A twist in the great flagstick debateMarch 13, 2019 Rules of Golf
Once upon a time – well, a week ago – even the thought of putting with the flag in would have horrified Mark Townsend. But that's all now in the past
Like many my opinion on certain matters changes like the wind. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said how a certain 4-5-7 wood/17-19-21-23-25 (cranked to 24) hybrid would NEVER be leaving my bag and yet, there they are, all lined up in the garage but a distant memory. They might get a knowing waggle from time to time but it would take something spectacular to see them return to active service.
After my first round in this brave new dawn of 2019 rules I convinced myself that putting with the flag in was the most ludicrous thing ever mooted.
My reasons were two-fold. Firstly, I’m a traditionalist and I’m still clinging on to how golf was played as a junior in the ’80s which is my starting point for most things. This was when I was at my happiest on the course, this was when I could chip and this was when my body was an asset and not a hindrance. Europeans were winning the Masters every year, I was on a voyage of discovery with cooking lager, and I didn’t have a care in the world.
And, being the cocky teenagers that we were, we always putted with the flag out from everywhere, and didn’t worry obsessively about whatever it was coming back when we’d missed the first putt.
Secondly, I’m easily swayed by others and, when Justin Thomas has such firm opinions on a matter, I’m only too happy to nail my colours to his mast, which sounds a bit odd.
“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.”
Way to go, JT, way to go. I’m with you all the way save for the fairly unlikely likelihood of me looking a bit silly on TV at ‘Riv’ because my final putt is still resting against the pin.
So the first two rounds of this year have been spent with the flag on the sidelines and me continuing to work on my processes and my visuals and, from anywhere outside eight feet, continuing to lag it to a distance where my playing partner can put me out of my misery.
But then last week my playing partner suggested, quite out of nowhere and with an optimistic tone in his voice, that we might want to spend the next 18 holes putting with the flag in throughout.
If you were a fly on the wall to this pathetic exchange, which came on Moortown’s 1st green, then you might have thought Dave had discovered penicillin such was the level of involved debate and excitement between here and the 2nd tee. And by the time we had both missed the fairway, one left, one right, we had raised our outrageous plan up the notional flagpole, saluted it and put it straight into play.
Just like that.
“It depends on the COR, the coefficient of restitution of the flagstick. 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.”
Interestingly, if, like me, you haven’t got too much going on in your life, he took the flag out for some sloping putts down at Kapalua. Of every greater interest he led the Strokes Gained: Putting stats for the week.
Elsewhere Edoardo Molinari got three pros at his academy in Italy to go through their paces with a Perfect Putter, which is a training aid to ensure you get the same speed and line on every putt, and rolled putts at three different speeds (slow, medium and fast) and three different lines (centre, touching the flagstick and grazing it).
After 100 ‘putts’ of each they learnt that it mattered not on slow putts, out was better for mid-speed putts and in was the way forward for pacier putts.
Putting with the flagstick in
Finally, if we go back as far back as 1990, Dave Pelz found that you should always have it in as long as it’s not leaning a certain way as it will act as a backstop. There is a lot more to Pelz’s beliefs but, having failed my physics O-level, I’ll simply quote the following.
“A significant amount of energy is lost from a putt’s speed when the ball hits a fiberglass flagstick. The speed-loss enables gravity to pull the slower moving ball down into the hole more often. Even though balls have changed since my testing, holes and flagsticks have not, and the ‘energy-loss’ effect will still win the day.”
Now all this, despite being slightly baffling, is all well and good, but what if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool member of the old guard? What if you’ve spent the past 40 years doing the same thing and are afraid of change? What if you’ve convinced yourself that the only reason that you holed that 20-footer in 2017 was because your visuals were spot on?
Then, more importantly, like JT, what if you just think it’s all a bit weird? You’re cheapening the whole thing. You love the gentle rattling sound of ball meeting cup. You enjoy the charade of plucking your ball out using only your forefinger and middle finger and then pretending to acknowledge your imaginary crowd.
In short holing a putt of any note is so rare that you want to just enjoy it in all its purest form.
A week ago I would have been with you here but now I’ve been converted to Team BDC. I hit no putts whatsoever at pace so Molinari Sr’s findings only add to my change in mindset that in is in and, without getting overly technical, it narrows my focus on where the hole actually is.
The big tests will come when a) there are more than two of us playing and I maybe have to find the confidence to ask for the flag to be put back in and b) the ball meets the flagstick and hops out to one side.
But, for now, I’m a new disciple. Molinari Jr holed from 44 feet at the weekend with the flag in at Bay Hill’s 18th and it all looked quite acceptable.
Like Adam Scott I’m no scientist, it just seems to help.
“I just feel like it’s easier to aim for the middle of the hole when there’s something sitting in the middle of the hole.”