News & Opinion

Pull, tend or leave? It's flagstick slapstick

The Portland Classic:  Second Round
29 August 14 Stone dead in Portland, Oregon.(photo credit : kenneth e. dennis/

When I first heard that the Supreme Court of Golf Rules had decreed that it was OK to putt with the flagstick in, I thought, Good

When I first heard that the Supreme Court of Golf Rules had decreed that it was OK to putt with the flagstick in, I thought, Good.

I never understood exactly why there was a rule that stated you had to take the flagstick out when you putted, anyway.

I wasn’t convinced that keeping the flagstick in would speed up play, as the Dimple Justices maintained. But I hoped they were right.

I am in favor of anything that speeds up play. If only there were a way to add a two-stroke penalty for conversations that include the phrases “a traveling salesman,’’ “the farmer’s daughter’’ or “the golf widow.’’

That said, having experienced the effect of leaving the flagstick in during my snowbird time in Florida, I am even less convinced that leaving the flagstick in is going to speed up play for average hackers who don’t play at country clubs.

That is not a big deal, because golf never has been about average hackers who don’t play at country clubs. Except, of course, for merchandising. Which reminds me. . . I never got around to purchasing those balls that were illegal because they went too far. Did they work?

Here’s the thing: Maybe there are disciples of Bryson DeChambeau and Dave Pelz out there who are going to leave the flagstick in for competitive reasons.

I’m with Phil Mickelson on this one. Let’s pull the flag. I am looking forward, though, to seeing that first playing partner who slam-dunks a 3-footer in off of the flagstick, which apparently can now be done.

If you have that in your game, more power to you. I have enough trouble making 3-footers the old-fashioned way.

Here’s the real problem with flagstick anarchy: unintended consequences.

My experience with the new rule goes something like this: Every golfer seems to have a different opinion about how he wants the flagstick handled. And that takes time. Lots of time.

If you want to keep the flagstick in because it helps you see the hole, excellent. That will help pace of play.

If you want to keep the flagstick in because you believe your ball is more likely to go in the hole, I don’t necessarily agree with you or DeChambeau or Pelz. But I am OK with that, too.

Although I will tell you this: I am an excellent putter. I would have quit the game years ago if not for putting (and that might have been a good thing). And I want the flagstick out (or tended) when I am putting.

Here’s why: I don’t want any foreign objects interfering with my ball as I attempt to knock it into the hole with a putter. Because I am never going to mis-hit a putt so badly that a flagstick will improve my situation. I don’t know that it matters a whole lot one way or another. I just like the flagstick out.

I waived my preference the other day for the sake of speeding up the game on a challenging par 3. The hole was front-left. My ball was back-middle, maybe 35 feet away. Two of my playing partners had just chipped onto the green and were getting out their putters. The fourth was waiting for his 10-foot birdie attempt.

I hit a nice bending downhill putt that curled right in toward the hole. It hit the stick. And didn’t drop.

“That’s the first putt I’ve seen where the new rule didn’t help,’’ one of the guys said sympathetically.

I didn’t necessarily agree with that. But it’s golf. Things happen.

Here’s the real reason why this laissez-faire approach to the flagstick is problematic: We no longer have a cut-and-dried protocol.

Before, the world worked like this: If you’re on the green, you either take the pin out or have it tended.

Now, it works like this:

The guy who’s 20 feet away wants the flag out. The guy who’s 15 feet away wants it in. The guy who’s 10 feet away wants it out. And the guy who has been working on his five-foot slapshot wants it in.

That’s a lot of pinwork.

Some players say their regular foursomes simply have agreed to leave the pin in.

“You get used to it,’’ they say. So, I am making a resolution to try that. Except that now, I have to explain that. And by the way, I think that’s where the world is going with this: Leave the pin in.

In the meantime, there are conversations like this: “Would you like the pin out?’’

“It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care.’’

So now the person wielding the flagstick needs to make a decision for the person wielding the putter.

Maybe he gets a second opinion – by asking the preference of the person who will putt after the person who doesn’t care.

The theory being, “In for all. Or out for all.’’

Do you see where I’m going with this?

These ruminations and conversations about flagstick in/flagstick out are no way to speed up pace of play.

That said, I’m going to take a wait-and-see attitude. As in, I want to see how this works in my regular foursome. Because then I will know everyone’s preferences.

The thing is, I don’t really have a regular foursome. I don’t know that many people who do. And they have caddies. So, it doesn’t matter.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Herb Gould is a former golf and senior college-sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, where his work still appears occasionally, and is a co-founder of Email: Twitter: @HerbGould