Rules explainer: Will there really be no more provisional balls in 2019?

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Rules explainer: Will there really be no more provisional balls in 2019?

Have you ever played a provisional ball? Of course you have not. Your ball lands in the fairway each and every time… I’m kidding. In all seriousness, though, in 2019, there will no longer be any provisional balls. This point has not gotten so much attention, so let me clear it up for you.

In 2019, it will be possible for golf clubs to apply two new local rules, which in essence give you the option–instead of going all the way back to the tee (or instead of playing a provisional ball)–to drop a ball with a two-stroke penalty in the vicinity of where your ball is lost or where your ball crossed the out-of-bounds margin. These two options, though, are only available if you have not played a provisional ball. Let me come back to that in a moment.

First of all, be aware that this local rule is meant only for non-elite-players. Thus, it will not apply for professionals, and it is not intended for elite amateurs.

Secondly, it is important to understand the reason for these new options: The governing bodies want to increase pace of play.

This is the scenario with the rules as they stand today

  1. You play a ball, and it goes towards out of bounds or towards some rough.
  2. You decide to play a provisional ball, and maybe you don’t have it in your pocket, so you have to go to your bag and get it.
  3. You declare to your fellow player that you play a provisional ball.
  4. You play the provisional ball.
  5. You now have to search for two balls, both the first and the provisional–so you might have to search twice.
  6. By the way: If the provisional ball is also near out of bounds or e.g. rough, you should in fact play another provisional ball for the provisional ball.
  7. If you did not play a provisional ball, and did not find your first ball, you had to go all the way back to play a new ball.

All this takes way too long. That is the reason that they have introduced this new option. So, you might ask: “Well then how exactly do we then proceed under these new local rules?” My answer is that I had hoped you had not asked, because it is not easy to explain.

Let me try a shorter version and a longer version. Both versions are a about a situation where you have played your ball towards out of bounds or towards an area (not in a penalty area), where you might not find it.

Short versions

Ball hit out of bounds

  1. Estimate the crossing point to OOB (“A”).
  2. Find the nearest fairway edge, equidistant from the hole (“B”).
  3. Drop e.g. on the fairway within two club lengths of “Y”, not nearer the hole.

Lost ball

  1. Estimate the spot where the ball lies (“A”).
  2. Find the nearest fairway edge, equidistant from the hole (“B”).
  3. Drop e.g. on the fairway within two club lengths of this spot, not nearer the hole.

If you proceed under that short version, you will comply with the rules. But to understand your options fully, you need to read the long version.

Long versions

Although the short version is correct, it does not cover all your options. Below I have copied the text from the local rule, where it is explained in more detail.

For two penalty strokes, the player may take relief by dropping the original ball or a substituted ball in this relief area (see Rule 14.3): Two Estimated Reference Points: a. Ball Reference Point: The point where the original ball: • Is estimated to have come to rest on the course, or • Last crossed the edge of the course boundary to go out of bounds.

b. Fairway Reference Point: The point of fairway of the hole being played that is nearest to the ball reference point, but is not nearer the hole than the ball reference point. For purposes of this Local Rule, “fairway” means any area of grass in the general area that is cut to fairway height or less.

Size of Relief Area Based on Reference Points: Anywhere between

  • A line from the hole through the ball reference point (or within two club-lengths to the outside of that line), and
  • A line from the hole through the fairway reference point (or within two club-lengths to the outside of that line).

Not really easy to understand, eh?

But here’s the point, as also stated above: These options are only available, if you have NOT played a provisional ball! In other words: If you chose to play a provisional ball, you also chose not to apply these local rules! Therefore, you have to do the math below.

  1. If I play a provisional ball (and it becomes in play) then it will cost me one stroke and one penalty, in all two strokes.
  2. If instead I don’t play a provisional ball and rather invoke the new local rule, then it will likewise cost me two penalty strokes.
  3. The big question then is: Do I think, that by playing a provisional ball I can be in a better position, than if I dropped according to the local rule?
  4. This could lead to the conclusion that you would maybe play a provisional ball if your stroke was very bad (e.g. only 40 yards into some rough). You then would think that you could do much better with a provisional ball) and that you would NOT play a provisional ball if you made a very long stroke (e.g. 250 yards), since there would be a good chance that the provisional ball would end up much shorter than if your applied the local rule and dropped in accordance.

The hope from R&A and USGA is probably that people will stop playing provisional balls…simply because it takes too long. But the dream for R&A and USGA would probably be this scenario in 2019

  1. Your ball seems to go towards out of bounds or seems to go towards some rough (outside a penalty area) where you maybe cannot find it.
  2. You immediately walk to the place where you think it is (without playing a provisional).
  3. If you don’t find it within the three minutes search time, you apply the local rule and drop/play another ball in accordance with that.

This will increase pace of play significantly. But the question is: What will players do? What would you do? From a player’s point of view it might look a bit more different, as stated above.

Some players would maybe do the math above, and sometimes play a provisional and sometimes not. Other players would think that it is a wonderful new opportunity and use it all the time. Other players again will find it hard to understand exactly where to drop under the local rule and thus would either do it wrong or not apply the new local rule at all.

So what is the conclusion then?

Well, maybe there will not be any more provisional balls played in 2019. Or maybe there will be, and there won’t really be any notable difference from today.

But no matter what, please remember, that these are only local rules, so in 2019 you must find out whether or not your club has such a local rule. And when you have found out, you must decide what to do in a situation where you can play a provisional ball. My guess would be, that many would do as they do today: not play a provisional ball.

Feel free to reply below. Will you play a provisional ball in 2019? Do you think golf clubs should have these local rules?

Rules explainer: Will there really be no more provisional balls in 2019?

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