Hazard areas have been a staple of golf since the sport’s inception on links courses. Of all these environmental obstacles, water hazards arguably remain one of the most challenging (and at time, frustrating) — though they also remain an iconic piece of golf course scenery. These hazards are typically naturally occurring features such as rivers, ponds, and streams, though they can also be man-made.

Nearly every golfer has, at some point, lost a ball (or a series of balls) to a water hazard. While this scenario may evoke visions of Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore diving into a pond to retrieve his ball, in most cases it actually results in several different rule-based scenarios. However, before considering these rules, one must know the distinction between the main water hazard categories.

There are actually two different types of water-based hazards: “lateral water hazards” and, more simply, “water hazards.” The former category refers to hazards that are located on the sides of a course and are marked around their perimeter with red stakes, while the latter category includes hazards that are marked with yellow stakes and “generally cross the fairway being played, forcing the player to hit over the water hazard.” These categories, when broken down, essentially refer to hazards that are either a direct obstacle to fairway play or to a set of bordering hazards that can pose a added challenge to sliced shots. The color-coded system was originally introduced in 1980.

According to the R&A, if you find your ball in a standard fairway water hazard, you may play the ball as it lays, and if this is not possible, you may either “play the ball from where your last shot was played” or “drop a ball any distance behind the water hazard keeping a straight line between the hole, the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard and the spot on which the ball is dropped.

Conversely, if your ball lands in a lateral water hazard, under penalty of a single stroke, you may drop your ball within two club lengths of, and “not nearer the hole than” either of the following:

  • “The point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard.”
  • “A point on the opposite side of the hazard equidistant to the hole from the point where the ball last crossed the margin.”

(These lateral-based rules come in addition to the aforementioned options for fairway-based hazards.)

If you find yourself falling victim to a water hazard, remember to take a deep breath and refocus on the remainder of the hole, as these scenic challenges are just part of the game.