Rules Of Golf

Rules Review: When does the three-minute search time for a lost ball actually begin?

December 05, 2022

Streeter Lecka

Among the many rules we all choose to ignore in everyday golf, the three-minute search time for a lost ball might be the one we ignore the hardest. And hey, can you blame us? It's gutting to lose a $4 ProV1, or that special ball with the scuff on it that you've had for the last three rounds.

Plus, we don't have the luxury of having fans and volunteers begin the search party before you even leave the tee box. The rest of us everyday golfers have to explore far and wide on our own like were Ferdinand Magellan, and if we can't find it, most of us are staring double bogey or much, much worse in the face. As long as you're not seriously holding up the group behind, no one bats an eye if you take a five-minute excursion in the woods (that was the approved search time prior to 2019) in the hopes of a miraculous find.

But, as is the case for all of us, there is going to come a time when you play in a real competition and you have to follow the real rules. When that time comes, it's good to know when the three-minute search time actually "begins."

Per the USGA, it's really as simple as it sounds: the three-minute search time begins when a player or their caddie starts to search for the golf ball, be it in some long rough, fescue, the woods, wherever. Once the player or the caddie gets to the area where the ball likely is and they begin to look, the clock starts. If you're playing in a two-person event with a partner, the same rule applies if your partner or your partner's caddie begins the search. Easy enough, right?

Well, not quite. There are exceptions and interpretations when it comes to a ball search, per Rule 18.2. A player has three full minutes to search, but there are situations when the "clock stops." One example the USGA uses is if a player takes one minute to search for a ball, finds one and assumes it is theirs, then plays it but later realizes it's the wrong ball. The player can return to the area they thought the original ball was and they would still have two minutes to find the original ball. There are a number of other similar interpretations that can be found here under Rule 18.2a(1)/1.

Another wrinkle: A player may instruct his or her caddie not to begin searching for a lost ball if they so choose, meaning if the caddie is out in the fairway spotting or walking ahead of the group, a player can tell them to wait for his or her arrival to begin the "search." Again, the search does not begin until the player or caddie arrives at the area they believe the ball is lost and begins searching for it.

Once the three minutes is up, the ball officially becomes "lost," which means the player has to return to the spot they last played from and hit again along with adding a penalty stroke. If the ball is known or virtually certain to have been lost in a penalty area, a player can take relief under Rule 17.1c while adding a stroke as well. Where to drop the new ball depends on if the penalty area is a red penalty area (lateral) or a yellow (regular).