A player may not assume his ball is in a water hazard simply because there is a possibility that there is where it may be. There must be no doubt at all for him to proceed under Rule 26-1 and take his one-stroke penalty. Otherwise, the ball would be considered lost and he would have to proceed under Rule 27-1 and take a stroke and distance penalty. This is called being virtually certain.
In the Aruba Pro-Am, I saw my wedge shot land just to the left of the flagstick and thought I would have a birdie putt. However, there was no ball there when I got to the green. The lateral water hazard with red stakes were at the green’s edge. Everyone agreed that the only place the ball could be was in the hazard. I got to drop on the green.
However, all evidence must be taken into account when determining whether knowledge or virtual certainty exists. Thus, if there was some rough around the hazard where the ball could have been lost, I would have had to go back and hit five from the fairway.
Seeing a ball splash in a water hazard may not necessarily provide virtual certainty either since balls, especially ones near the edges, may skip out of the water.
The same virtual certainty principle would apply for a ball that may have been moved by an outside agency or a ball that can’t be found and may be in an obstruction or abnormal ground condition.
On another day in Aruba, one of my partners sliced his drive into an adjoining, parallel fairway. We all saw where the ball was located. However, another group playing that hole must have picked up the ball as it was nowhere to be found by the time we got there. Since we were virtually certain of the general area, we let the player take a drop without penalty.
Reading Byron Nelson’s autobiography, “How I Played the Game,” recently, he mentioned an incident where he drove down the middle of the fairway in the Hershey Open and over a hill. The ball could not be found and Nelson went back to the tee, falling to fourth place instead of third without the penalty. After the media reported what had happened, Nelson got a note from an unidentified fan that his lady guest had picked up the ball with Nelson’s name on it. He enclosed a money order for $300, the difference in prize money between third and fourth. If a fan had observed what had happened at the time, Nelson could have evoked the virtually certainty provision as both of his fellow competitors were in agreement that the ball should have been in the fairway.
During the fall when I played in Connecticut, we had a local rule where leaves that accumulated around the green were considered abnormal ground conditions. If we were virtually certain that’s where a ball might be, the player got a free drop.