You hit a ball straight down the fairway, but when you get down to the area of where the ball should be located it can not be found. While it definitely does not sound fair, your ball is lost and you must return to the tee with stroke-and-distance penalty attached..
There are exceptions where it is known or is a virtual certainty it was moved by an outside agency, or ended up in an obstruction, an abnormal ground condition or even a water hazard that was not visible from the tee.
As a rules official, I might give a player the benefit of the doubt if there was an open drain in the area or perhaps a gopher hole. The same would hold true if there was a a player or even an animal, in the area that would lead me to believe it was moved by an outside agency.
It’s difficult for pro golfers to actually lose a ball with all the fans around, but it sometimes happens in high grass and in the trees.
A lot was made by some golf writers of what they felt was a favorable ruling that Tiger Woods got in the recent Wells Fargo event. His ball could not be found when it landed in a gallery. When Woods got to where he thought it should be, the ball was not found although in was a wide open area that was trampled down. Mark Russell of the PGA Tour gave Woods a free drop. That was the right thing to do.
I recall that Woods got a similar break at Firestone Country Club one year when his approach landed on the roof of the clubhouse and could not be found. It was obvious from the video what had happened and there was no penalty since the clubhouse was not marked as out of bounds like it is at same courses.
In the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open, Meg Mallon hit into a food compound. Her ball could not be found, but officials talked to the gallery and also concluded that someone had picked up the ball (this was confirmed later). She got to take a drop and ended up winning the title by two strokes over Annika Sorentram. This also was the right decision.
In normal play, I’d even recommend that players not return to the tee (this slows down play considerably when you consider five minutes has already been spent looking) and treat the lost ball like a lateral hazard, dropping where they think it would have been and taking a stroke penalty. Many golfers already do this.