Confusing Golf Rule #2: Out of Bounds and Lost Ball

I used to belong to a gem of a club in Northern California, Sequoyah Country Club.  Sequoyah is known for narrow fairways, lots of trees, changing terrain and small but fast greens.  And trouble.  I’ve been in a lot of trouble at Sequoyah and not just at the 19th hole.  Where trouble exists, the rules come into play.

First, let’s talk about Out of Bounds, or OB.  OB areas are outside the boundary of the golf course, but can also be marked area inside the property as well, for example near parking lots.  OB areas are marked by white stakes (sometimes white lines) or a boundary fence.

Simple OB Rule:  Play It Again and Add a Penalty Stroke

If you know your ball is OB, drop another ball as close as possible to where you last played, take a penalty stroke and keep moving.   Once I was on the 12th hole at Sequoyah, a medium length par 3 with a public road that runs just to the right of it.  While I hoped to hit it 150 yards to the center of the green, instead I hit a hosel-rocket over the fence and down the road.  Fortunately, it didn’t land in the passenger seat of moving car.  I had one and only one option:  re-tee the ball and take the penalty.  So before I even hit the tee shot for the second time, I already have 2 strokes:  1 for the original tee shot and 1 more for the penalty.  So to get a par would require a heroic hole-out from the tee, which unfortunately wouldn’t count as a hole in one.  But it would be an awesome par save!

Is it Really OB?

Sometimes a ball comes to rest near or close to the OB stakes or mark.  Here’s the deal.  The ball is OB if all of it is OB, and OB is defined as the inside edge (or the edge that is toward being in bounds) of the OB mark.   If the out of bounds area is marked by a white line, if all of the ball is over that “inside edge” of the line, it’s OB.  If the out of bounds area is marked by white stakes, you have to draw an imaginary line between the two stakes that are on either side of the ball.   I usually find a place to crouch down near one stake so that the other stake is lined up behind it.  If no part of the ball between them is visible at the in-bounds edge of the stakes, the ball is OB.

It’s Not OB!  What’s My Relief?

Good news!  You find your ball and it is next to the boundary fence but is in bounds but the fence gives you no backswing.  What’s the relief?  No relief is granted.  Even if the ball was sitting next to a white stake that is easily removed, you can’t remove a white stake.  Let’s just say it’s good luck to have found your ball in-bounds, but sometimes it isn’t all that good.   In dire circumstances, you can take an “Unplayable” one-stroke penalty and move the ball no closer to the hole and within two-club-lengths, but sometimes the geography of a course may make that impossible.  For example, at Sequoyah I flew over the 8th green and the ball bounced on the 9th tee box (fortunately no one was on the box), and it came to rest next to the corner of the boundary fence.   I had no other option than to try a goofy left-handed choppy shot just to move it a foot, because I couldn’t take an Unplayable penalty.  There was no place I could drop the ball that would not be closer to the hole, so I had to choose to hit it as it lay.

Ball Lost?

Sometimes you lose a ball in bounds.  It just happens.  It goes into a bush, hits a tree hard and disappears, gets sucked up in tall grass.  Whatever the reason if you can’t find your ball (and there is a 5-minute search limit), you must go back to where you last played and re-hit, taking a penalty of one-stroke.  I play with some friends at Bandon Dunes every year and on nearly every course, they have these very thick and prickly shrubs.  If you hit a ball into one of these shrubs it is very, very unlikely you will find your ball.  You may find someone else’s but not yours.  I hate those shrubs.  Re-hit, add the penalty stroke and keep playing.  Ugh.

Provisional Balls

In order to keep the game moving, if you think your ball is OB or possibly lost you have the option of playing a provisional ball — this is a “just in case” ball in case your ball is in fact out of bounds or lost.   There’s a few tricks.  First, you need to announce out loud to your playing partners that you will be hitting a provisional ball.  Secondly, you need to be sure that your new ball is marked differently than the ball you may have lost.  Why?  Let’s say you hit a ball you think may be OB, and then you announce and hit a provisional ball that ends up coming to rest a few feet away from your original ball — and they are both in bounds.  While it is awesome that you are in bounds, the bad news is that if you don’t know which is your original ball you need to treat it as if the first ball was lost (penalty stroke and all).  So hit a provisional ball that has a different number or a different mark so you know for sure which is the first and which is the second.

A couple of other thoughts on provisionals.  If you find your first ball in bounds, you must play the first ball.   I played with Fred at a desert course and Fred pumped his drive into the thick desert scrub.  He announced and hit a provisional, piping down the middle of the fairway.  We drove to the area of his first ball and he found it under a cactus plant.  He picked it up and drove over to his second ball and prepared to hit it (assuming that he’d be better off hitting from the fairway even with the penalty than from under the bush).  The problem was that Fred didn’t have a choice.  His only choice is to play the first ball and go pick up his second one.   It doesn’t matter if your provisional ball goes in the cup.  If you find your first ball you have to play it.   (Here’s a little secret, though.  If you go and hit your provisional ball before finding your first one – providing that your provisional ball goes past your first ball — at that point your provisional ball becomes your ball in play, and you get the penalty stroke and abandon your first ball.  Even if you or someone else finds your ball within 5 minutes, it doesn’t matter.  Lesson here is that if you really don’t want to find your first ball, run to where your provisional is and hit it.)

Finally, provisional balls can’t be used if you think your ball has gone into a red or yellow staked hazard.  That may seem weird, but it does make sense once you put your mind to it.  As we noted in Confusing Golf Rules #1:  Red Stakes and Yellow Stakes, a player has very specific relief options available.  While the option of replaying your shot and adding a penalty stroke is valid, the issue is that you need to assess the relief possibilities and make a specific decision of which relief you will take PRIOR to making another stroke.  So if you tee off and think you just put the ball into the pond and then re-tee a new ball and hit it, that second ball is your ball in play and you already have 3 strokes on the hole.  That’s because by re-teeing and hitting it you have declared that to the be option you are taking from your red or yellow staked hazard.  Even if you find your first ball and it isn’t in the hazard at all, it’s too late.   Your first ball is declared a “lost ball” and you’ve just wasted strokes.  Ugh, indeed.

USGA Rule 27

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