One of my little traditions in life – as in I’ve done this once before – is to be the first person on my home course, Headingley, on New Year’s Day.
This year I missed out as an octogenarian, who is now my new hero in life, was seven holes into his round by the time I began my 2019 process. When I reached the 4th tee I was able to spend the best part of three minutes watching him go about his business on the surrounds of the 11th green, assessing his lie, visualising his landing spot and generally grinding away before playing a lovely little chip to a couple of feet.
As from zero hundred hours on this historic day he was now within his rights to hole out with the flag in given the new Rules of Golf changes. There would be no two-shot penalty, no shrieks of horror, he could now just knock it in and carry on about his business without the world falling in.
But no, he removed the flag and tidied things up. Now, he might not be up to speed with the 2019 rule book or, more likely given his obvious attention to detail, he might just not be ready to take such a big leap into the unknown.
Bryson DeChambeau has already given it plenty of thought, naturally, and he will be a flag-in kind of guy other than at his national Open.
The World No. 5, who in his brief but spectacular time near the top of the game has putted side-saddle and used a compass to double check pin positions, knows exactly where the flag will be going when he’s got the putter in his hand.
“It depends on the COR, the coefficient of restitution of the flagstick,” DeChambeau said. “In US Opens, I’ll take it out, and every other Tour event, when it’s fibreglass, I’ll leave it in and bounce that ball against the flagstick if I need to.”
According to the proverbial Mad Scientist the fibreglass pins will give the ball “a higher propensity for it to go in the hole”.
Justin Thomas, one place above his compatriot on the world rankings, sees things a bit differently and is a bit more traditional. When it comes to the flagstick he is firmly in the camp marked ‘out’.
“Truly, I can’t [putt with the flag in],” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to take myself seriously. I just feel like it would be very, very weird.”
I’ve always liked Thomas, it’s pretty much impossible not to. I sometimes think I like him more than his best buddy Jordan Spieth even though they’re pretty much the same person.
My favourite JT – I love being overly familiar with him – moment came when all his team-mates were sulky and sullen at the post Ryder Cup press conference. He had added more to the team’s effort than any of them in terms of points, even as a debutant, yet he still found the maturity and class to at least try and give a few decent answers. Karma, my son, karma.
And he seemingly couldn’t give a monkey’s about CORs.
“If I have an eight-footer to win a golf tournament, I can’t, I mean no offence, I can’t really take myself seriously if I kept the pin in,” he said. “I mean it just would be such a weird picture, me on TV celebrating and like the pin is in and my ball’s like up against it. If I have a putt I’m trying to make, that thing’s coming out.”
So while we’ve all got busy lives and we’d all like the game to be a bit quicker and we’ve all moaned for decades about chipping it dead and then having to go through the whole rigmarole of taking the flag out, there are some things best left as they were and that means the flag either being tended or lying horizontal on the green.
What you can’t do is have it tended and then start screaming at your playing partner when you’ve clattered it. Either keep it in or have it tended, just like the good old days, and then take it out once you’ve dribbled it up three feet short.
My big dream for 2019 is to free up my putting by which, much like our friend DeChambeau, I have put a huge amount of thought and data into. The scientific upshot being that I need to get the ball to the hole more to have half a chance of it dropping.
When playing golf on my own I am one of the oddest people on this planet, when putting on my own I am one of the most listless. Putting has bored me rigid since the late 80s when the putts stopped dropping, hence why I’m trying this novel approach to relight the flame.
I remember reading an instruction article in a magazine in maybe 1985 where a white paint brush paved the way for the path of the ball before rolling, perfectly paced, into the middle of the hole and it will be this high level of visualisation that I will be returning to in an attempt to bring my putting stats down into the mid 30s.
With the flag in this process immediately breaks down as, in my head, there are all manner of goalkeepers in there – Grobbelaar and his wobbly legs, Higuita and his scorpion kicks – doing everything in their power to keep my ball out.
So you can all carry on with your fancy 2019 regulations, I’m with my new hero and JT.