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There are three types of water that a golfer will encounter on the course: Water hazards, lateral water hazards, and casual water. The following discourse will help you understand what to do when confronted by any of these situations. Keep in mind that in all of these cases, when you drop a ball, it cannot come to rest nearer to the hole than where it originally lay.
Every week, many a golfer hears that fateful splash. These areas of trouble are the lakes, ditches, and other areas marked off by yellow stakes and lines (note that a water hazard does not have to contain water, only be defined by the stakes and lines on its border).
Once a ball comes to rest in or touching the hazard, as a player, you have several options available to you:
Why do some water hazards have yellow stakes and others have red stakes? For some water hazards, it is not practical to follow option B above (think of a hole alongside an ocean - there is no way to keep a line between the point of entry and the hole and go behind the hazard). These are called lateral water hazards, are marked by red stakes or lines, and give you an additional option to those offered by a regular water hazard:
As El Nino will attest, sometimes it rains a lot. So much, in fact, that the course drainage is unable to handle all of the water. The course becomes soaked and flooded. Casual water is that temporary accumulation of water (not in a water hazard) visible either before or after you take your stance.
If you are not sure if there is casual water, simply take your normal stance and address the ball. If water begins to surface around your shoes, then that area contains casual water.
You can take one of three types of relief from casual water: anywhere on the course besides a hazard, the tee, or the green, you can move the ball one club length from the nearest unaffected area, but no closer to the hole (and not into a hazard or onto the green). On the green, if casual water also interferes with your putting line, you can place the ball where the water no longer interferes (once again not closer to the hole or in a hazard). Finally in a hazard, but not a water hazard, you can drop the ball within the hazard closest to where the ball lay before but where the water no longer interferes. What if the hazard is full of water? You have the option of removing the ball from the hazard, but it will cost you a penalty stroke. Unfortunately those are the rules. If you do choose this option, you must also keep a straight line between the hole, where your ball lay, and you.
Finally, ice and snow can be considered casual water, but not dew or frost. Those are the basics of water on the course. Happy swimming!
For More Information
For further details on water hazards, take a look at Rules 25 & 26 in the Official Rules of Golf. The above article is meant to help clarify some of the basics above the rules of golf. If the above comes into conflict with local rules or the USGA, the latter two should always be taken as correct.