Rules Throwback: Time for Search November 6, 2017 By Jamie Wallace, USGA


Many golfers take for granted the fact that they have five minutes to search for their ball before it is considered lost. While this has been the case for a long time, a significant change could be coming in 2019.

In the 18th century, rules codes were created and adopted by each individual golf club or society for use on their local course. The two main codes that most clubs adopted were those of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and the Society of St. Andrews Golfers. Some clubs, however, had their own version of the rules. The Society of Golfers at Aberdeen was one such club, and its rules code from 1783 survives today. Aberdeeen’s code includes the following listed as Rule 12 out of 23 total rules:

“The Party whose Ball is amissing shall be allowed Five Minutes to search for it, after coming to the Spot where the Ball appeared to drop.”

While previous codes included guidance on what to do when you lose your ball, there was no defined time period for when a ball was lost. Presumably, a player could have taken as much time as they needed to search for their ball.

The Aberdeen code is the first that states a time limit for searching for a ball. It is essentially the same concept as today – a player has five minutes to search for their ball, beginning when the player (or his partner or caddie) starts their search.

In the video above, Jack Nicklaus hits a wayward tee shot on the par-4 10th hole during the first round of the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. As you can hear in the video, Nicklaus’ golf ball was found 5 minutes and 21 seconds after he had started searching for it. So even though his ball was found, it was “lost,” according to the Rules of Golf, because it had not been found within five minutes.

As part of the USGA’s Rules Modernization initiative, a set of major proposed changes was released in March 2017. One of the proposed changes is to reduce the amount of time a player is allowed to search for a ball from five minutes to three. This change still provides time for the player to search for their ball while helping to improve overall pace of play. If the proposed change is approved, it will be a part of the new Rules of Golf that take effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

Jamie Wallace is the manager of Rules education and digital content for the USGA. Email him at

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