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Dogged Victim | Let's Get on the Stick

There's a simple way to make the game of golf easier, faster, fairer, friendlier, and less complicated: Change the rules so that the flagstick is never taken out of the hole

By: George Peper

Appeared in Fall 2013 LINKS

Forgive me, but I’m on something of a crusade at the moment, and my target is an unlikely one (at least for a crusade). The flagstick.

Why? Because with one simple change in the Rules of Golf we can instantly make golf easier, faster, fairer, friendlier, and less complicated.

And what might that change be? Leave the flagstick in the hole. Never remove it, never touch it. Weld the sucker to the bottom of the cup!

Think about it: Why is it that a two-stroke penalty (loss of hole in match play) is imposed on anyone whose ball, when played from the putting surface, strikes the flagstick?

“Tradition” seems to be the best answer, and it’s not a very good one. Indeed, the present version of the rule has been around only since 1968 and before then there were half a dozen iterations, some of them downright wacky. The original rule, back in 1899, called for the flagstick to be removed on all shots inside 20 yards (whether played from the green, the fringe, a pot bunker, or the middle of a babbling brook). Trust me, the tradition here is a not a particularly proud one.

But if tradition isn’t the reason, is there some other justification for removing the flagstick?

“I don’t think there is,” says John Van der Borght, Rules Communication Manager for the USGA.

Now consider how things would change if the flagstick were left permanently in the hole. Consider how much time we’d all save without having to include flagstick duty in the already elaborate ballet of the putting green. There would be no need
for anyone to hustle up and tend the stick, no need to hand it off to the next player or lay it down in an area where a misfired putt won’t strike it, no need, once everyone has holed out, to fetch the flagstick and restore it to the hole. All this mumbo jumbo adds several seconds to the play of a hole, several minutes to the play of a round. Imagine how much more smoothly it would all proceed if everyone just stepped up and fired freely at the flagstick.  

According to the USGA’s Van der Borght, there is some belief that “players would use the flagstick for assistance and that isn’t desirable.” But one of the USGA’s most revered past presidents, Richard S. Tufts, seemed to have had the right spirit when, more than 50 years ago, he championed a change in the flagstick Rule so that no penalty was imposed on a player whose ball hit an unattended stick. “Traditionalists,” he said, “still take offense at the use of the flagstick as a backstop but experience indicates that when it is so used, the breaks in the player’s favor are closely matched by the breaks against him.”

Well intentioned as he was, however, Tufts was also mistaken in his assessment of good and bad bounces—the breaks do not even out. The delightful truth is that if we leave the flagstick in the cup, we’ll all see far more chips and putts drop in than bounce away.

How do I know this? Several years ago, I asked Dave Pelz to do an experiment on this very subject for a GOLF Magazine cover article. (For years I’d listened to various pros and TV broadcast  pundits claiming that if you want to sink a chip shot your chances improve if you remove the flagstick, and I needed to be convinced by some solid science.)

Pelz, in his meticulous way, spent months using his True Roller device to roll putts of every possible speed and angle at holes with flagsticks leaning in every direction as well as at holes with no flagstick. When he was done machine testing he added a human element, enlisting his associate, PGA Tour player Tom Jenkins, to hit a few hundred more test shots. His finding: You have a 34 percent better chance of holing-out when you leave the pin in. Not a slightly better chance, a 34 percent better chance.

Faster paces and smiling faces should be enough justification for changing the flagstick Rule, but there are other reasons as well: Smoother greens, with no dents and strafes from pins and fewer footsteps around the hole; more clarity and fairness, in that the player farthest from the hole—even if he’s on the green—will always play first; and less opportunity
for human error, whether unintended and deliberate.

To me, it seems a no-brainer. And so I say to the USGA, with the U.S. Open coming to Pinehurst next year, where Richard Tufts was the beloved President, why not honor his memory. Reach out to your R&A brethren, who will likely welcome the advance (they have supported this idea in the past), and “for the good of the game,” get on the stick. 


8 Reasons To Leave It In

Faster Pace—No more walking up and back to tend, lay down, pick up, and
replace the pin.
Happier Players—We’ll all hole more chips and putts and get fewer penalties.
Simpler Rules—The Rulebook will be two pages shorter.
Smoother Greens—No more stab marks and scrapes, fewer footprints around the hole.
More Fairness—When you’re away, it’s your turn, even if you’re on the green and everyone else is off.
Fewer Debates—No more “Do you think my ball is sitting on the green or off?”
Less Room for Silliness—No one will ask for a tend from 50 yards out.
Less Left to Chance—No chance your buddy will go brain dead and fail to yank the pin.

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