Out of bounds penalties can negatively impact a good round of golf very quickly.
It is a sickening feeling. You stand on the tee, hit one of your longest tee shots of the day…and it goes out of bounds. Often simply referred to as being “OB,” out-of-bounds shots carry a stiff penalty that really hurts your score, however, you can incur even more penalty strokes by taking your OB penalty incorrectly.
According to the USGA, out of bounds is defined as “beyond the boundaries of the course or any part of the course so marked.” This boundary is marked by white stakes (and lines connecting them) that are considered “fixed,” which means players are not allowed to move them. A player can stand out of bounds to hit a ball that is still in bounds, but cannot move the stake if it is in the way. A ball is OB only if the entire ball is OB.
Stroke and Distance
The penalty for OB is commonly called “stroke and distance.” This means that a one-stroke penalty is added to the score, and the ball must then be dropped as nearly as possible to the spot from which the original shot was played. In effect, this is a two-stroke penalty, since the player has gained no distance from the original shot; it is as if the original shot had never been played at all. Because of this, repeated OB shots can add several shots to a player’s score quickly.
In order to speed up the game, if a player believes that their shot has gone out of bounds, they may tell their playing partners that they are going to play a provisional ball. To do so, the player must wait for the other members of their group to play their shots. Then, the player must announce that they are playing a provisional ball and play another ball from the same spot as the original shot before the group moves on. If the player’s original ball turns out to be OB, they simply pick it up, add a penalty shot, and play the provisional. If, however, the original ball is in bounds, it is still in play. The player plays their original ball without penalty, and just picks up the provisional ball.
Example: From the Tee
If a player hits a tee shot (first shot) and finds that it has gone OB, they pick up the ball and take a one-shot penalty (second shot), walk back to the tee, and hit a new tee ball (third shot). Alternatively, if they believe the first ball is OB, a player is allowed to hit a provisional ball. If it was indeed OB, the provisional ball becomes their third shot, and the player plays their fourth shot from where the provisional landed. In either case, if it is discovered that the original ball is in bounds, the player plays his or her second shot from there.
Example: From the Fairway
If a player plays their second shot from the fairway and it goes OB, they add a one-shot penalty (third shot), drop a ball as close to their second-shot divot as possible, and that becomes their fourth shot. Or, if they are uncertain whether the second shot is in bounds, he or she may play a provisional ball; if the second shot was OB, their provisional becomes the fourth shot and the player plays their fifth shot from where the provisional lies. In either case, if the original shot remained in bounds, the player will play his or her third shot with that ball.