Arnold Palmer did something at the 1960 Masters that hasn’t been duplicated in 50 years.
In the final round, he hit a 35-foot uphill putt at the 16th hole that clanged off the flagstick, which he’d intentionally left in the cup. Palmer’s choice, which was legal then, looked second-guessable. He trailed Ken Venturi by one shot, and an unidentified announcer on the YouTube video of those Masters highlights somberly summarized Palmer’s plight: “That, conceivably, could have been the biggest stroke of this tournament.”
It wasn’t, of course, because Palmer finished birdie-birdie – he holed a 27-footer at 17 with the flagstick out – to win his second Masters in three years. Thus, that clanger missed putt was left behind in the dustbin of history.
The clanger may return in 2019. It’s possible we’ll see a major championship decided by what happened to Palmer, because starting next year, golfers have the option to putt with the flagstick in the hole. Since 1968, when the rule was put in place, striking the flagstick with a stroke played from the putting surface carried a two-shot penalty (“Rule 17-3: Ball Striking Flagstick of Attendant”).
That penalty, unusually severe, has been wiped from the books for 2019, part of a sweeping rules reform by the U.S. Golf Association.
The flagstick rule doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it could be.
For starters, it can speed up play for amateurs. The late Bill Yates, known as a pace-of-play guru and whose expertise helped the USGA improve pace of play at several national championships, estimated that a foursome of amateurs could save 40 seconds per hole if they would leave the flagstick in the cup. That’s 12 minutes per round, a nice gain.
Second, experts such as short-game instructor Dave Pelz, who did extensive testing a decade ago on putting and chipping with the pin in the hole versus having the pin removed, concluded that leaving the flagstick in the hole almost always is an advantage.
Bryson DeChambeau is a believer. DeChambeau, a three-time PGA Tour winner last season whose unorthodox style includes playing irons that are the same length and briefly putting sidesaddle, plans to leave the pin in frequently while putting next year.
“The USGA is going to go back on that one,” he told Golf.com. “They’ll be like, No! We made the hole bigger!”
If other Tour players follow DeChambeau’s lead, televised golf will have a different look. Picture DeChambeau stroking a 10-footer for the victory to a cup with a flagstick still in it. This will add a new element of strategy to putting: Leave the pin in or pull it?
Hitting the flagstick with a putt from the green’s surface was a rules violation until 1956, when it was waived. The penalty was reinstated in 1968 by the USGA, along with several other significant rules changes.
So, is it really that much different or faster to putt with the pin in? Rob O’Loughlin, president of LaserLink Golf, decided to find out. His usual foursome gave it a test drive on a cool fall Saturday at Maple Bluff Country Club in Madison, Wis. The guys in O’Loughlin’s group walk briskly, push carts and are all decent players. They normally get around in 3 hours and 5 minutes, O’Loughlin said.
“Most guys aren’t aware of the coming changes or haven’t thought about them yet,” O’Loughlin said. “I care about the game, so I said, We’ve got to try this. My buddies were like, Yeah, but the ball will bounce back off the pin.”
They quickly learned that their fears were unfounded. At the first hole, O’Loughlin’s group dropped balls onto the green and hit a series of 2-foot putts, each one increasingly harder. “They all stayed in the hole until we started hitting them like hockey slapshots,” O’Loughlin said. “Don’t tell the USGA, but I think leaving the pin in is an advantage.
“Lee Trevino used to say, ‘The pin only helps a bad shot.’ I agree, and it won’t hurt a good shot very often, either.”
O’Loughlin noticed that when he and his group reached a green, there was no usual waiting for the pin to be pulled. The player who was away – or the first one ready – went ahead and putted.
“In general, there is no reason to wait,” he said. “We played at a much quicker pace, I thought. We made a local rule that we wouldn’t touch the flagstick for 18 holes. A couple of times, guys instinctively pulled it out, and we put it back. But the visual of putting with the pin in didn’t bother anyone. At the end, nobody said, Ah, we’re never doing that again.”
I asked O’Loughlin how many deflections, or clangers, his group had. He answered, “None.”
I did my own experiment during a recent solo round at Beaver Valley Country Club near Pittsburgh. What I learned was that leaving the pin in was usually irrelevant. I don’t hit the hole with my first putt most of the time.
Two putts were notable. I had a downhill birdie putt from 30 feet that glanced off a badly left-leaning flagstick, to 18 inches. It was a good break, actually, because the ball was headed for the cup’s left corner and had too much speed to drop, even if the pin hadn’t been in.
At the 18th, I had a 15-footer uphill to a flagstick that was badly leaning toward 4 o’clock. (Whoever played before me did a pathetic job of replacing the pins on multiple greens. But I’m not bitter.) My putt lightly hit the pin in the cup’s right-center portion and wedged between the stick and cup. When I carefully straightened the stick, the ball dropped into the hole. That putt also would have gone in if the flagstick had been removed.
I don’t see any downside to leaving the flagstick in, unless you have a long memory after you do get the rare clanger, like Palmer did in 1960.
If so, be like Arnie. Let it go, and then make the next one.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle