In the landscape of golf, the game of precision, strategy, and mental acuity, there are numerous factors to consider in every swing, every putt. Among these, the decision to leave the flagstick in or out when putting is a surprisingly contested topic. It is one of those game elements that seem relatively trivial but might significantly affect a golfer’s performance.
Governing Rule Change:
Before delving into the pros and cons of keeping the flagstick in or out, it’s essential to understand the governing rule change that made this decision possible. Before 2019, Rule 17-3 stated that a player would incur a two-stroke penalty if the ball struck the flagstick when putting from the green. However, in 2019, the USGA and R&A modified this rule, allowing players to leave the flagstick in while putting, irrespective of distance, without any penalty.
The decision of flagstick in or out hinges on the physics involved. Is there a statistically significant advantage to either side?
In a physics-based study conducted by Dr. Neil Wolkodoff, Medical Director of the Colorado Center for Health and Sport Science, it was found that overall, keeping the flagstick in resulted in a 3.04% advantage over having it out.
The study also indicated that on a downhill putt, leaving the flagstick in was even more beneficial. This suggests that from a purely physics standpoint, leaving the flagstick in might be the superior choice.
That said, the application of physics to the real game is not as straightforward as it sounds. The result can vary based on factors such as the type and condition of the flagstick, the speed of the putt, the slope of the green, and even the type of ball used.
In North East Scotland, where we play most of our golf, one siginificant factor is the wind. A strong head wind can cause the flag to lean significantly towards you making it almost impossible for the ball to enter at the front of the hole. However, downwind, the stick can act as a useful backstop for putts hit a little too firmly.
Psychology and Perception:
While physics provides one side of the argument, the psychological aspect cannot be ignored. Some golfers feel that having the flagstick in serves as a visual guide, helping them aim better, especially on longer putts. However, from six feet and under, this might not make much of a difference.
Alternatively, some golfers argue that the hole appears smaller with the flagstick in, which might psychologically affect their confidence and subsequently, their performance. These players prefer the flagstick out from this distance as it helps them visualise a bigger target.
When the rule change came into effect, many professional golfers began experimenting with both scenarios. Some, like Bryson DeChambeau, are advocates for leaving the flagstick in, citing reasons from physics to the psychological advantage of having a clear target.
However, other professionals, like Tiger Woods, prefer the traditional way of having the flagstick out. Woods once mentioned that he feels the flagstick can obstruct a well-struck putt, especially those hit with pace.
The choice of leaving the flagstick in or out while putting largely depends on individual preference.
Physics suggests a slight advantage to keeping the flagstick in. However, factors like a golfer’s perception, the green’s condition, the type of flagstick, and the speed of the putt can all influence the outcome.
It’s a reminder that golf, as with many sports, is a blend of art and science. While science can guide decisions, the nuances of individual style and preference can’t be underestimated.
The flagstick dilemma illustrates that even in a game governed by rules and laws—both of the sporting and physical kind—there’s always room for interpretation and personal style.
Ultimately, whether you choose to putt with the flagstick in or out, make sure it’s a choice that boosts your confidence, aligns with your putting style, and aids your overall game strategy. Happy golfing!