Rarely does the USGA make a rule that’s too lenient, but if you measure these things by what PGA Tour players are saying and doing, it looks as if the rules-making body might have gone too far – twice.
In an effort to simplify what sometimes could be confusing and arcane rules, the USGA and governing-body partner R&A introduced a streamlined Rules of Golf, reducing the number of basic rules from 34 to 24, effective Jan. 1.
The laboratory for the rules, especially the new ones, is the PGA Tour, which opened 2019 at Hawaii’s Kapalua Resort for the Sentry Tournament of Champions. The USGA was on pins and needles so much that Thomas Pagel, USGA senior managing director for governance – in other words, the man in charge of the rules – traveled to Hawaii to witness first-hand how the best players in the world would put the new rules to use.
At the end of the day, the two new rules that caused the most confusion and attracted the most criticism were Rule 13-2, which allows players to leave the flagstick in the hole while putting on the green; and Rule 14-3, which requires penalty drops to be made from knee height instead of the previous directive of shoulder height.
Bryson DeChambeau raised eyebrows when he said that he would leave the flagstick in the hole almost always. He said it is an advantage. While he didn’t use the flagstick all the time at Kapalua, he still led the field in strokes gained putting that week.
Pagel said the rule was adopted to speed up play, not to give players an advantage.
“We said, 'If you make a long putt and you happen to hit the flagstick, is there really a need for a penalty?' The ball might go in; it might not,” Pagel said in Hawaii. “We didn’t look at the data. It was not a data-driven decision. At the end of the day, we thought it might help players, but it also might hurt players.”
Almost every other player in the 33-man field removed the flagstick when putting. Justin Thomas was the most outspoken.
“I mean, no offense. I can't really take myself seriously if I kept the pin in,” Thomas said in Hawaii. “I mean, it just would be such a weird picture and, like, on TV, me celebrating and, like, the pin is in and my ball's, like, up against it. I wouldn't be able to take myself seriously. I just feel like it would be very, very weird.”
Thomas was concerned about the way it looks, and the USGA should feel the same way. The optics are bad on this one, especially at the game’s highest level. It’s too soon to say whether leaving the flagstick in is an advantage. In 1990, Dave Pelz determined in his research that it’s better to leave the flagstick in when chipping 100 percent of the time.
Recently, European Tour player Edoardo Molinari did some research with three pros from his golf academy in Italy. They used a Perfect Putter training device and rolled putts with three different speeds and three different entry points into the cup, with the flagstick in and out, 100 putts with each combination. Their conclusion was that with slow speeds, there was no difference; medium speed was better with the flagstick out and; and with fast speeds, it was better with the flagstick in.
Either the USGA should revisit this rule or the PGA Tour should adopt a local rule requiring that the flagstick be removed when players are putting on the green.
Changing a rule because it looks bad actually has precedent at the USGA. Executive director Mike Davis initiated movement against anchored putting because he attended a U.S. Junior Amateur championship and found that a large number of the boys were using anchored putting strokes. He thought it looked bad, so much so that on Jan. 1, 2016, the USGA and R&A made anchored putting illegal.
The penalty-drop rule received even more criticism. DeChambeau called the rule “a bit absurd.” Rory McIlroy said, "We’re saying that Brian Harman [who is listed at 5 feet, 7 inches] has got a big advantage; he can basically place it. Where you have someone like Tony Finau [who is 6-4] who is dropping it probably from, like, waist-high for me.”
Jordan Spieth was equal parts confused and critical. “You drop it knee height, but what’s the advantage of dropping it shoulder height? It’s actually probably a disadvantage, so why can’t you still do that? You should be able to drop it from shoulder to knee height, in my opinion. It doesn’t do any good, and honestly it’s, like, a frustrating asterisk that I have to re-pick it up and re-drop from your knee."
The USGA chose to neglect the two most penal rules in the book: the way-too-harsh stroke-and-distance penalties and the denial of relief from a divot in the fairway – topics for another day. Instead, the governing body picked two rules that were in no way close to causing harm to the game.
The flagstick rule and the drop rule were almost never violated, which meant they weren’t broken. Therefore, they were in no need of fixing.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf