10 U.S. Golf Holes with the Most “Water Balls”

Who among us hasn’t stepped up to a take a shot, made a quick hazard assessment after surveying the landscape (or waterscape) in front of them, and then pulled a different ball out of our golf bag to play? And how often did that beat-up ball we resigned to losing end up in a watery grave?

I know this example of negative visualization wasn’t just me.

Water hazards are an inescapable part of golf. At one time or another, we’ve all ended up in a pond, lake, creek, brook, river, stream, burn, sea, or ocean. So, which holes at U.S. courses have swallowed the most wayward shots from recreational golfers thanks to intimidating or overprotective bodies of water? For the sake of this wholly inexact exercise, I focused primarily on holes at public resort courses that get a lot of play from regular golfers, not the challenging but relatively low-volume par threes at exclusive clubs like the 12th at Augusta National protected by Rae’s Creek or the long 16th at Cypress Point that plays over the crashing waves of the Pacific.

Here are 10 top examples, many from states where golf can be played—and balls lost—year-round.

Caledonia Golf & Fish Club—18th hole (Pawleys Island, S.C.)

The closing hole at this Mike Strantz masterpiece isn’t especially long, but it’s among the most anxiety-inducing finishers on the Hammock Coast. A precise yardage off the tee is critical to setting up the forced carry approach over water on this par four. And for added stress, there’s almost always a gallery on the clubhouse deck overlooking the 18th green that is watching (and occasionally vociferously judging) incoming shots—a fair share of them wayward.

18th hole, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club (photo by Brian Oar)

The Coeur d’Alene Resort—14th hole (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho)

There’s little margin for error when targeting the floating 14th green at Coeur d’Alene, a 2,200-ton island that can be moved via an underwater cable system. Divers pull between 25,000 and 30,000 balls out of the lake every year, going down every couple of weeks during the season. It’s not unusual to see three players out of every guest foursome hit their first shot into the water, says Director of Golf Andy Mackimmie, which is why—for pace of play—the course has a local-rule drop zone after a player rinses his or her first two tee balls.

lakeside courses
14th hole, Coeur d’Alene (photo courtesy Coeur d’Alene Resort)

Harbour Town Golf Links—14th hole (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

“Just get on the green, take your par and move on.” That’s the advice from Tiger Woods when it comes to Harbour Town’s par-three 14th, which is known as one of the most difficult on the PGA Tour. Golfers traveling to Hilton Head get the same challenge, with a small green fiercely protected by water in front and to the right. For those who go long and end up in the deep pot bunker at the rear of the green, the water across the green again beckons on the next shot.

Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Ocean Course—17th hole (Kiawah Island, S.C.)

When it comes to Kiawah’s toughest water holes, one could also pick the par-four 13th hole, a tight squeeze which has a canal running the length of the right side. But after being roughed up for 16 holes at the Ocean Course, players are faced with a long par three to a narrow target fiercely guarded by water short and to the right. There are two deep bunkers to the left of the green, so Dye didn’t leave much bailout room. And for those high handicappers who did err to the left, it’s not uncommon to see balls from the bunkers shoot across the green and end up in the water anyway.

17th hole, Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (photo by Kevin Murray)

Mauna Kea Golf Course—3rd hole (Waimea, Hawaii)

Your swing better have rounded into form early at Mauna Kea, where the tee shot at the course’s first par three is one of the most intimidating (and beautiful) you’ll find anywhere. A full carry over a rocky ocean cove, the hole plays over 270 yards from the back tee. Regardless of the distance they’re playing, plenty of guests first visit the back tee for a photo… and often a futile first shot into the crashing waves of the Pacific just for the experience. The course is soon scheduled to undergo a renovation, but the challenge of the 3rd will remain the same.

Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club—13th hole (Pawleys Island, S.C.)

The 13th looks innocuous on the scorecard—a tiny par three. But once on the tee box, the small green encircled by a wooden bulkhead suddenly seems even smaller. That’s because of the size of the massive surrounding marsh separating the course from Pawleys Island in the distance. The plethora of golf balls visible in the marsh when the tide is out doesn’t exactly help ease fears; the club estimates that more than 10,000 balls end up in the marsh there every year.

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13th hole, Pawleys Plantation (photo courtesy Pawleys Plantation)

PGA National Resort, Champion Course—15th hole (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.)

The first hole of the vaunted “Bear Trap” has the most water in play off the tee, with a hazard looming in front, to the right, and long of the green. While the par-three 17th can be just as fearsome, playing downhill but slightly longer with water to the front and right, the 15th is susceptible to three-club swings because of the wind. That often leads to a lot of second-guessing on the tee of a hole where players just rode past a seven-foot statue of a bear and an accompanying plaque that warns of the danger in store at this three-hole stretch.

PGA West, Pete Dye Stadium Course—17th hole (La Quinta, Calif.)

Dye’s West Coast version of the 17th at Sawgrass is “Alcatraz.” While not long, it’s a very visually intimidating island green completely encircled by jagged rocks. Slight misses look even worse when they violently ricochet sideways off unforgiving boulders and into the awaiting pond. The Stadium course is one of five at PGA West open to the public and the 17th hole was the site of Lee Trevino’s hole-in-one in the made-for-TV “Skins Game” in 1987, a magic moment that was called by Vin Scully.

scariest holes
PGA West, 17th hole (photo by Matt Hahn)

River’s Edge Golf Club—9th hole (Shallotte, N.C.)

Arnold Palmer created ample opportunity to lose golf balls in the marshy waters of the Shallotte River on this par five once called the scariest hole on the Myrtle Beach Golf Trail. Water runs down the entire left side of the hole, which plays to a green pinched on the end of a narrow peninsula. Going at the green in two is extremely treacherous but even layup shots can be demanding, with marsh on multiple sides of the second, angled landing area. The green then has far less margin for error, with any push or pull likely ending up in a marshy mess.

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9th hole, River’s Edge (photo courtesy North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands Golf)

TPC Sawgrass—17th hole (Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.)

If this were a ranking, it’s a safe bet the iconic island green at the home of the PGA Tour’s Players Championship would be No. 1 with a bullet. Depending on the source, somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 balls are fished out of the water around this hole every year. It’s the most famous hole ever created by Hall of Fame architect Pete Dye (or Alice Dye), and one many players think about before and all throughout a round at TPC Sawgrass. There are even stories of players who take a fresh sleeve of golf balls and throw them into the water off the tee in hopes of appeasing the “golf gods” and manifesting a safe tee shot.

Players Championship
17th hole, TPC Sawgrass (photo by Getty Images)

Let us know which other holes you would add to the list!