The penalty for a lost ball or OB is stroke plus distance. That is, the player takes a one stroke penalty and returns to the spot from which the ball was struck and hits again.
So a provisional ball is a timesaver. Rather than first going forward to search, the player announces he is hitting a provisional. If the original ball is then found, the original ball is played. If the original ball really is lost or OB, the provisional is played with a one-stroke penalty.
In the rulebook, provisionals are covered under Rule 27.
The procedure goes something like this: You hit a drive but, whoops, it slices badly into the woods or in the direction of out-of-bounds markers. You're not sure, but there's a good chance that ball is lost or OB. So you announce to your playing partners that you are "hitting a provisional." You tee up a new ball and swing again. As noted above, if your first ball really is lost or OB, then the provisional ball becomes the ball in play and you are lying 3 (one stroke for the first drive, a penalty stroke for lost/OB, and the third stroke for the provisional shot).
Before playing a provisional ball you must inform your fellow-competitors of your intention to do so. And note that provisional balls are not an option when dealing with water hazards.
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"You might want to hit a provisional ball, not sure if you'll find that first one."