A two-day test of the new golf rule allowing players to leave the flagstick in the hole yields surprising results.
Golf season had officially ended in Colorado, which made it the perfect time to start practicing playing under the new Rules of Golf that would take effect in 2019. I loved the changes to the rules and the makers’ intent to both simplify and speed up the game. But there was one that worried me.
And that is Rule 13.2, which says in essence: “You may leave the flagstick in the hole or have it removed (which includes having someone attend the flagstick and remove it after your ball is played), but you must decide before making a stroke.”
I have always been one to advocate leaving the flagstick in the hole, mainly because of the lone credible study, done by Dave Pelz for Golf magazine. Pelz concluded that unless the flagstick was tilting toward you, thus shrinking the area of the hole where your ball was headed, it is beneficial to the golfer to leave the flagstick in. Pelz did that study in 2007 and focused on chips, because at that time it was a two-stroke penalty if your putt, taken from the putting green, hit the flagstick. But he included putts from the fringe and at short range, so it remains our best empirical reference.
Still, so many golfers rely on their emotions, gut and psyche to make decisions. PGA Tour stars typically have the stick removed on short chips and even flop shots around the green. So it was thought that recreational players would use this new rule but the pros would not, until Bryson DeChambeau concurred with Pelz and announced he would leave the stick in except at U.S. Opens, where a thicker metal flagstick is used. DeChambeau, who relies on science rather than emotion to make decisions, cited a “coefficient of restitution.” He expects the USGA to revoke the new rule when record numbers of putts began to drop on Tour.
I figured most recreational golfers, playing a centuries-old game and tending not to be early adopters of change, would not want to leave the stick in. They’d say, “This is how I’ve always done it,” or “The hole looks bigger with the stick out.” Their emotions would rule.
I think I’m going to be pleasantly surprised.
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED IN THE COURSE OF A TWO-DAY TEST WITH THE NEW ‘FLAGSTICK IN’ RULE
My husband and I were paired with two strangers on a flat muni course with slow greens, and I planned to leave the flagstick in during the round. After two holes, it was clear that my husband, an excellent putter, was wanting the stick out. “I was thinking that a putt might bang off the stick and miss,” he said later. Meanwhile, the two strangers were politely playing by the old rules. So I was going to have to be flexible or I’d slow us down by always wanting the stick in.
Gradually, as we went along and got to know each other, all of us started leaving the stick in on long putts and the occasional downhill putt. At the end of the day, we agreed that it was silly not to do that. It moved play along by not having to have the pin tended when we were miles from the hole and everyone else was just reaching their balls. And it’s not as if we were even hitting the flagstick.
This was a more formal test, with four experienced (some might say “old”) players — two single-digit male golfers, two bogey female golfers — agreeing to use the new rule as if their scores mattered. Playing a course renowned for its crazily sloped greens, we suspected there were times when it would help us. It was, however, a windy day, and one of our players, a former Texan, said he’d been taught to remove the flagstick on a windy day because it could rattle around.
The first few holes, we played with a mix of “leave it in” and “take it out,” and we became conscious of seamlessly stating our preference and asking others theirs. But gradually we began leaving the stick in for all of our putts. We began loving this new rule. No putt destined for the hole banged off the stick. The Texan said the wind rattling the stick didn’t bother him. And my husband walked off the seventh green saying, “I can’t believe how much time we wasted all these years fiddling around with the flagstick!”
And, yes, there was the foursome in front of us on the eighth green, flagstick out, fiddling around. We were walking the hilly course, they were riding. Yet, we had caught them on the third hole and waited on every approach shot. We finished our round in 3 hours and 45 minutes, and estimate that we might have finished in 3:15 with an open course in front of us. If players save even a minute on each green, that single rule change shaves 18 minutes off a round!
IN CONCLUSION, HERE ARE SOME TIPS AND THOUGHTS FROM OUR TEST TO HELP YOU LEARN TO PUTT WITH THE FLAGSTICK IN — AND LOVE IT!
- The flagstick now becomes a visual aid. With the flagstick in, your eye’s target has shrunk from 4¼ inches to half an inch or ¾ inch. This is bound to help all of us become better putters! And that is going to shorten rounds!
- The biggest speed-of-play boost might result not from the long putts, but from being able to bang in the short ones. You no longer have to pull out the stick and have someone hold it for your tap-in birdie!
- If you, like Bryson DeChambeau, play any kind of tournament golf, you would be crazy not to put the stick in the hole for your so-called “gimme” inside the leather. We experimented in hitting short putts hard, and not one of them ever ricocheted away from the hole. We found that, even in the wind, the stick only helped us, never hurt us. (See Dave Pelz’s observations for more on this.)
- If someone wants the stick out for some ill-advised reason, it is not a waste of time to put it back in the hole for other players. Look, you have to put it back in the hole before you leave the green anyway.
- One rule nuance: If someone happens to take out the flagstick without you asking, and you putt, you can ask them to put it back even while the ball is in motion.
- Another rule nuance: If the previous group leaves the flagstick leaning this way or that, you can choose to leave it leaning when you putt. You can also choose to center it, or to remove it. Furthermore, each player in the group has the same selection of choices. Even after the stick has been removed, you can put it back leaning the way you found it before you putt “if you find it advantageous” to do so.
- Good golf etiquette now means that all players in a foursome will respect and comply with the wishes of the rest. You will quickly learn to ask if anyone wants the flag out, or in, whenever it seems relevant. And you will learn to ask for what you want.
But I predict that “tending the flag” is going to become as antiquated a term as the “mashie.” We are all going to learn quickly to leave the flagstick in and love it!