Golf's Rule 18: Stroke-and-Distance, Lost or OB, Provisionals

A golfer and his caddie can't find the ball.

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In the Official Rules of Golf, jointly written and maintained by the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Rule 18 is titled "Stroke-and-Distance Relief, Ball Lost or Out of Bounds, Provisional Ball."

The purpose of the rule, as excerpted from the rule book, is this:

Rule 18 covers taking relief under penalty of stroke and distance. When a ball is lost outside a penalty area or comes to rest out of bounds, the required progression of playing from the teeing area to the hole is broken; the player must resume that progression by playing again from where the previous stroke was made.
This Rule also covers how and when a provisional ball may be played to save time when the ball in play might have gone out of bounds or be lost outside a penalty area.

It is the responsibility of golfers to know the rules, and the USGA and R&A have tons of resources on their respective websites to help us learn and understand. These are links directly to the text of Rule 18 that is found on the governing bodies' websites:

Summarizing Rule 18: Ball Lost, Out of Bounds, Provisional

In our Quick Intro to the Rules of Golf, we summarize Rule 18 as follows:

  • If your ball is lost or out of bounds, you must add a penalty stroke to your score and play another ball from where you played your last shot (known as “stroke and distance”).
  • A ball is lost if it is not found within three minutes after you first begin to search or you have put another ball into play.
  • If you think your ball may be lost or out of bounds, you may play a provisional ball from the place where your first ball was played. You must inform your opponent or fellow-competitor that you are playing a provisional ball. If you cannot find your first ball or if it is out of bounds, you must count all the strokes with the first ball and provisional ball, add a penalty stroke and play out the hole with the provisional ball. If you find your first ball in bounds, you must continue to play with it and pick up the provisional ball.

Rule 18 is divided into three sections; here are those section titles, plus links to each one:

  • Rule 18.1: Relief Under Penalty of Stroke and Distance Allowed at Any Time
  • Rule 18.2: Ball Lost or Out of Bounds: Stroke-and-Distance Relief Must Be Taken
  • Rule 18.3: Provisional Ball

Click into those sections to explore a specific topic.

The Full Edition of the rule book includes a couple of diagrams within Rule 18 to help golfers understand when a golf ball is or is not out of bounds, and also to grasp parameters of playing a provisional ball.

Be sure to read the full Rule 18, interpretations of Rule 18, and definitions of important terms either on or