Our newest dilemma: Should you leave the flagstick in on a short putt?

So have you tried it?

If you’ve teed it up since the first of the year and are aware of golf’s vastly revamped rules, you probably have. The rule change that’s coming into play most often, the one everyone’s talking about, is our newfound freedom to leave the flagstick in the hole for any putt. No more two-stroke penalty for hitting the pin when putting with your ball on the green.

The main intent was to speed up the game by eliminating the wait for someone to take the pin out of the hole – or have to do it yourself – for your long putt attempt. Here’s the official USGA explanation:

Reasons for change:

Allowing a player to putt with the flagstick in the hole without fear of penalty should generally speed up play.

When the players did not have caddies, the previous Rule could result in considerable delay.

On balance it is expected that there is no advantage in being able to putt with the unattended flagstick in the hole:

  • In some cases, the ball may strike the flagstick and bounce out of the hole when it might otherwise have been holed, and
  • In other cases, the ball may hit the flagstick and finish in the hole when it might otherwise have missed.

Simple enough, right? But here’s where it gets interesting.

First of all, it has created an adjustment to the etiquette question on any putt:

Do you want it in, tended or out?

In my most recent outing, the more we played, the more the stick was left in. It just became convenient, and I think everyone wanted to try it, too.

But it also got a little strange when several other players would leave it in and then I wanted it out. So far, I haven’t been able to get past the fact that it simply feels strange to leave it in when you’re on the green and it’s not a long putt. I guess that’s to be expected when it has been strictly forbidden for all these years.

But even more interesting is the way some players are trying to take advantage of the new rule.

On the pro tour, Bryson DeChambeau is leaving the pin in on virtually every putt. Not surprisingly, he has studied the composition of the flagsticks at most tournaments and says he’ll continue to putt this way everywhere except the U.S. Open, where the pins are different. (Isn’t it amazing how deep these guys drill?)

But there’s a psychological factor to it that I can’t get past, and I suspect a lot of people feel the same way: The pin feels like a barrier, not an advantage.

It’s one thing to leave it in on the practice putting green, where the short pins in the cups often are thin. But a regulation flagstick has to be struck just right for the ball to stay in the hole.

The big question, for me, is whether I’m going to start leaving it in on downhill putts. There’s where the advantage might be worth accessing.

There have been many times on severely sloped greens when I jokingly asked whether I could have the pin taken out and left right below the hole. You try to just get the ball rolling, you hit it as gently as possible, and then it keeps rolling and rolling and rolling and …

I could see a scenario where the break isn’t too severe and you’re confident you could hit the pole nine times out of 10 on that three-footer. Even if the ball doesn’t stay in the hole, at least it won’t roll 10 feet past.

Or will it?

This strikes me as the same mindset that people have when they slam-dunk short putts. I admire players who can do that. They take the break out of it by trusting their ability to hit it firmly and accurately. Too many of us, myself included, tend to be defensive putters.

In case you were wondering, you can’t have someone tend the pin for you and then leave it in if they see that you’ve hit the ball too hard and could benefit from the ball hitting the flagstick. The new rule comes with the stipulation that once the pin is tended, it must be taken out as your ball rolls toward the hole.

Overall, I love how the rules of our great game are getting modified in logical fashion with one thing in mind – speed up play. This is progress. This is flipping the focus to fun and away from picky penalties that don’t accomplish much.

This is worth a try.

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