Everyone knows you’re supposed to say you’re playing a provisional ball, but what exactly does that mean? Our expert looks under the bonnet of Rule 18.3b

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf at the beginning of 2019, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s level 2 rules exam with distinction, I am more than happy to help.

It should be one of the simplest things you can say: “I’m going to play a provisional ball.” But whether it’s because we’re flustered we might have fired one straight out of bounds, or just because we’re not precise on the wording we should use, I’ve seen plenty of instances where players get confused about what exactly constitutes announcing the play of a provisional.

It still happens at the very top level, too. At the 2020 ANA Inspiration, Sei Young Kim was reported to have hit a wayward drive on the 13th at Mission Hills and then failed to clearly declare her provisional.

There’s also been a couple of wider questions about provisionals in my recent Rules of Golf explained columns that have also sparked debate about the measures you should take.

So let this be a one-stop guide for anyone who’s ever had a query. You’ll never accidentally take stroke-and-distance again…

What do the Rules of Golf say about announcing the play of a provisional ball?

Rule 18.3b states “before the stroke is made, the player must announce that he or she is going to play a provisional ball.”

It adds: “It is not enough for the player only to say that he or she is playing another ball or is playing again.

“The player must use the word ‘provisional’ or otherwise clearly indicate that he or she is playing the ball provisionally under Rule 18.3.

“If the player does not announce this (even if he or she intended to play a provisional ball) and plays a ball from where the previous stroke was made, that ball is the player’s ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance.”

All seems pretty clear, right? So where does the confusion arise? Perhaps where things are open to debate comes in the bit that says “otherwise clearly indicate”.

What does that mean? Thankfully, if you’ve got the larger Official Guide to the Rules of Golf at hand, the answer lies within.

Rules of Golf

How do you ‘clearly indicate’ a provisional ball is being played?

Well, it’s obvious. An interpretation to Rule 18.3b reveals “it is best if the player uses the word ‘provisional’ in his or her announcement.

But it also says other statements that make the player’s intent to play a provisional ball clear are also acceptable.

Helpfully, they list some examples. These are good…

“I’m playing a ball under Rule 18.3.”

“I’m going to play another just in case”.

The following, however, are bad. Repeating these next two phrases are examples of announcements that “do not clearly indicate the player is playing a provisional ball and mean that the player would be putting a ball into play under stroke and distance”.

“I’m going to reload.”

“I’m going to play another.”

Make sure people hear you say it

This little nugget is revealed in another interpretation to Rule 18.3b titled: “What is Considered Announcement of Provisional Ball”.

Although Rule 18.3b doesn’t specify to whom the announcement of a provisional ball must be made, “an announcement must be made so that people in the vicinity of the player can hear it”.

“For example,” it says, “with other people nearby, if a player states that he or she will be playing a provisional ball but does so in a way that only he or she can hear it, this does not satisfy the requirement in Rule 18.3b that the player must “announce” that he or she is going to play a provisional ball”.

What if there’s no one around? Even that is covered.

“If there are no other people nearby to hear the player’s announcement (such as when a player has returned to the teeing area after briefly searching for his or her ball), the player is considered to have correctly announced that he or she has the intent to play a provisional ball provided that he or she informs someone of that when it becomes possible to do so.”

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