Saturday, 11 February 2012

Known or Virtually Certain

In order to obtain relief without penalty from GUR
it must be known or virtually certain that the
ball came to rest in the abnormal ground condition.
In the absence of such knowledge or certainty,
a player must proceed under Rule 27 (Lost Ball).

When I was preparing last week’s blog on the main changes that have been made to the Rules over the past 20 years I was reminded that it was in the 2008 changes to the Rules that the term “reasonable evidence” was replaced by the much stronger requirement of “known or virtually certain”. This revised term is used in the following Rules in circumstances when a player cannot find their ball;
•    Rule 18-1 Ball at Rest Moved by Outside Agency
•    Rule 24-3 Ball in Obstruction not Found
•    Rule 25-1c Ball in Abnormal Ground Condition not Found
•    Rule 26 Water Hazards (Including Water Hazards)
•    Rule 27-1 Stroke and Distance; Ball Out of Bounds; Ball Not Found Within Five Minutes

It is obvious that by changing “reasonable evidence” to “known or virtually certain” the Ruling Bodies wanted to emphasise that this is not a ‘get out of jail free card’ for a player that cannot find their ball. Whilst the Ruling Bodies do not go as far as putting a percentage on the degree of certainty that is required to avail of relief options, they have provided us with a lengthy explanation of how ‘known or virtually certain’ is to be applied to rulings in Decision 26-1/1;

When a ball has been struck towards a water hazard and cannot be found, a player may not assume that his ball is in the water hazard simply because there is a possibility that the ball may be in the water hazard. In order to proceed under Rule 26-1, it must be "known or virtually certain" that the ball is in the water hazard. In the absence of "knowledge or virtual certainty" that it lies in a water hazard, a ball that cannot be found must be considered lost somewhere other than in a water hazard and the player must proceed under Rule 27-1.

When a player's ball cannot be found, "knowledge" may be gained that his ball is in a water hazard in a number of ways. The player or his caddie or other members of his match or group may actually observe the ball disappear into the water hazard. Evidence provided by other reliable witnesses may also establish that the ball is in the water hazard. Such evidence could come from a referee, an observer, spectators or other outside agencies. It is important that all readily accessible information be considered because, for example, the mere fact that a ball has splashed in a water hazard would not always provide "knowledge" that the ball is in the water hazard, as there are instances when a ball may skip out of, and come to rest outside, the hazard.

In the absence of "knowledge" that the ball is in the water hazard, Rule 26-1 requires there to be "virtual certainty" that the player's ball is in the water hazard in order to proceed under this Rule. Unlike "knowledge," "virtual certainty" implies some small degree of doubt about the actual location of a ball that has not been found. However, "virtual certainty" also means that, although the ball has not been found, when all readily available information is considered, the conclusion that there is nowhere that the ball could be except in the water hazard would be justified.
In determining whether "virtual certainty" exists, some of the relevant factors in the area of the water hazard to be considered include topography, turf conditions, grass heights, visibility, weather conditions and the proximity of trees, bushes and abnormal ground conditions.

The same principles would apply for a ball that may have been moved by an outside agency (Rule 18-1) or a ball that has not been found and may be in an obstruction (Rule 24-3) or an abnormal ground condition (Rule 25-1c).  (Revised)

So, in circumstances where the ‘known or virtually certain’ test has to be applied players must ask the question, “could the ball be anywhere else on the golf course other than in the obstruction/abnormal ground condition/water hazard?” If the answer is “yes,” then the ball must be treated as lost under penalty of stroke and distance, Rule 27-1. Known or virtually certain is to be taken literally. It is not a best guess or maybe. The ball cannot be anywhere else, even if it is subsequently discovered in a different place!

Interestingly, the same limiting phrase forms part of the important exception to Rule 18-2b - Ball Moving after Address;

Exception: If it is known or virtually certain that the player did not cause his ball to move, Rule 18-2b does not apply.
What is the correct ruling if a player grounds their putter immediately behind their ball on the putting green and while they are going through their mental pre-putt routine their ball moves although there is no noticeable wind, rain or other outside agency that could have influenced its movement? The Rules state that the player is deemed to have moved their ball because it is not known or virtually certain that they did not do so. It is possible, even probable, that the movement of the ball may have occurred as a result of them grounding their club, thereby moving blades of grass that might have had a domino effect in disturbing another blade of grass lying under the ball, causing it to move. Note that the wording of the exception above means that there has to be irrefutable evidence that something else caused the ball to move for the player to avoid incurring a penalty after they had addressed their ball.

I want to draw your attention to the introduction of the word “immediately” in the revised Definition of Addressing the Ball;

A player has “addressed the ball” when he has grounded his club immediately in front of or immediately behind the ball, whether or not he has taken his stance.
This is causing considerable confusion amongst Rules Officials, as there has been no official clarification on how close to the ball the clubhead has to be for it to be addressed. Having engaged in various discussions on this subject, it is now my opinion that a ball is only addressed according to the Rules if the clubhead is grounded within about an inch (~2.5cm) or less behind (or in front of) it. Personally, I used to find it very difficult to hover my club above a ball on a windy day, to avoid the one stroke penalty under Rule 18-2b incurred if it moved after I had grounded it, but I have no problem grounding any club, including my putter, at an inch or more away from my ball, thus avoiding the possibility of a Rule 18-2b penalty. However, I expect that there are others that will disagree with my opinion on this issue of when a ball is addressed under the revised definition and there can be no certainty until there is official clarification from R&A and USGA.
(Edit February 15th 2012: I have received information from an authoritative source that Rules workshops are being advised that the R&A and USGA have agreed that a ball is addressed when the club is grounded within 1/4 inch or less from the ball.)

Good golfing,


The above content is strictly copyright to Barry Rhodes © 2012 and may not be copied without permission.


Pete said...

During a recent tournament round there had been heavy rain for the preceding two days creating some wet and very soft conditions on the fairways (some casual water was evident in placesd)
On the 10th Tee a 314 metre par four where good players will drive over a water hazard leaving their ball in a round 100 metres to the green. A few players hit their ball which was seen to cross the hazard and land on the fairway. On approaching the area where the ball was expected to be found the competitors ball was nowhere to be found, after a search of 5 minutes ball still not found. Should we proceed under as described in the Abnormal condition rules 25-1 (c) which directs us to 27-1 (c) or under lost ball rule

Barry Rhodes said...


From your description it would seem that although there was a likelihood that the ball was in casual water it was not known or virtually certain. Therefore, the only way to proceed was to take the stroke and distance penalty for a lost ball, Rule 27-1.


Pete said...

Thanks Barry, that's what we did. Is there a clear definition on how to interpret "known or virtually certain"

Barry Rhodes said...


There is a pretty good definition of 'known or virtually certain' in Decision 26-1/1. I recommend that all golfers with an interest in the Rules purchase a copy of the Decisions on the Rules of Golf 2012-2013. You can order it at a discounted price via the 'Recommended Products' page on my web site,


Don D. said...

What if a player has virtual certainty that his ball is in *a* water hazard... but can't say for sure *which* hazard?

#17 at my club... a creek, lined by mature trees, is a lateral hazard all down the left side. To the left of that, is a teeing ground for #15. To the left of that, is a large pond.

A tee shot from #17 is pulled left. The view of the ball flight becomes obscured by the trees lining the creek. The ball is heard to strike branches & leaves and is obviously being deflected around.

After searching it is determined that the ball is not through the green on #17, and is not on the teeing ground for #15. I believe I can claim virtual certainty that the ball is *either* in the creek of #17 or in the pond of #15. But I have no certainty as to which. How to proceed? Must it be played as a lost ball?

Very much enjoy reading your site,
Don D.
Rochester NY, United States

Barry Rhodes said...


If it is agreed that the ball is 'known or virtually certain' to be in a water hazard then you may take relief under penalty of one stroke. You must use your best judgement, including assistance from your fellow competitors or opponents, to determine where your ball was most likely to have last crossed the margin of either of the water hazards. This is the reference point for taking relief.