Written by Joyce McCann, 18ers Rules Chair.

First published in 2017. Updated to conform to the 2019 Rules.

A Useful Phrase to Remember – “Known or Virtually Certain”

Two incidents occurred recently on hole #14 that highlight the importance of the phrase “known or virtually certain”. This phrase occurs multiple times in the Rules of Golf relative to penalty areas, abnormal course conditions, ball movement, and certain other situations.

The first incident occurred when a player hit her tee shot on #14. Another player in the group saw it go into the penalty area right of the fairway. The player who hit the ball was concerned she would not be able to find her ball, and announced she was going to hit a provisional (Rule 18.3). [The provisional option is intended to speed up play if players aren’t sure whether their ball might be lost or out of bounds.]  At that point, two other players in the group spoke up and said that she could not hit a provisional because her ball was “known or virtually certain” to have gone into the penalty area.

The second incident on #14 involved a player who also hit a tee shot that clearly went into the penalty area. She then went forward to try to find the ball but was unsuccessful. She was not clear whether she should treat the ball as a “lost ball” (Rule 18) – i.e., she would then be required to hit again from the tee with stroke and distance penalty – or whether she could consider one of the other options available under the penalty area rule (Rule 17).

The key point in deciding what to do in both incidents was that both balls were “known or virtually certain” to have gone into the penalty area.

Even if the ball was searched for and not found, the players had the full range of options available to them for penalty area relief (Rule 17.1d).

Thus, neither hitting a provisional nor treating the ball as lost were appropriate in either of these cases because the balls were “known or virtually certain” to have gone into the penalty area, and the Penalty Area Rule 17 was operative. As noted above, since the phrase “known or virtually certain” appears multiple times in the Rules of Golf, it’s a good phrase to keep in mind! [Note, however, that the requirements for concluding that “known or virtually certain” applies in any given situation are fairly stringent. It means more than just “possible” or “probable”. It must be at least 95% likely that the ball went into a penalty area (Definition of Known or Virtually Certain).