Lost Ball in Golf: Stroke and Distance Rule & Procedures

By Nick Heidelberger

Golfers and fans search for a lost golf ball

Even if it’s a tough pill to swallow, golf’s lost ball rules are easy to understand. If your golf ball is lost, you must take stroke-and-distance relief, the sugarcoated title for “add a stroke and forfeit your distance.”

Here are the exact rules on when your ball is officially lost, how to take stroke-and-distance relief, and exceptions to the rule.

Stroke-and-Distance Relief for Lost Ball

The penalty for a lost ball is stroke and distance, as outlined by Rule 18 in the USGA and R&A’s Rules of Golf.

Stroke and distance relief is simple. For one penalty stroke, the player plays from where they made their previous stroke. Because the player is penalized one stroke plus the distance of their last stroke, it essentially adds up to a two-stroke penalty.

For example, you hit a drive off the tee that you thought went right down the middle of the fairway, but you cannot find it, and it becomes a lost ball. You must add one penalty stroke (your second stroke) then return to the tee box and take your third shot. 

Using the example above, here’s how the stroke and distance relief breaks down:

  • 1st stroke: Original tee shot;
  • 2nd stroke: Penalty stroke for lost ball;
  • 3rd stroke: Return to spot of previous stroke (tee box) and hit your third shot.

When Is Your Golf Ball Lost?

Any time a golfer cannot positively identify their ball within three minutes of looking for it, the ball is lost. The USGA and R&A changed the maximum search time for a ball from five minutes to three minutes in 2019.

RELATED: Identifying Your Golf Ball: Official Rules, Procedures & Penalties

Balls can often be lost in rough, fescue, leaves, trees, bushes, plugged in soggy ground, or just flat-out missing.

Lost balls in golf are frustrating. Not only is the penalty harsh, but often the golfer doesn’t feel they made a bad enough mistake to warrant such a devastating penalty. 

RELATED: 7 Golf Rules Every Player Should Memorize

Ball Lost In Bounds

If you know your ball is in bounds, but you just can’t find it, you may wonder if you still have to take the stroke-and-distance penalty. The answer is yes, you do. 

Even if you find your ball in bounds after the three-minute search window has expired, it’s too late and you must still follow the stroke-and-distance relief procedure. 

Bryson DeChanbeau suffered this fate on the third hole of the second round of the 2020 Masters. Even though his ball clearly landed in the rough just left of the fairway, and was found shortly after the three-minute time limit expired, he was forced to re-tee when he couldn’t find his ball within three minutes. The result? A numbing triple-bogey 7.

Ball Lost in the Fairway

You may know with absolute certainty that your ball was destined for the fairway. However, if you cannot find it and positively identify it within three minutes of beginning your search, it is officially a lost ball, and you must proceed under the stroke-and-distance relief.

Ball Lost in the Hazard

If it is known, or virtually certain, that your ball is in a penalty area (red or yellow marked water or other hazard) you are entitled to additional, and better, relief options than if your ball is lost. These include lateral relief and back-on-the-line relief.

RELATED: Red Stakes in Golf: Rules & Relief Options

Exceptions to Stroke-and-Distance for Lost Ball

There are a few circumstances when, if it is known or virtually certain what happened to your ball, you are not required to follow the stroke-and-distance procedure. If any of the following circumstances are known or virtually certain, you may replace the ball:

  • The ball came to rest and was moved by an outside influence (another player, animal, another ball in motion)
  • The ball was played as a wrong ball by another player
  • The ball came to rest in or on a movable obstruction or abnormal course condition (animal hole, ground under repair, temporary water)
  • The ball was intentionally stopped or deflected by another person

New Local Rule for Lost & Out of Bounds Balls

Among the scattered thoughts of a golfer who just hit a ball that they fear they’ll never see again is often “I think there’s a new rule that says I can just drop up there.” 

That’s not exactly true. 

The truth is in 2019, the USGA and R&A introduced a local rule that allows golfers to drop in the fairway adjacent to where their ball is lost or went out of bounds, for two penalty strokes, in lieu of backtracking to where they made their previous stroke. 

The major distinction here is this is a local rule, meaning it is not a part of the Rules of Golf, it is only in effect when the committee enacts it. If it’s not printed on the course’s scorecard, announced on the first tee, or otherwise communicated to you by the golf course or tournament staff, this option is not within the Rules of Golf.

This local rule simulates a player taking stroke-and-distance relief, going back to the tee, and hitting their next shot to the edge of the fairway. In either circumstance, the player is hitting their fourth shot from around where the first one landed or went out of bounds. The local rule, however, saves several minutes of backtracking.

It's worth repeating that this alternative is not the default Rule, and is only applicable when the committee, typically a course or tournament official, communicates that it is in effect.

Related: Golf’s Out of Bounds Rules, Penalties & Procedure

Provisional Ball

Any time you hit a shot that may require you to follow the stroke-and-distance procedure, the absolute best thing you can do is hit a provisional ball before you forge ahead. This option can save several minutes of backtracking and is acceptable whenever you are unsure if your ball is lost or out of bounds. 

You may not, however, hit a provisional ball for a shot that went into a penalty area.

Don't Lose Your Cool

Lost golf balls, and the stroke-and-distance penalty, are infuriating. Trust me, I’ve lost more than my fair share. If you play enough golf, you’re guaranteed to catch a bad break with a lost ball after a decent shot. The best thing you can do is know the Rule, keep your cool, and play on.

About the Author

Nick Heidelberger is the Editor of GolfLink and an active member of the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA). He covers all things golf, from the professional tours to rules, equipment, style, and golf history. In the years prior to joining GolfLink, he worked for the New England Section of the PGA of America. Nick has a degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and has been an avid golfer for more than 10 years.