On a golf course, a “water hazard” is a pond, lake, river, stream, sea, bay, ocean or any other open water on the course, including ditches and drainage ditches. (A “lateral water hazard” refers to specific type of water hazard that runs parallel to a golf hole, and lateral water hazrads offer slightly different options to the golfer who hits into one).
“Water hazard” is now just a vernacular term; up through December 31, 2018, it was an official term used in the Rules of Golf. However, as of Jan. 1, 2019, the term “penalty area” has replaced “water harzard” in the rulebook.
Golfers who’ve used “water hazard” their whole lives will continue to do so conversationally, and the term is unlikely to disappear from golfers’ lexicons for decades, if ever. Lakes, ponds, and so forth are now called “penalty areas” in the rulebook, but golfers will be making casual references to “water hazards” for decades to come.
Definition of ‘Water Hazard’ in the Rulebook
Before the USGA and R&A decided to deprecate the term “water hazard,” this was the official definition as it appeared in the Rules of Golf:
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 on the course. All ground and water within the margin of a water hazard are part of the water hazard.
When the margin of a water hazard is defined by stakes, the stakes are inside the water hazard, and the margin of the hazard is defined by the nearest outside points of the stakes at ground level. When both stakes and lines are used to indicate a water hazard, the stakes identify the hazard and the lines define the hazard margin. When the margin of a water hazard is defined by a line on the ground, the line itself is in the water hazard. The margin of a water hazard extends vertically upwards and downwards.
A ball is in a water hazard when it lies in or any part of it touches the water hazard.
Stakes used to define the margin of or identify a water hazard are obstructions.
Note 1: Stakes or lines used to define the margin of or identify a water hazard must be yellow.
Note 2: The Committee may make a Local Rule prohibiting play from an environmentally-sensitive area defined as a water hazard.
Now Superseded by ‘Penalty Area’ in Rulebook
The new term, in use as of the official rules released on Jan. 1, 2019, is “penalty area.” Penalty area is a slightly more encompassing term that water hazard, but the terms are roughly synonymous. The explanation of “penalty area” in the definitions section of the new rulebook is this:
An area from which relief with a one-stroke penalty is allowed if your ball comes to rest there.
There are two different types of penalty areas, distinguished by the colour used to mark them:
Yellow penalty areas (marked with yellow lines or yellow stakes) give you two relief options ((Rules 17.1d(1) and (2)).
Red penalty areas (marked with red lines or red stakes) give you an extra lateral relief option (Rule 17.1d(3)), in addition to the two relief options available for yellow penalty areas.
If the colour of a penalty area has not been marked or indicated by the Committee, it is treated as a red penalty area.
The edge of a penalty area extends both up above the ground and down below the ground.
The edge of a penalty area should be defined by stakes or lines.
Stakes: When defined by stakes, the edge of the penalty area is defined by the line between the outside points of the stakes at ground level, and the stakes are inside the penalty area.
Lines: When defined by a painted line on the ground, the edge of the penalty area is the outside edge of the line, and the line itself is in the penalty area.
Note that in the old rules (prior to 2019), yellow stakes or lines denoted water hazards, red stakes or lines denoted yellow water hazards.
What Happens When You Hit Your Golf Ball Into a Water Hazard?
Usually, nothing good! You always have the option to go into the water hazard and attempt to play your ball out of the water. This is generally a terrible idea.
So it is far more likely you’ll suffer a penalty. Water hazards are covered in the new rules in Rules 17 through 19. Rule 17 provides general information about do’s and don’ts in penalty areas; Rule 18 covers stroke-and-distance relief, ball lost or out of bounds, and the use of a provisional ball.
Read those rules to get the full picture of options available and penalties incurred when hitting into water on a golf course.