Round 4 – Required Penalty Relief





In this round of the Short Course, we are going to take a look at required penalty relief situations. In the last round, we looked at the various types of penalty relief procedures and some situations when you have a choice as to whether or not to take relief. But in this round, we’ll look at the situations where you are required to take penalty relief, which includes when your ball is lost or out of bounds, and we’ll also look at when and how to play a provisional ball.


When Your Ball is Lost

The term “lost” in the Rules of Golf is an important one to know – when your ball becomes lost, its status changes from your ball in play to a wrong ball. This means you can no longer play your original ball once it is lost according to the Rules – even if you find it on the course later!

So when is your ball lost? Your ball becomes lost once you have searched for it for three-minutes without finding it. This doesn’t mean you need to run down the fairway to start looking for your ball. The search time starts once you or your caddie (or your partner or partner’s caddie) start looking for your ball.

There are some limited cases where your search might be stopped briefly. In those cases, you get a full three-minutes of search time that does not include the interrupted time. For example, if you search for two minutes and then have to leave the area and stand aside for another player to play for 40 seconds, you still have your full one minute of search time remaining.

Not finding your ball within three minutes is the only way a ball becomes lost. You are not able to “declare” a ball lost – if you hit your ball into a bad area, you can simply choose to not search for your ball, but nothing you say will make it “lost” according to the Rules However, if a ball is found that might be yours, you need to check it out to see if it is actually your ball. And if a ball is found within the three-minute search time, it is ok if you are not able to physically get to the ball to identify it until after the three minutes elapses. You get a reasonable amount of time to get to the ball to identify it.


When Your Ball is Out of Bounds

Golf courses do not always have boundaries, but when they do, those boundaries could be defined in a wide variety of ways.

Objects that golf courses or committees use to define course boundaries are called boundary objects. These artificial objects are called out and given a unique name because they are not just simple obstructions (like a cart path or sprinkler head). Boundary objects define the edge of the course and, even though they are artificial, you do not get free relief if they interfere with your play. The most common boundary objects are stakes and fences, but they could also be any number of other artificial objects such as walls, roads or railings. Posts and bases of these objects are also part of the boundary object.

When stakes or a fence with posts define the boundary, the actual boundary line is the course-side edge of the stakes or posts at ground level. This means that the stake or post itself is out of bounds.

Out of bounds can also be defined by a painted line on the ground, which is more common for competitions than daily play at golf courses. When a painted line is used, the edge is defined in the same way as with stakes – the course-side edge of the line is the boundary edge and the line itself is out of bounds.

If some other boundary object is being used to define the edge, the committee needs to clarify exactly how the edge is being defined. For example, if a wall is defining the boundary, is the course-side face of the wall the boundary edge, or is the ball only out of bounds when all of it is beyond the whole wall? If the committee states that a road is defining out of bounds, is it the curb, the asphalt or perhaps the painted line on the road that is the boundary edge?

However the edge is defined, your ball is only out of bounds once ALL of the ball is over that edge. This is true even when the ball is suspended in the air in a tree branch, bush or something else above the ground, or in a hole below the ground. When it comes to whether a ball is on or off the course, the boundary edge is really an extended plane both above the ground and below the ground, and if any part of the ball breaks that plane on the course-side – the ball is on the course and is not out of bounds.


Very much like the teeing area, when it comes to playing your ball, it only matters that the ball itself is on the course. You can take a stance out of bounds to play a ball that lies in bounds.


What to Do When Your Ball is Lost or Out of Bounds

In the last lesson, we covered one of the few absolutes in the Rules of Golf: you always have the option to proceed under stroke and distance. Here we’ll look at the other side of stroke and distance – when it is your ONLY option under the Rules.

If your ball is either lost or out of bounds, the Rules do not provide you any choices for relief – you are required to proceed under penalty of stroke and distance and play a ball from the spot of your previous stroke.


This Rule does come with some exceptions. If, when the three-minute search time ends (or before), it is known or virtually certain that something covered by the Rules happened to the ball, then you get the option to use that relief (whether it be free relief or penalty relief) instead of stroke and distance.

So if it was known or virtually certain that:

  • Your original ball did come to rest on the course but
    • was moved by an outside influence, or
    • was played as a wrong ball by another player, or
    • is in or on a movable obstruction, or
    • is in or on an abnormal course condition…
  • Your original ball is in a penalty area…
  • Your original ball was deliberately deflected or stopped by any person…

…then you are allowed to take the relief options available for those specific Rules, or proceed under penalty of stroke and distance (because that is always allowed).



Alternative to Stroke and Distance

In 2019, a completely new relief procedure was introduced as an option for committees to use as an alternative to stroke and distance. In many ways, this model Local Rule operates how many golfers do during casual rounds of golf when going back to the tee is not a feasible option. To save time, the committee can put this Local Rule into effect, but it will cost you TWO penalty strokes to use since you would no longer be paying the “distance” part of the stroke-and-distance penalty.

Reference Points

To use the model Local Rule option, you must determine two different reference points – a ball reference point and a fairway reference point.

The ball reference point is slightly different depending on whether you’re using the rule for a ball that hasn’t been found or a ball that is known or virtually certain to be out of bounds:

  • If you’re dropping for a ball that hasn’t been found, then your ball reference point is the spot where the original ball is estimated to have come to rest.
  • If you’re dropping because it is known or virtually certain that the original ball is out of bounds, then your ball reference point is the estimated point where your ball last crossed the edge of the boundary.


