The Time Limit on Searching for a Lost Golf Ball

How Long Are Golfers Allowed to Search for a Ball Before It Is Lost?

Golfers and fans searching for a lost golf during a Walker Cup match
Where, oh where, can that golf ball be? You have five minutes to try to find it. Clint Hughes/Getty Images

Under the Rules of Golf, you have three minutes to search for a golf ball. If you don't find it within three minutes after beginning your search, the ball is deemed lost.

The three-minute time limit is new. Prior to Jan. 1, 2019, golfers had five minutes to conduct a search for a potentially lost golf ball. However, the Rules of Golf in effect since that date, the time limit is now three minutes.

When the reduction from five to three minutes for a ball search was announced, the USGA provided this explanation:

"Limiting the search period to 3 minutes is more consistent with the underlying principle that golf is to be played in a prompt and continuous way, without long pauses in play. In most cases, if the ball is going to be found, it will be found within the first three minutes. Although this change may increase the number of lost balls, on average the overall impact should be to speed up play. Knowing that the search time is limited to three minutes should encourage players to play a provisional ball when they believe there is a chance their ball may not be found."

As many people as you can gather can help look for the ball—yourself, your caddie, your mother-in-law, your hunting dog, your imaginary friend—but if your golf ball is not found within three minutes from the start of the search, you must apply the penalty for a lost ball (stroke and distance) and move on.

The Search Limit in the Rules of Golf

Where in the Official Rules of Golf is the 3-minute time limit on searching for a ball spelled out? In Rule 18-2, which covers balls lost or out of bounds. The rule includes this:

"A ball is lost if not found in three minutes after the player or his or her caddie begins to search for it."

Further, the Definitions section of the rule book includes this definition of "lost":

The status of a ball that is not found in three minutes after the player or his or her caddie (or the player’s partner or partner’s caddie) begins to search for it.
If the search begins and is then temporarily interrupted for a good reason (such as when the player stops searching when play is suspended or needs to stand aside to wait for another player to play) or when the player has mistakenly identified a wrong ball: a) The time between the interruption and when the search resumes does not count, and b) The time allowed for search is three minutes in total, counting the search time both before the interruption and after the search resumes.

Just Because You Can Use 3 Minutes to Search Doesn't Mean You Should

The three-minute time limit for a possibly lost golf ball applies to all play conducted under the Rules of Golf, including rounds posted for handicap purposes. If you are playing in a tournament, playing a round that will be posted for handicap purposes, playing for money with a group of golfers who are sticklers about the rules, you can use the full three minutes for a search.

But just because you can doesn't mean you should. Always be aware of groups behind yours that might be waiting on your search. If you insist on taking the full three minutes, be prepared to allow a group behind to play through, and be quick about waving them forward.

But in recreational play—a group of buddies out on the course, having fun, playing loose with the rules (or ignoring them)—you should avoid taking the full three minutes. Please, for the love of Arnold Palmer, give up and move on so play isn't held up for everyone behind you.