Lateral Water Hazard: What It Is and Penalty for Hitting Into One

Aerial view of the 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links
Sometimes the ocean itself - as on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach - is a lateral water hazard. Harry How/Getty Images

A "lateral water hazard" is a water hazard or part of a water hazard that runs alongside to or parallel to the golf hole. Or, as the Rules of Golf puts it, a lateral water hazard is one "so situated that it is not possible, or is deemed ... impracticable, to drop a ball behind" it.

When a golfer hits into a "regular" water hazard, one of the options for continuing play is to drop a golf ball behind that body of water.

But with a lateral body of water, that option might not exist at all. A lateral hazard might run alongside the hole for its entire length, for example, removing the option to drop behind it.

Therefore, the Rules of Golf distinguish between bodies of water that cross golf holes (or that golfers may have to hit over to reach the green) and those that are lateral to them. The penalty is one stroke in either case, but the options for relief (dropping to put a new ball in play) are different. (More on that below.)

Lateral water hazards should be marked on a golf course with red stakes or red lines painted on the ground. (Regular water hazards use yellow.)

Official Definition of 'Later Water Hazard' in the Rule Book

The USGA and R&A, golf's governing bodies, provide this definition of "lateral water hazard" in the Rules of Golf:

A "lateral water hazard" is a water hazard or that part of a water hazard so situated that it is not possible, or is deemed by the Committee to be impracticable, to drop a ball behind the water hazard in accordance with Rule 26-Ib. All ground and water within the margin of a lateral water hazard are part of the lateral water hazard.

When the margin of a lateral water hazard is defined by stakes, the stakes are inside the lateral 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 lateral water hazard, the stakes identify the hazard and the lines define the hazard margin. When the margin of a lateral water hazard is defined by a line on the ground, the line itself is in the lateral water hazard. The margin of a lateral water hazard extends vertically upwards and downwards.

A ball is in a lateral water hazard when it lies in or any part of it touches the lateral water hazard.

Stakes used to define the margin of or identify a lateral water hazard are obstructions.

Note 1: That part of a water hazard to be played as a lateral water hazard must be distinctively marked. Stakes or lines used to define the margin of or identify a lateral water hazard must be red.

Note 2: The Committee may make a Local Rule prohibiting play from an environmentally-sensitive area defined as a lateral water hazard.

Note 3: The Committee may define a lateral water hazard as a water hazard.

What Happens When You Hit Into a Lateral Water Hazard (Relief and Penalty)

When you hit into any water hazard, you always have the option of trying to hit the ball out of that hazard. If the ball is inside the margin of a hazard but not actually in water, that might be feasible. If the ball is in water, then you'll almost certainly assess yourself a 1-stroke penalty and drop a new ball outside the hazard.

The penalty and procedures after hitting into a water hazard (including lateral ones) are covered in Rule 26. Two options are the same, whether you've hit into a water hazard (yellow lines or stakes) or lateral water hazard (red lines or stakes). After taking the 1-stroke penalty, the golfer can:

  • Go back to the spot of the previous stroke and hit again. This is called "stroke-and-distance."
  • Or drop a ball behind the water hazard, keeping the point where your ball crossed into the hazard on a straight line between yourself and the hole.

But, as we've learned, the whole reason to separately consider lateral water hazards is because it might be impractical or impossible to drop behind one. So for lateral water hazards, a third option exists:

  • From the spot where your ball crossed into the hazard, drop outside the lateral water hazard within two club-lengths of that spot; or on the opposite side of the hazard at a point equidistant to the hole. No closer to the hole in either case.

You can use any golf club in your bag to measure those two club-lengths (hint: use your longest!). Once you've identified the spot where you'll be dropping, hold the ball with arm outstretched at shoulder height and drop it.

Where it comes to rest, it is in play. (There are exceptions - such as if the ball rolls back into the hazard - that require a re-drop. See Rule 20-2(c) for those.)

A good video explainer on Rule 26 and water hazards/lateral water hazards is available on USGA.org.

After the Penalty and Drop, What Stroke Are You Now Playing?

So you hit into a lateral water hazard, then proceeded under one of the three options above. What is the number of the stroke are you now playing? Your next stroke is two higher than your previous one.

  • If you hit into the hazard on your drive, then the next stroke you play - following the penalty and drop - is your third.
  • If it was your second stroke that flew into the lateral water hazard, then your next stroke is your fourth. And so on.