your original, you “must make all reasonable efforts to identify the ball”.

You can’t simply ignore it, and neither could Fitzpatrick. If you do, you can be disqualified by a committee under Rule 1.2a if it decides “this was serious misconduct contrary to the spirit of the game”.

As a referee, if I’ve seen a player hit a provisional, I’ve always been taught not to get involved in a subsequent search for the original ball unless it’s clear they want to look for it.

It avoids this kind of drama. So if you find yourselves on the course and are wondering whether to get hunting, take a second to figure out whether your close attentions will be welcome!

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s Level 3 rules exam with distinction, I’ll try to help by featuring the best in this column.

You can read all of Steve’s Rules of Golf explained columns here.

Has a playing partner ever found your ball when you wish they’d left well alone? Let me know with a tweet.

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. Steve is currently playing: Driver: TaylorMade Stealth 2 3-Wood: TaylorMade Stealth 2 Hybrids: TaylorMade Stealth 2 Irons: TaylorMade Stealth 5-A Wedge Wedges: TaylorMade Hi-Toe 54 and 58 Putter: Sik Sho Ball: TaylorMade TP5

Handicap: 11.3

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