I Want the Flagstick Out! Is That So Bad?

Dear Molly: COVID ruined everything for those of us who want the flagstick removed when we putt. Now all the hackers leave the stick in, and we good golfers have to go along with them or be seen as holding up the show. Is there any way we can all be accommodated?

As one of the “hackers” who prefers leaving the stick in because it moves the game along to the 19th hole much more quickly, I’d love to see golf courses superglue the flagstick into the cup. But, sigh, golf is not all about me. So I went to talk to some really good golfers about how they handle this.

First, a little background for the newbies: It used to be, if we hit the flagstick while putting a ball that was on the green, we’d be hit back with a two-stroke penalty. The 2019 Rules of Golf removed that penalty and made it OK to leave the flagstick in all the time. Longtime golfers agonized all that year over in-or-out, studying the research and watching the pros diverge. Then in 2020, COVID rules prohibited everyone from touching the flagstick.

From your inquiry, I’m going to generalize that we “hackers” got comfortable with leaving the flagstick in, and in fact liked that this made everyone’s rounds about 15 minutes shorter. We went along with Dave Pelz, Adam Scott and Bryson DeChambeau in thinking this even helped our games.

Meanwhile, you “good golfers” favored Tom Mase’s Golf Digest research, which concluded that 99.9 percent of the time it either doesn’t matter or is beneficial to remove the flagstick when putting. And you and most of the players on the PGA Tour prioritized your score over your pace of play.

Whatever, right? Except that if you’re the only one in your foursome who wants the flagstick out, who’s supposed to remove it for you and when? Who’s putting it back for everyone else? And then removing it again for your second and maybe third putts? If you’re the only one in your foursome who wants it in, who’s putting the stick in and then taking it out, and when? As CGA Executive Director Ed Mate points out, “It’s one of those issues like music where the behavior of some affects all of us.”

Mate, a 1.1 handicapper, says he’ll go along with whatever his group wants to do, even if that means having to putt a three-footer with the flagstick in. “Even though I much prefer it out when I get to short range, if I’m faced with a choice of being that guy who slows down the group or having to putt with the flagstick in on a three-footer, I’ll choose the latter.”

Colorado Golf Hall of Famer Kim Eaton, whose index is zero, leaves the flagstick in when she’s playing for fun, unless it’s wobbling in high winds or casting shadows on her line. “I’ve seen both good players and bad players leave it in,” she says. “I’ve played where three of us want it in but one wants it out, so we just do it. You just go with the flow.”

Fellow Hall of Famer and reigning CGA Mid-Amateur champion Colin Prater, on the other hand, confesses to being traumatized over COVID rules. “I’ve played so much competitive golf that I definitely had some issues when we weren’t allowed to touch the flagstick, just struggling with the visual of the flagstick being there,” he says. “We had to play the entire 2020 CGA Match Play with the flagstick in and it drove me absolute bonkers. I ended up winning after about 100 holes with the flagstick in, but as soon as I had the opportunity to touch that flagstick again, I was pulling it out.”

But even Prater, who’s carrying a plus-3.8 index over the winter, finds it to be no problem playing with players who want the flagstick in. “It’s just a question you have to ask everybody: Do you want me to leave it in? Do you want me to pull it out? You get a good feel for that relatively quickly.”

Of course, one solution to your discomfort is to play only with others who prefer to take the flagstick out. But here are a few expert pointers for all of us:

  • If you putt first, go ahead and finish putting with the stick where you like it and then become the caddie for the rest of the group. “Sometimes somebody will tap in, go to their bag and head for the next tee box,” says Prater. “What the heck!”
  • Communicate with your group, with questions like, “Does anyone want this in?” or “Hey, can you pull that for me?”
  • When playing for fun with a threesome that has the preference opposite yours, consider sharing their routine for the day.
  • Playing in a tournament? CGA Director of Rules and Competitions Lewis Harry has watched many foursomes doing what he calls “the dance” and reports, “The easiest solution is for the group with the majority preference of the flagstick to make their stroke and then those with the opposite preference.” In case you’re wondering if playing out of turn constitutes breaking the rules, he notes that in stroke play, “As long as players are not making an agreement to play out of order to gain an advantage – and in the flagstick case, 99.99 percent of the cases are in the interest of saving time – there is no penalty for playing out of order to avoid the dance.” In match play, when a stroke played out of order may be recalled by the opponent whose turn it was, you’ll just have to manage the inconvenience.
  • Finally, this note from Denver Golf Director of Agronomy Pam Smith for all of us who prefer the flagstick in: “The feedback from superintendents is that indeed, leaving the pin in the cup results in more wear and tear of the cup edge due to hands and putters catching the lip.” So mind the turf when you reach for your ball.

Molly McMulligan, created by golf journalist and CGA member Susan Fornoff, is the CGA’s on-the-course advisor on how to have more fun on the golf course. You don’t want to take swing lessons from Molly, but if you’ve got a question about etiquette, relationships or the culture of golf in Colorado, Molly will find the answer. Send your questions along here.


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