The fairway reference point is the same in both situations. It is the nearest point of fairway of the hole being played that is nearest to the ball reference point and not closer to the hole. In some cases, you may be using this option on a hole that does not really have an actual fairway. So for the purposes of this Local Rule, the term “fairway” means any area of grass in the general area that is cut to fairway height or less. This could be a walking path, fringe around the putting green, or a forward tee pad.

The Relief Area

Once the two reference points are determined, you can figure out exactly where and how large the relief area is. To do so, draw imaginary lines from the hole through each of the two reference points. All of the course in the general area between those two lines that is not closer to the hole than the ball reference point is eligible relief area.

In addition to that, you get a two club-length corridor on the outside of each line (if in the general area), no nearer the hole. This means you may have an extremely wide and lengthy relief area to drop within. The diagrams below will help to illustrate the relief area.

Even with such a large relief area, the most common application of the Rule is pretty simple:

  1. Determine the ball reference point.
  2. Determine the fairway reference point.
  3. Measure two club-lengths into the fairway to get the corridor.
  4. Drop within the corridor in the fairway.

But now you know that you actually get a much larger relief area than just the two club-lengths into the fairway.

Once you drop to take relief using this Local Rule, your original ball is no longer in play and must not be played.

When This Local Rule Is Not Allowed

There are two situations when you are not allowed to use the Local Rule option even when the Committee has put the Local Rule into effect:

  • If it is known or virtually certain that your ball came to rest in a penalty area, and
  • If you have already played a provisional ball.

In both of these cases, you cannot use this two-stroke penalty option and must either take penalty relief using your penalty area relief options, or proceed with your provisional ball under penalty of stroke and distance (but if the provisional is also not found, you could use the local rule option with respect to the provisional ball).


Provisional Ball

Even when the Model Local Rule above is not being used, you do have another time-saving option to avoid having to go all the way back to the spot of your previous stroke. If you think your ball might be lost somewhere outside of a penalty area or might be out of bounds, then you can play another ball provisionally.

Playing a Provisional Ball

First, announce the provisional ball by saying something that clearly indicates you are playing a provisional. If you put another ball into play at the spot of your previous stroke without announcing it as a provisional ball, that ball automatically becomes your ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance.

Second, put that ball into play using the correct procedure for playing a ball from the previous spot depending on which area of the course you just played from. This just means that you will usually be required to drop the provisional ball, unless you are in the teeing area (where you can tee your ball up) or on the putting green (where you would place your ball on the correct spot).

When a Provisional Ball Is Allowed

You can play a provisional ball any time you believe your ball might be lost outside a penalty area or might be out of bounds. You are not allowed to play a provisional ball solely because you think your original is in a penalty area. If you play a ball from the previous spot for that reason, that second ball is your ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance.

However, just because your ball might be in a penalty area does not mean you cannot play a provisional so long as there is at least some chance that it could also be lost outside the penalty area.

When Provisional Becomes Your Ball in Play

Before the original is found, you are allowed to continue playing the provisional ball all the way up to the same distance from the hole as where you estimate your original ball to be. At that point, whether or not your provisional becomes your ball in play depends on the actions you take and what happens with your original ball.

If you make a stroke at your provisional ball from a spot nearer the hole than where your original is estimated to be, then the provisional becomes your ball in play under stroke and distance.

If you wait to play that stroke from nearer the hole and search for your original, then your provisional becomes the ball in play if you do not find the original ball within the three-minute search time  or if it is out of bounds.

This is exactly where a provisional ball saves you time. If your original ball is lost outside a penalty area or out of bounds, rather than having to go back to the previous spot to play under stroke and distance, you simply continue with the provisional ball.

There are a few limited situations where you have a choice of continuing play with your provisional ball or taking relief. If it is known or virtually certain that:

  • Your original ball did come to rest on the course but
    • was moved by an outside influence, or
    • is in or on a movable obstruction, or
    • is in or on an abnormal course condition…
  • Your original ball was deliberately deflected or stopped by any person…

…then you can either continue with the provisional ball under penalty of stroke and distance, or take relief as allowed in the applicable Rule.

You’ll notice that the list above is slightly different than the one from earlier in the lesson dealing with lost balls. If your ball is known or virtually certain to be in a penalty area, you specifically are not allowed to continue with the provisional, which we’ll cover next.


When the Provisional Ball Must Be Abandoned

Sometimes you find your original ball somewhere you’d rather it not be. But in this case, the Rules do not give you a choice of how to proceed. If you find your original ball on the course before the three-minute search time ends, you are not allowed to make any further strokes at the provisional. You may have to treat the ball as unplayable and take penalty relief, but your provisional ball is no longer an option.

The provisional ball is also not an option if it becomes known or virtually certain your original ball is in a penalty area. Just like when you find your ball somewhere you cannot play from, your only options are to try and play the ball as it lies or take penalty relief – in this case, penalty area relief. Even if you choose the stroke-and-distance option, the provisional ball is not one of your choices.

When the provisional ball is abandoned, all strokes made with it, including penalty strokes solely from playing that ball, do not count in your score.

If you are interested in reading the text of the relevant Rules discussed here, it can be found primarily in Rule 18 (Stroke-and-Distance Relief; Ball Lost or Out of Bounds; Provisional Ball). And as always, if you have any questions, you can reach us directly at [email protected] or 908-326-1850.

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