Ask the Rules Guy: Lost and Found

Ask the Rules Guy

Rules Guy,
I topped my tee shot into the bank above a water hazard not far from the tee box. It was close enough for me to look for the ball, but after a couple of minutes I got nervous that we'd be holding up traffic, so I declared my ball lost, scampered back up to the tees and hit again. As I drove my golf cart towards my second drive, I spotted my first ball on the far bank, in the hazard but playable. I had no idea what to do: I definitely found my ball before the five minute "time limit," but I had already declared it lost and played a ball that I had no intention of being provisional. Could I have played the first ball? SHOULD I have played it? I've never been so confused on the golf course!
— Tim Becker, Hoboken, NJ

This question hits upon one of the most misunderstood Rules of Golf: You can't actually "declare" a ball as lost; it's either lost or it isn't. According to Decision 21-1/1, your second ball was not actually considered in play, as you found your original ball before taking a second stroke at the provisional. This, however, does not mean that you were forced to play your first shot. You were, of course, more than within your rights to go back to the tee and take a penalty of stroke and distance. So, as it turns out, whichever choice you made would have been legal. The only thing not to do was stand around looking confused.