How do the Rules of Golf cover flagsticks? Our expert has everything you need to know

Leave it in or take it out? It was a question that caused quite a drama when the revised 2019 Rules of Golf removed the compulsion to remove the flagstick when a ball was on the putting green.

We had Bryson DeChambeau going through the science – did you hole more putts with it left in or not – and golfers at clubs all over the place arguing about whether it helped to speed up, or actually slowed down the game.

But while ‘Leaving Flagstick in Hole’ is an important part of Rule 13, it’s only part of six whole pages in the Official Guide to the Rules of Golf that cover what you can and can’t do with the pole. So let’s get stuck in…

Leaving it in

You all know you can make a stroke with the flagstick in the hole, whether your ball is on or off the green, and the ball in motion can hit the flagstick, there’s no penalty and you play it as it lies.

But, you’ve got to make this decision before making the stroke. Rule 13.2a says you do this by either leaving the flagstick in the hole, or having a removed flagstick put back into the hole.

Did you know, though, that you can also centre the flagstick in the hole before a stroke and leave it there?

Don’t deliberately move it to a position, though, other than centred to try and get an advantage. If you do this, you’ll get the general penalty.

There is a way, though, you can hit a putt with a leaning flagstick. A clarification to Rule 13.2a says players are “entitled to play the course as he or she finds it, which includes the position in which the preceding group left the flagstick”.

So if they left it at a wonky angle, and you feel that might help you sink your putt, you can leave it as it is. And if one of your playing partners helpfully decides to centre it, you can even have them put it back the way it was.

There are other occasions when you’re limited in moving or removing a flagstick. One of these is when you’ve hit a putt with the flagstick still in the hole and the ball is in motion.

Here, Rule 13.2b (3) says you, or your caddie, can’t deliberately move or remove the flagstick to affect where that “ball in motion might come to rest”. The obvious example, and which is given in the Rule, is to stop it hitting the flagstick. If you do this, add the general penalty onto your score.

You won’t ship any shots, though, if it was removed for any other reason. Again, the Rules have a handy example – citing the reasonable belief that it won’t hit the flagstick before coming to rest.

The other occasion arises when if you’ve left the flag in, not told anyone to attend it, and with the ball on its way another player deliberately moves, or removes, it to impact where the ball will finish.

Once again, the general penalty will follow – unless that other person “reasonably believes” the ball won’t hit the flag or isn’t aware that either the ball is in motion or that you were about to play. With me so far?

Taking it out

Some like it in, some like it out. This is what happens when you opt for the latter under Rule 13.2b. Again, you decide before you make the stroke and either have it taken out or you authorise someone to attend it.

They can do that by holding it in, above or next to the hole – both before and during the stroke so the player can see where the hole is – and then removing it “after the stroke is made”.

You are classed as having authorised the flagstick to be attended if your caddie is doing any of the above, even if you don’t know they are, or if you’ve asked someone to attend it, or if you see any other player attending it and you hit a putt without asking that person to move away or to leave the flag in the hole.

A question that often gets asked is if you can hit a putt while holding the flagstick. A clarification to Rule 13.2b (1) confirms that you can make a stroke one-handed while hanging on to the pole, but you can’t use it to steady yourself while you make the stroke.

What if the worst happens, you’ve asked someone to take the flag out and your ball hits the stick or whoever was attending it?

The easy answer is to establish whether it was accidental or deliberate. Not on purpose, no penalty and play the ball as it lies.

If it was deliberate, then Rule 11.2c applies.

The ball is resting against the flagstick

Well, is it holed or isn’t it? It depends, but Rule 13.2c is pretty clear on the matter. If your ball comes to rest against a flagstick that is left in the hole and “any part of the ball is in the hole below the surface of the putting green” then it is holed – even if the whole of the ball isn’t below that surface.

If that’s not the case, it isn’t holed and you have to play it as it lies. Sometimes, in that case, if you then move the flagstick the ball will drop in.

Don’t get your hopes up. It still isn’t holed. In this case, whether the ball falls into the cup or bounds away from the hole, you’ve got to replace it on the lip.

If you don’t, you’ll pick up the general penalty for playing from a wrong place. And in stroke play, this could come with an extra sting in the tail. You haven’t holed out and if you don’t rectify this – and hit a shot from the next tee, or hand in your scorecard if it was the last hole – this act will mean disqualification under Rule 3.3c.

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 23 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former captain and committee member, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the national Tournament Administrators and Referee's Seminar. He has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying and the PGA Fourball Championship. A member of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap.

Handicap: 10.9

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