January 2019 is not far away now, and with it is coming a change to some golf rules, largely designed to speed up the pace of play.
One interesting rule change is that regarding lost balls.
Balls Lost or Out of Bounds: Alternative to Stroke and Distance: A new Local Rule will now be available in January 2019, permitting committees to allow golfers the option to drop the ball in the vicinity of where the ball is lost or out of bounds (including the nearest fairway area), under a two-stroke penalty. It addresses concerns raised at the club level about the negative impact on pace of play when a player is required to go back under stroke and distance. The Local Rule is not intended for higher levels of play, such as professional or elite level competitions.
It is up to each individual club committee to decide on whether this rule will be adopted or not, so watch this space.
In the mean time, simply declaring and hitting a provisional ball is the best way to speed up play when you think there is a chance your ball will be lost.
“A ‘provisional ball’ is a ball played under Rule 27-2 for a ball that may be lost outside a water hazard or may be out of bounds.”
Say you hit your drive on the 15th and it’s way right, possibly ending up on the Wirrabarra Walkway! You’re not sure if it has hit trees and stayed in bounds, or if it has snuck through the branches and over the fence. Either way, there is a fair chance it is going to be hard to find.
The penalty for a lost ball (or a ball hit out of bounds) is stroke-and-distance. The “and distance” part means that, after walking forward and searching for your ball, and confirming that it is lost or OB, you’d have to trudge all the way back to the spot of that previous stroke and play another shot, in this case the tee.
BUT: before you go forward to search, you can play a provisional ball. The purpose of the provisional is saving time: Now, after hitting the provisional, if you go forward and search and can’t find that first shot, you’ve already put another ball into play. You don’t have to walk back and re-play the shot, because you’ve already hit that provisional. Remember though, you must tell your partners of your intention to play a “provisional” before doing so.
You can hit that provisional ball as many times as you like until you reach where your original ball may have finished. If you find your original ball, then all those shots on the provisional ball won’t count. If your original ball is offically ‘lost’ or you can see it out of bounds, then those shots on your provisional ball do count, plus one for the first shot you hit which became lost, plus another for the penalty of distance. Your provisional ball becomes your ‘ball in play’.
Now just say you continued to play with your provisional ball, and hit a shot with it that is past where the original ball likely finished (as in from position C below). By default, you have put your provisional ball into play, automatically invoking the stroke and distance penalty of 2 shots, plus however many swings at your provisional you have had.
You can’t ‘choose’ to play with your provisional ball. If you find your original ball, you have to play with that ball. “If the original ball is found in bounds within 5 minutes, you must continue play of the hole with it, and must stop playing the provisional ball.” come January that 5 minutes of looking will become 3 minutes.