Lost ball? Here’s everything you need to know

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Everyone knows what it feels like, but do you know what the Rules of Golf say when you can’t find your ball? Our guru leads you through the maze – including one we all get wrong

The lost ball. Like death and taxes, they can’t be avoided.

So we should know everything the Rules of Golf has to say about them. But do we really? Let’s see how you get on as we dive into the murky world of golf balls that cannot be found…

What is a lost ball?

Let us begin with the bit everyone knows. A lost ball is… one that’s not found in three minutes after you, your caddie, your partner, or partner’s caddie, start looking for it.

Don’t delay in getting to the scene…

You know it’s a three-minute search. Don’t try to get clever by hanging back in the hope others might get going first and help you eke out a bit more time.

There’s an interpretation to the definition of lost which deals with those who delay the start of a search to gain an advantage. It gives the example of a player walking towards their ball where spectators are already looking. That player can’t delay to their arrival to that area to prevent the three-minute clock from beginning to tick.

In this example, the search begins from the moment the player would have been in position to start looking had they not delayed their arrival.

Can you declare a ball lost?

Hopefully, this is the last time I’ll ever have to write this. Though, I strongly suspect, it will not be.

No. You cannot declare a ball lost. You haven’t been able to do so in the rules since 1964. That’s nearly 60 years, people. But this is a legend that has just endured.

Maybe they should write this explicitly into the rules, but it is spelled out in an interpretation to the definition of Lost.

One last time: A ball is lost only when it hasn’t been found within three minutes of starting the search for it.

I’m making light of this, but it comes up all the time and can be a problem for those who aren’t careful. Say you search for a minute or two, decide it’s gone, and then it’s found before those three minutes are up. The original ball is still in play. Don’t go hitting another in the erroneous belief you’ve declared it lost. You will have hit a wrong ball.

What if your search is interrupted?

This does happen. Perhaps you’ve waved a group through and you’ve stopped your frantic combing through the rough while they play. Perhaps you found a ball, have gone off to get a club, only to return and realise it’s not yours at all.

Here’s what happens: “The time between the interruption and when the search resumes does not count, and the time allowed for the search is three minutes in total, counting the search time both before the interruption and after the search resumes.”

What about if you leave to play a provisional?

The clock keeps ticking until the three minutes expire – even if everyone’s given up on the search.

Does looking for two balls change anything?

Oh dear, could it get much worse? But can you hunt for six minutes – three minutes for each ball? It depends where you’ve hit them. If you’re searching for a ball in play, and a provisional for example, how much time you get “depends how close the balls are to each other”, to quote another interpretation to the definition of Lost.

If they’re both located in the same area, and can be looked for at the same time, get searching quickly. You only get three minutes.

If they’re on different sides of a fairway, then you’d be allowed a three-minute search time for each ball.

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