Striking Unattended Flagstick In Hole

Earlier this spring, I hit the green on a par-3 hole but faced a 60-foot downhill, breaking putt. My companions had missed the green, and in order to save time I lagged my putt towards the hole while they were preparing to play. I figured that I would be lucky to get within a few feet.  Shockingly, the putt rolled into the hole for a birdie – except for the fact that under Rule 17-3 I incurred a two-stroke penalty because my ball struck the flag stick. I still considered it a birdie.

Under the proposed rules changes scheduled to become effective in 2019, my birdie would be untainted. Players will no longer be penalized if a ball played from the putting green strikes an unattended flag stick in the hole. Players will still have the choice of removing the flagstick or having it attended.

The USGA and R&A reasoned that the elimination of the penalty will speed the pace of play. If a player faces a long putt and is ready to play, he will not be required to wait for someone to attend the flagstick. In addition, it will permit players to tap in short putts without having to remove the flagstick.

The explanation to the proposed rule change notes several situations in which the current rule delays play. A player might be delayed in reaching the green when raking a bunker, preventing another player from putting. Players might also be delayed in reaching the green when searching for a ball or deciding how to play a shot. When two or more players each have long putts, delay results when each must  attend the flagstick for the other.

As any golfer knows, flagsticks are sometimes friends and sometimes enemies.

Tiger Woods’ wedge shot struck the flagstick on the 15th hole at the 2013 Masters and careened into a water hazard. The ensuing rules controversy nearly resulted in his disqualification. Other times, balls strike the flagstick and drop into the hole. Players who are off the green may choose to leave the flagstick in the hole or have it removed. This choice has not existed with balls on the putting green given the risk of a penalty.

The USGA and R&A feel that, on balance, there should be no advantage in putting with the flag stick in the hole. In some cases the ball might strike the flagstick and bounce out when it might otherwise have been holed. In other cases the ball might stay in the hole when it otherwise would have missed. But it will be the player’s choice to remove the flagstick or not.

The elimination of the penalty under Rule 17-3 illustrates the effort to simplify the rules and speed the pace of play. In 2019 you will be able to live by the flagstick or die by the flagstick, but you won’t be penalized if your putt strikes it. Fair enough.