Rule 26 – Water Hazards (Including Lateral Water Hazards)
The need to deal with water hazards first entered the Rules of Golf back in the first set of Rules in 1744. However, water hazards were not specifically referred to until 1899, and not defined in the Rules of Golf until 1952. Lateral water hazards also were first defined in 1952, though the difficulty of dealing with the special circumstances of parallel water hazards date back to 1858. Both the USGA and the R&A struggled with lateral water hazards, and in 1947, the USGA stated "it is impossible to lay down exact rules to govern always the play of a ball which lies in a water hazard and so local rules should be made when they are required to determine the proper procedure". Yet five years later, the Rules of Golf did the “impossible” and defined how to handle lateral water hazards under the Rules.
The definition of a water hazard found in the Rules of Golf today is necessarily broad: a water hazard “is any sea, lake, pond, river, ditch, surface drainage ditch, or other open water course, (whether or not containing water), and anything of a similar nature.” Stakes and lines that define the margins of a water hazard are in the hazard, and such stakes are deemed to be obstructions. Such stakes may be removed without penalty under Rule 24-1, unless they are fixed, in which case Rule 24-2 applies. A ball is in a water hazard when any part of it touches the hazard. Please note here that when stakes only are used to define a water hazard (or lateral water hazard), the actual margin of the hazard is determined by the terrain surrounding the hazard, not by the position of the stakes. A ball can lie outside a straight line between two adjoining stakes, and still be within the margins of the hazard.
Before we address the procedures for a ball in a water hazard, we must again touch on the principal of ‘reasonable evidence’. In order to treat a ball as lost in a water hazard, there must be reasonable evidence that the ball is in fact in the hazard. Reasonable evidence means we are 99% sure that is where the ball is located. Otherwise, the ball must be treated as lost.
When we strike a ball into a water hazard, defined by yellow stakes and/or yellow lines, our options are few. We can play the ball from the hazard, or we can proceed under Rule 26-1a, which allows us to play our next stroke from where the previous stroke was played, under penalty of one stroke. If that happens to be the teeing ground, we can re-tee the ball anywhere within the teeing ground. If that spot is somewhere else, we must drop a ball at that spot.
Our second option is Rule 26-1b, which allows us to drop a ball anywhere on a line, keeping the spot where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard between us and the hole, with no limit to how far back on that line we may go. Again, we must add a one-stroke penalty.
Now, if our ball has come to rest in a lateral water hazard, defined by red stakes and/or lines, these first two options are still available to us. However, because lateral water hazards often are situated in such a way that Rule 26-1b is not a reasonable option, two more options are given to us. Rule 26-1c states these two additional options: we may drop a ball within two club-lengths of where the ball last crossed the margin of the lateral water hazard, no closer to the hole than that spot where we crossed into the hazard. Or we may drop a ball within two club-lengths of a spot on the opposite margin of the hazard that is equidistant from the hole, again dropping no nearer the hole than that spot. Using Rule 26-1c again comes with the one-stroke penalty. Many players tend to overlook the equidistant option, but a diligent player will on occasion find this option to be far superior to any other.
There are thirty decisions under Rule 26 in the Decisions on the Rules of Golf. Many of these deal with the problems that occur when reasonable evidence is not available, or when a ball is dropped and then the original ball is found. Many an expert player has run into serious trouble with the Rules in this area. Reading these decisions will go a long way to helping you avoid these pitfalls when proceeding under Rule 26. They can be found at www.usga.org/playing/rules/rules_of_golf.html. Enjoy!
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