On our course we have a real problem with Crows picking up balls from around the green on one particular par 4 hole. There have been at least a dozen players who have lost a ball here in the last couple of weeks.
Today, a player plays a good second shot of about 120 metres from the centre of the fairway and saw it land just short and slightly to the right of the green on this particular problem hole. As he walks up to the hole he can see his orange ball about a metre off the green. The ball is clearly visible with a good lie and is stationery.
When he is about 80 metres from the green with his ball still in view, he turns and waits and watches his 3 fellow players play their respective shots. When eventually he turns back, his ball has disappeared. He claims that although he did not see a crow pick up his ball, given the problem of crows on this hole this must be what happened. (There was one crow in the vicinity) He placed a ball on that spot and completed the hole.
In the club house after I agreed with the player but many didn’t.
How would you have ruled?
From the description of the circumstance it seems he played ready golf. Others played after him.
The player is clear what he saw. Possibly the player is the only peson who saw the ball come to rest. Apparently the others didn't see his ball come to rest. Maybe they saw something relevant watching his stroke.
On his evidence the ball was moved by an Outside Influence most likely a crow.
The Committee would ask others what they saw, if anything.
The other option is the ball was moved by natural forces.
If it was possible to roll down a slope that has to be considered. If it did what are the prospects of seeing the ball?
Ball Lifted or Moved by Outside Influence
If it is known or virtually certain that an outside influence (including another player in stroke play or another ball) lifted or moved a player’s ball:
There is no penalty, and
The ball must be replaced on its original spot (which if not known must be estimated) (see Rule 14.2).
This applies whether or not the player’s ball has been found.
But if it is not known or virtually certain that the ball was lifted or moved by an outside influence and the ball is lost, the player must take stroke-and-distance relief under Rule 18.2.
In this case it is not Known. Is it at least 95% Certain it was moved by an Outside Influence?
It is a matter of gathering all the evidence. Seeing a crow in the vicinity is support for the player's action/claim.
The Committee gets guidance by referring to Committee Procedures 6C (7)
here is a link
How to Resolve Questions of Fact
Resolving questions of fact is among the most difficult actions required of a referee or the Committee.
Testimony of the players involved is important and should be given due consideration.
In some situations where the facts are not decisive, the doubt should be resolved in favour of the player whose ball is involved.
In others, the doubt should be resolved against the player whose ball is involved.